Sam Kinison’s Advice Changed Norm Macdonald’s Approach to Stand-Up Comedy

There was a reason Macdonald stopped telling dog jokes
Sam Kinison’s Advice Changed Norm Macdonald’s Approach to Stand-Up Comedy

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Early in Norm Macdonald’s stand-up career, he had an extensive routine about dogs that killed on shows like Late Night With Conan O’Brien. “These dogs, they're getting kind of expensive,” went the first part of Macdonald’s bit. He goes to a pet store where a high-pressure salesman tries to sell him a $500 pit bull. Norm, who had planned on spending maybe two bucks, is skeptical. “So the guy goes, ‘Buy this dog here. This is a pit bull, it would protect your valuables.’ You know, I don't have any valuables. If I brought a pit bull, that would be the most valuable thing I own. I’d have to buy something to protect it. I’d be out shopping for wolverines.”

In a later conversation with fellow Canuck comic Tom Green, Macdonald shared some advice he received about his dog routine. “Sam Kinison came to Canada. He wasn't famous or nothing,” he told Green. “He took a liking to me and took me across the country. It was the greatest time I ever had. I had a good act.”

Kinison thought Norm’s act was good as well — to a point. “Sam said, ‘You've got good jokes, man. I notice you talk about dogs. Are you really interested in dogs?’”

Macdonald told Green that, at the time, he had a 25-minute bit on dogs. Whether or not the length of the bit was exaggerated, Macdonald had to admit to Kinison, “No, I don't give a fuck about dogs.”

“Why don't you talk about what you're interested in?” Kinison probably screamed.

The question had a profound effect on Macdonald’s future comedy. “From then on,” he said, “it became death.”

Green asked Macdonald if he truly thought about death more than the average person.

“I don't know what the average person thinks,” the comic replied. “I think, you know, it's always on your mind. I will ruminate about it for long periods for no purpose or to no avail. It's worthless.”

Except for generating jokes. “I did (death material) in my stand-up special,” he said. “Now that's gone so I can move on. I really just think about stuff for stand-up. I get caught on one subject for a long period of time. Once I have exhausted the subject, I'm free now in my life not to think about death.”

Speaking truth about intensely personal topics might be why Macdonald valued his comedy work over all else. In fact, “I'm only proud of stand-up,” he said. “Everything else has been an accident that came from stand-up. I have never auditioned for anything. I suck at acting. But my stand-up, I'm very, very, very proud of stand-up. I'm ashamed of almost everything else. Like this interview.”


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