Norm Macdonald is tilting at windmills, rolling a stone up a hill, trying to get a late-night television talk show. Since it was announced that Craig Ferguson was leaving the Late Late Show, the devilishly sharp comedian — a legendary talk show guest and, frankly, the best-ever SNL Weekend Update anchor — has been lobbying hard for the hosting gig of CBS' post-Letterman, soon to be post-Colbert, late night show. The 50-year-old Macdonald, infamously fired from SNL by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer in 1998, has made his case on Conan, marshaled the support of his army of Twitter followers and even drawn the notice of The New York Times.
Probably none of that matters. Even if Macdonald is the best person for the gig, the chances of him landing a hosting role are slim — it'll probably go to someone younger and who looks less like how talk show hosts have looked for the last 60 years. But there are few comedians better able to pull back the curtain on the weird world of late-night comedy TV than Macdonald. We spoke with Norm about why he wants the job, his loose cannon reputation, memories of David Letterman and liquid morphine.
Okay, so Norm — why do you want a talk show?
Well, the only thing I've ever been good at is stand-up comedy. I never wanted to be a movie actor or a television actor. I know I'm not a good actor, and I don't really like doing things I'm not good at. But I've always been exceptionally good at two things: stand-up comedy and talking with people. And I was always happiest when I would go on a talk show, especially David Letterman's.
I just assumed I would be a talk-show host. I just had that gram of certainty that that would be my life, you know? So opportunities arose and then for some reason I was never considered. I would tell my agent, "Well, I feel I would be the best person by far in these talk show slots." And then it never happened.
You never even got a sniff at it?
Here's the genesis: When I left Saturday Night Live [in 1998], a week later, they phoned from Letterman. They said, "Would you mind coming in next week and doing five straight man-on-the-street pieces?" And I thought "That's weird they were asking me to do that." But I said, "Sure, yeah of course." Then they phone a few days later like, "Nah, we don't want you to do that anymore." A week later, Rob Burnett, who was the producer of The Late Show, he called me and he said, "Oh, you didn't get the job." "What job didn't I get?" "They're going with Craig [Kilborn], and Dave really fought for you." I was like, "Wait, for what again?" And Rob Burnett said, "[Former Late Late Show host] Tom Snyder, he's leaving."
So you were told that you hadn't gotten a job that you didn't know you were being considered for?
I never knew any of this, and if I hadn't known I would've felt fine. But then not getting it stuck in my head, and I was like, "Should my representatives have known about this?" Because I don't know anything about anything. Citizens tell me things. My cab driver will tell me like, "Did you hear the latest?" No, I didn't!
That's what planted the seed that you should, or could, get a talk show?
That's what started it. Then it happened again when [Late Late Show host] Craig Kilborn left the 12:30 slot [in 2004]. They did auditions for that spot and I said, "Certainly I'll get an audition." I didn't get an audition. And then I learned who was doing an audition but my friend Mike Gibbons, a writer for the show. Even a writer for Kilborn got an audition! I'm trying to do my best here with my false modesty, but certainly I thought I'd be better fitted for the job than him. Anyways, now it comes up again that the spot is open. And now I'm like, "fuck the coy shit." I also think it's funny to openly lobby for something. But it's not a joke. It's earnest and serious. I want the job.
So the second time the slot opened up, after Kilborn left, had you even let anyone know that you wanted the gig? Or did you just assume the producers would consider you?
I only let my retarded manager know. There was another time I actually went on Letterman and he said, "You'd be great as a talk show host." So he had a heart attack [in 2000]. I didn't want to come off unseemly but I'm watching the show and there's these people on, and I phone — I think it was still Rob Burnett producing — and I said, "Hey man, can I ever have one night to guest host? That would be fun." And he goes, "Yeah, well, first Dave's friends are doing it." And I go, "Oh I can understand that, certainly." Knowing that Dave has three friends.
That's not even a week's worth of friends.
Exactly. So Bill Cosby did one, and that was awesome to see. But then one time I tune in and it's Janeane Garofalo. I knew they're not friends, they're not as close as we're led to believe. All I know is somebody up there don't like me. But I don't know who it is. I've had 15 years to ruminate over this for 18 hours a day.
There are a million variables why someone might or might not get considered to host a talk show, but do you have a sense of why you haven't gotten that call?
First of all, a guy can just not like you. That's completely understandable and how can you get angry at that? But there's one idea that I used to hold: When I was fired by [former NBC executive] Don Ohlmeyer at NBC, I never said anything bad about him but it was painted as if it was this big feud.
I think you maybe called him fat once.
That's right. That's the only thing I ever did, on Letterman. But the narrative had to be what it had to be. At the time other executives had phoned me privately about [being fired] and said, "Oh, Ohlmeyer's an idiot, you're a good guy" and all that. But then I thought about it later, and Ohlmeyer or not, maybe a guy in a position to hire me would go, "Do we really want to hire a guy and then when we fire him we're gonna look like a bad guy?" I'm pretty sure that's it. They don't want a "loose cannon." I'm really not a loose cannon. On Saturday Night Live I was given complete freedom, so therefore I used it. Where the fuck does "loose cannon" come from? Letterman cared less than anyone about show business and he was the best.
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