Norm Macdonald had a way of half-laughing to himself. It was like a little kid who knew he probably shouldn’t say something but was about to anyway. Sometimes it was because the joke he was about to make was inappropriate or ill-timed. Sometimes it was because he knew the audience wasn’t into the bit he was doing so he was excited to keep going with it. And one time it was because he was delivering a monologue on Saturday Night Live a year after he’d gotten fired and used the opportunity to talk out the ridiculousness of his situation.
That’s the thing about Norm Macdonald. He was never afraid to go there because he was utterly unconcerned with crowd response. In fact, he seemed to get a strange kind of energy and excitement from bad receptions. Check out the audio from his monologue and you’ll see what I mean…
Most comedians chase the high of positive feedback. The better ones are able to alter routines on the fly and lean into what’s playing well with the specific room they’re working. Norm Macdonald was, of course, capable of doing that, but many times he decided not to. Sometimes he chased negative feedback, especially if he thought a joke was good and the audience wasn’t giving it its due. Sometimes he brought up uncomfortable subjects… like say getting fired and wondering why a show that fired you would ask you to return.
In another’s hands, a lot of this would have come off as disingenuous or bitter, but there was something that always felt so genuine about Norm. With his little half-laugh and goofy, overly obvious statements, he was able to do the comedy he wanted without coming across as arrogant. He did things his way. He talked about what he wanted, and that’s likely why he was so beloved among other comedians. It's also probably why he never became a mega-star.
The tributes have been pouring in since Macdonald’s passing was announced earlier today. Many have shared stories and moments of kindness. Many have shared how his work inspired them, and of course, many posts have been accompanied with a favorite bit, joke or observation. For a lot of people, it’s the utterly absurd moth joke. For others it’s his work on Weekend Update or in the Adam Sandler movies or the highly underrated Dirty Work. I love all of it, but for me, when I remember Norm MacDonald, it’s him standing on the Saturday Night Live stage, talking about being fired, plowing forward amidst a nervous crowd reception because he was going to do comedy on his terms. Norm is an absolute legend. He deserves every bit of praise he’s getting today, and he will truly be missed.