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.
There’s also your infamous appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien when Courtney Thorne-Smith was a guest on the show and you made fun of her for being in a Carrot Top movie. Which was hilarious, but also stood out because no one, for whatever reason, ever actually says anything that could be construed as even remotely negative in those situations.
Or something that can be construed as a real conversation that real human beings have. But that Carrot Top thing became so weird and viral — there was no YouTube. Of course, I get children to see my stand-up. By “children,” I mean people in their teens and early twenties. And I go, “How on Earth do they know me?” They know me from these YouTube things. And they mention that Conan joke constantly, you know. But they don’t mention it as a bad thing.
It seems like you might have a tendency to overthink things, but, seriously, are you mentally prepared to not get The Late Late Show?
Oh, yeah. I’m not getting the job. I’m pretty certain of that. I feel like I would be the perfect choice. But of course I’m mentally prepared. I’m not expecting it in any way.
Is there anyone other than yourself who you think would be a good host?
I can’t actually think of anybody that can do it. The closest I could come to would be Joel McHale. But I don’t think he could do it. I mean he could do it on the level that it’s being done now. The one thing about a talk show is that it completely unmasks the performer . . . I can’t think of anybody.
Do you think Stephen Colbert will be a good replacement for Letterman?
I love Stephen Colbert. And I know him slightly. Interestingly, he came to Saturday Night Live to audition. I would lobby for him to get cast.
This is when you were still on the show?
When I was on the show, yeah. Lorne [Michaels] would ask our opinions, and I saw him, and I was like, “Oh my fucking god, you gotta get this guy. He’s insanely good.” And for some reason he was passed over. Sometimes that happens. Lorne’s got a great eye, but sometimes….
Do you remember what Colbert’s audition was?
Yeah, I remember he did a Geraldo impression, but the material was the smartest, you know? The material was almost scholarly. I don’t want to say it was beyond Conan, but it was beyond any educated person. It was more almost like he was just an original thinker. I remember being shocked that he didn’t get the job. And then he wrote [on SNL] for a couple of episodes. I got along with him swimmingly. He was so fun and we talked about books and so forth. I said, “I want to do an impression of David Letterman, would you help me write the sketch?” Isn’t that cool? So he helped me write the sketch of my Letterman impression. I couldn’t be happier for him. I would think he might even be better than me as a host.
Okay, let’s hear you make your case. What would you bring to a talk show that no one else would bring?
I would write the best monologue — although I might not write a monologue beause there’s so many of them. I think this is actually the perfect time to experiment because every talk show is identical, save Craig Ferguson. I thought Craig Ferguson was wonderful, and probably just not given enough money to do all he could. He was a one-man band. But now I think is the perfect time to do what 1980s Letterman did and blow it all up.
The conventions are so boring. Who are these people who are invested in the format of monologues and bands and boring conversations at desks?
Why the fuck is there a desk, or why is a guy sitting in a chair? What the fuck is that? That’s not a natural thing you would ever think of, like, “Let’s set up this like a job interview where the guest is uncomfortable and the guy’s behind the desk because he’s the boss.” I don’t know what any of it means. There’s 18 talk shows that are carbon-copies of each other. Once Letterman is gone, there’s no giants. Except Conan. Conan is above everybody else.
So what would you do differently with a show?
The one thing you don’t want to do is say, “I’m going to be different than anyone else — I’m wearing jeans!” You know what I mean? Or some fucking thing like “I have an ottoman!” All the window-dressing stuff is bullshit. It’s only the host that matters. Steve Martin told me when he started out he was dressed as a hippie, and that shocked me. He was like, “Well, I was doing avant-garde stuff. Then suddenly I realized avant-garde comes out better from a guy in a white suit.” I thought that’s pretty fucking smart. So I don’t know. I’ve given it so many different thoughts, because there’s one show that I miss greatly, which is Tom Snyder, and I don’t know that it ever could be recreated. But when I was young, Tom Snyder with an extreme close-up with smoke billowing around him would open his talk show without an audience, for an hour interview with incredible people. And not in a political way, because there’s plenty of that on all the channels where everybody argues with everybody else. But there’s so many interesting people.
Who’s someone you’d want to have that kind of conversation with?
Do you know Elon Musk? He should be the most famous person in the world. He fucking colonized Mars! It’s amazing that he can walk down the street unknown. I guess because we know the Kardashians, it’s come to the point where actual people are boring.
But don’t you think that the kind of conversation you want to have is better suited for a podcast? Why jam it into the totally arbitrary format of a late night television talk show? Isn’t it more important to just do what you want to do?
The only reason is the audience. You want as big an audience as you can get, and then you just change everything. Like, I think the chances of me getting The Late Late Show are zero.
Has anyone suggested otherwise?
No. No one’s arguing with me on that. You know what I get a lot? I read comments or articles or something like that, and they’ll go, “Norm would be the funniest as a talk show host. Of course, it’s never going to happen.” I’m like, “What? Why’d you have to say that part?” It’s always like Ron Paul or something. He wins every debate, then at the end they’re like, “Eh, remember when he got that standing ovation? Anyways, back to the racist guys.”
Is there anyone with a talk show right now that you think is particularly bad?
Oh, yeah. I won’t say a name, but I think that just showing up to the studio and sitting at the desk . . . it’s not like Mad Men where the junior account executive is replaced by the junior account executive who has the same job. You can’t just show up, sit at the desk and have a band. Why the fuck do you ever need a band? Why can’t it all be different you know? The only thing that matters is the host. When I was young and watching Letterman I remember especially one night where [game show host] Chuck Woolery was the guest and I’m like, “I can’t wait to see this.” It wasn’t for Chuck Woolery. It was because I wondered how Letterman was going to interview Chuck Woolery. I mean, I’m always shocked that hosts pretend to watch everything their guests do. I’m astonished how David Letterman, at this point, can pretend to be interested. He used to not feign interest at all and that was the fun part of it. You know, “Which one’s Kate, which one’s Allie?”
Who else is a good interviewer?
Howard Stern, of course. It’s very interesting to me that Stern has changed completely from the “Lesbian Dial-A-Date” to the greatest interviewer of our time. What a transformation that guy made. I wonder if it was all a bait-and-switch, if he was ever interested in that nonsense. When I’ve spoken to him, he’s not only a sharp and intelligent guy, but very well-read, and you get none of that from “Lesbian Dial-A-Date.” I think he’s just very canny. He knows what his public likes and he says he likes it, but I’m not sure he does.
You’ve been a guest on late night talk shows a million times. Do you have a favorite memory?
It was the first time I ever did Letterman. I used to do a joke where I said, “A guy killed his family because the devil told him to.” And then I’m like, “If you’re going to do that, you got to make sure that it’s actually the devil. You don’t want to come back and go, “Oh, lord of the Netherworld, I did as you commanded: I’ve slaughtered my family and sliced them apart and hold them here in the duffel bag awaiting further instructions.” And then the devil pulls off his mask and goes, “It’s me, Bob!” I heard Letterman laughing really hard in the background. Then I went back to the green room and I turned on the TV and they came back from commercial and Letterman goes, “It’s me, Bob!” and he did it like four times during that show. That was the greatest.
How about a worst memory?
One time, I went on the Letterman show and when I went out there, shaking his hand, he said, “The audience are idiots tonight. Don’t expect anything.” Or something like that.
He said that to you?
Yeah, he whispered it to me. Not on air. Just when he’ was shaking my hand. So when we’re sitting there, he was sort of not too happy. So I’d say something and he’d be like, “That’s alright,” that kind of thing, just stopping me in the middle of my joke. I killed every single time I’d been on David Letterman before, and I can tell he was stopping me, you know? Not on purpose but because he was angry at the audience. He’d just stop me in the middle of a joke and it made me really unhappy. I knew I couldn’t call him on it. And finally it ended and I realized I had done a bad talk show performance. I was very sad about that.
Let’s say you get a show. Who would be your ideal first guest?
Anyone in the whole world? I guess David Letterman. I still think he’s the funniest guy. I think it would be a tie between . . . nah, David Letterman is the funniest.
A tie between who?
I was going to say Bill Murray, who I also think is funny, but he was the first guest on Letterman. He’ll probably be the last one too.
If the talk show thing doesn’t pan out, what’s next? What else do you have going on aside from stand-up?
Something I’m working really hard on is a book.
A novel? A memoir?
A memoir. I guess it was three years ago now that I signed the deal to write the book. I read the celebrity memoirs and went, “Well, this is gonna be easy. I can write the best celebrity memoir that’s ever been written.” Now I’m into my third year of writing. The good thing is that it might actually be a really, really good book. It’s costing me a lot of money, because what I’m making for the book, I can make from six or seven stand-up gigs. I took a year-and-a-half off of stand-up last year to focus on the book. I remember Buck Henry, I think, said, “The greatest thing is when you write the end,” and that’s where I’m at now.
So you’re done?
No, I can just understand what he’s saying. It’s so exciting at first. You’re just shot-up with adrenaline, then you’re sad and think you’re the worst writer ever. But every morning I read two things: I’ll read a great book then I’ll read a really bad book. So I’ll read [Nabokov’s] Speak, Memory and I’ll go, “Wow, this is really good,” then I’ll read The Rachel Dratch Story or something like that. So I go from “Oh, I can never write anything close to that” to . . . “All hope is lost.”
Can you share one quick never-before-told story from the book.
I never told anyone about the book before. The only thing I can say is — how do I put this? — there’s an enormous amount of liquid morphine being taken at the time.
My tenure on Saturday Night Live.
That’s the teaser?
Well, goddamn, man that’s a genius of a teaser. That’s not a good tidbit? I’m practically sucking your cock.
No, it’s good. I just thought maybe there was more to the anecdote.
Well, the book is sex, drugs and rock and roll. And also gambling. It’s actually gambling, drugs and rock and roll. There wasn’t that much sex. You needed enough drugs to get to the casino. And actually there was no rock and roll. It’s more like I’m playing blackjack and thinking, “Can you turn that goddamn music off? I’m figuring out how to split these sixes.”