‘Death Doesn’t Gnaw at Me’: A Lost Interview With Norm Macdonald
In August of 2018, Norm Macdonald was making the publicity rounds for his new Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show. The last time he’d sat behind a desk was as the anchor of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment in the mid-Nineties, a gig that got him tossed from the iconic sketch show reportedly for making one too many jokes at the expense of O.J. Simpson, longtime buddy of NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer. (Macdonald famously parried the news of the Simpson verdict by declaring, “It’s official! Murder is now legal in the state of California.”)
As a guest on other people’s shows, Macdonald masterfully pushed the boundaries of acceptable network talk-show chatter, with Tolstoyan one-liners, lightning-fast chirps at fellow guests, and repeated insinuations that he was a “deeply closeted homosexual.” He practically created his own subgenre of late-night humor that left hosts scrambling to figure out what the hell was going on. As ever, when he was on TV, Norm was firmly in control — audience, producers, and network overlords be damned.
Naturally, his Netflix series was built to subvert the institution of late-night television. In an era in which late-night hosts are expected to be political, and their guests to stick to the script on whatever project they’re promoting, Macdonald chose to go in the opposite direction. He avoided politics completely, and, as with his joke-writing, boiled the talk show down to its purest form: people talking. Sure, the guests could seem random, ranging from Jane Fonda to M. Night Shyamalan, Judge Judy, and David Letterman, Macdonald’s friend and idol (who is also credited as “Special Counsel” on the show). But the conversations were fun, fascinating, and personal.
True to form, the show also included offbeat elements that wrung hilarity out of sheer awkwardness: surreptitiously filming guests during fake commercial breaks, forcing them to read bizarre one-liners, berating his trusty sidekick Adam Eget into total submission.
Norm Macdonald Has a Show was genius in its way, though it never became a sensation, largely because its launch was torpedoed by a public-relations crisis. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter to promote the show, Macdonald expressed sympathy for disgraced comedians Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr, and a furor erupted. For a while, Macdonald became something of a third rail.
The chat I had by phone with Macdonald in advance of the show’s debut was nowhere near controversial. We covered his philosophies on comedy and late-night, why he likes Twitter, his run-ins with Trump, and, naturally, the suspension of civil liberties in Canada in the 1970s. But, because of the hot water bubbling up around him at the time, the interview was held from publication. Now, here it is, a reminder of how inquisitive, forthcoming, and unvarnished Macdonald was. Even when I asked, unaware that he was sick with cancer, why he talked about death so often in the show, he was typically matter-of-fact: “It’s not that death gnaws at me,” he told me, “it’s just that I’m not in as much denial as other people.”
Norm! How are you?
I’m OK, baby! Are you in Montreal? Is that where you live?
Yes, born and raised here.
I was born in the much more French city — Quebec.
Do you speak French?
Pretty well… Much better than Americans and better than most Canadians, but I couldn’t keep up with a French Canadian. When I was young, my father hated the French. I grew up on an army base that was all English, so I was a minority within a minority. My father was paralyzed with fear that I would one, become a figure skater, and two, marry a French girl.
You wrote a beautiful Twitter story about the October Crisis, when the Quebec nationalist group FLQ kidnapped and then murdered the province’s deputy premier, and kicked off a chaotic few months of political upheaval.
I was on an army base, so I remember everyone with machine guns out, stopping everybody. It was weird.
Not enough people care about that period in Canadian history.
Right! And Americans don’t know we had terror in Canada.
And civil liberties were suspended.
It was instituted by a very liberal Prime Minister, Trudeau the Elder. That week, they gave police such terrifying power, they pushed organized crime in Quebec back a decade.
I’m really enjoying this tangent, but we have to talk about your new show. You’re known for being an incredible talk-show guest. What makes a good guest?
I was really young, but I remember Carson’s first guest was usually a funny person, irrelevant of where he stood in show business, like Buddy Hackett or Pete Barbutti — these very odd choices, because they weren’t superstars like all the first guests are now. You tended to have more of that back then. They weren’t plugging things. Carson was so good at letting people talk, and he always valued comedians above everybody else.
What makes a good talk-show host?
I don’t really have it, personally [laughs]. The best was Carson, because it’s being able to listen. I’m learning to listen a little bit. Every time people say anything, it reminds me of a story that’s like their story. Lori Jo Hoekstra, who produces the show, told me to think of it as a conversation, and that helped a great deal, because I just said, “Fuck it!” We just have a conversation that we would have regularly and forget everything about asking probing questions.
Your interview with Drew Barrymore is a great example of that.
Drew was awesome. People come in and don’t know what to expect, and then I would just start talking to them and then introduce them later, so that they’re caught off guard and say, “Hey, we’re doing the show!” Then I would say, “We’re going to the break,” but we weren’t actually going to break.
There is obviously no need for a commercial break on Netflix, so why do you cut to break throughout your show?
Well, we use the breaks so that the guests can catch their breath. Also, guests are used to a break, so they want that. Then, Lori Jo said that people are interested in what actually happens during the break. So, we used sections from the break to do that little 15 seconds. That just came because everyone always asks me, “What did Letterman say during breaks?”
What did Letterman say during breaks?
Nothing, he says nothing at all. The band strikes up really loud and he’s surrounded by producers. Sometimes, he would wave them off and talk to me, but I think he was so freaked out about having to talk to some actress about her house or something that the producers would insulate him from the guest, and they all take off right before he comes back on.
The breaks give your show an old-school broadcasty feel.
Oh, that’s cool. That’s actually a big thing, the broadcasty part, because I always watch Tom Snyder and Firing Line and Merv Griffin on YouTube all the time. I really love those guys.
A while back you openly lobbied to get The Late Late Show on CBS. Are you happy you ended up on Netflix?
Yes, absolutely. Earlier in my career I thought I wanted to do a late-night show, but now, looking back and seeing the guys who do it, it just consumes your life. You wake up every morning like, “What’s tonight?” I actually wouldn’t have liked that, I just thought I would like that. So, thank God for unanswered prayers, I guess.
During the same interview, you also mentioned getting rid of talk-show staples like the suit and the desk, but you still have the desk on Norm Macdonald Has a Show.
I talked to Letterman, who’s an executive producer of the show, about that. I asked him, “Why is there even a desk?” It’s like a job interview. It’s so bizarre, it’s such an uncomfortable position to be put in. I don’t know who started that, probably some guy in the Fifties. But then Letterman told me that if you’re going to subvert the show, you have to have all of the trappings of the show. You have to be making fun of the show, like, 10 percent, and 90 percent doing the actual show.
Why are you so mean to your sidekick Adam Eget?
I’ve always loved sidekicks. I loved Paul Shaffer, who was almost hipper than Letterman, which was really cool. [Johnny Carson’s sidekick] Ed McMahon was just a dunce, but he was really funny; very, very funny and he served his part well. I decided to take that Ed McMahon scenario and just amplify it up to where it was like when Johnny would rip Ed teasingly, but if you just abused the guy unapologetically. So, I didn’t get a comedian, because I knew I would get blowback. Adam Eget works at the Comedy Store and it’s funny because he doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s very nice; it allows me to just abuse him very, very hard. I had to stop saying certain things about him because then he gets a million Twitter threats because I just make stuff up, like that he’s a Holocaust denier, or something.
Did people actually believe that Adam Eget is a Holocaust denier?
Yes, amazingly. I started realizing when I was reading Twitter comments that people are angry about it. I remember when I was at SNL and Lorne Michaels, who is very wise, told me, “You know, [you think] you’re really popular on the show, because people will come up and say how good you are. But all of the people who don’t like you won’t approach you.” He said it to put you in your place, but it’s true. Everybody thought they were so great, which people in show business tend to do because people in crowds come to see them. It’s like Trump — how can Trump think he’s unpopular if there’s entire auditoriums cheering him? That’s why I like the Twitter. I actually like the Twitter, because it allows performers to see that no, you’re not that popular.
But “the Twitter” is also a place where people take things very literally and do not pick up on irony.
I trust that if a comedian says it, it’s a joke. I started realizing that it would be a terrible thing to go through life taking everything literally and not understanding irony. I see that more and more. If I was onstage and said, “You know who was great? Hitler!” If you thought that was serious, what a terrible life you have. If you see a comic, then it’s clearly a joke. If you’re in public saying that, then it must be a joke. So, sometimes if I say something about Adam Eget, he’ll say, “Please don’t put that in.” I don’t want him to get murdered or anything.
You use old-timey English and make arcane cultural references. Why do you think young people respond so well to your humor?
I don’t know. My father had me when he was 58. He went through the Depression and all this stuff, and all of his friends were old men. When I was young, I was steeped in this. I really liked old men and how they spoke, and I thought it was really funny how they told stories and the words they used, and I absorbed all that.
Ever since I started doing comedy, I would use more old words and literate words and I found that mixing the two would create a very good comedy quiver. I think the young people are probably hipper and funnier than old people anyway. I’ve always had a young audience, I’m not quite sure why. I think it’s because of the internet. Young comedy fans just like straight-up comedy.
You ask your guests a lot of questions about death. Is mortality something that gnaws at you?
When I started comedy, I really admired guys like Seinfeld, who will take little things and get very upset about them, like a Corn Flakes box or something. But I realized, that’s what makes it work: He puts such importance into such a trivial matter, that’s such a funny way to do it. And then I wondered if the flip could work, because I’m always trying to see the other way to do it. I started wondering if I could talk about very big issues in a very off-handed, trivial way.
So, it’s not that death gnaws at me, it’s just that I’m not in as much denial as other people. There are things people just don’t want to hear or talk about, and one is death. Another big one is child molesters. I try to just deal with them on a very surface, commonsense level, so that people get relieved when they hear that there’s an actual joke at the end of a very grim, you know… grimsicle. It’s a grimsicle!
Did you just invent the word “grimsicle”?
I just invented it, yeah. I didn’t know what to say after “grim,” so I freaked out and thought that.
Why do you think the late-night talk show remains such a popular format?
I don’t know. I don’t know why anything is popular. I don’t watch sitcoms, I don’t really watch talk shows. But what I want to do is always make my stand-up and everything I do as timeless as possible, or at least not time-stamped. I’ll never talk about a politician or an issue, because I want the show to work 20 years from now. Secondly, as odd as it sounds, I want my show to be comic relief from the talk shows that already exist, because now, everyone is commanded to be a political pundit as a talk-show host.
So, what happened to talk shows to make them so political?
Now, in the old days, that wasn’t the case, and then Jon Stewart came around and he was very good, and he was a political guy. Then, they made everyone do that, even poor Jimmy Fallon. I was there the night that he messed up Trump’s head and nobody thought anything of it, because it’s Jimmy! And Jimmy just does funny, light things and likes everyone. For him to be derided for not attacking Trump seemed absurd to me. So, I surrounded myself with writers that were just funny. I had no political axe to grind one way or another, and said, “Let’s be the comic relief that comedy needs at this point,” which is sort of sad.
Did you hang out with Donald Trump backstage at The Tonight Show?
I’d met Donald Trump a couple of times before. A year earlier, they had SNL’s 40th anniversary, and Donald Trump had a terrible seat way in the back — I’m just saying that to show how quick things change. When I did The Tonight Show, I had never been second guest before on a talk show, and they said Donald Trump was going to be first guest. And I said, “Oh, I’ll take it.” Because I wanted to see it, it was right at the end of the campaign.
There was one funny thing that happened, though. I know Donald Trump, so I know that he does these funny things. I was backstage and I go, “Hey, Donald!” And I didn’t know if he remembered my name. He said, “That’s a funny guy!” Because we had met a few times. So I go, “Can I get a picture?” And he says, “Yes, hold on, let me get a picture with you, one second.” Then he walks down the hall with the Secret Service men and gets on the elevator and leaves! I was laughing because I thought it was so funny, and other people were appalled. That’s where the difference is between people nowadays. To me, that was a very funny thing that he did. To them, it was a very rude thing. But it was both, I guess.
Looks like our allotted time is up — thanks, Norm.
Why don’t you take my phone number in case any more questions occur to you?
That’s very generous of you — they are already occurring. I have a picture of you with my uncle Bob and Ricky [Robb Wells] from [the Canadian mockumentary series] Trailer Park Boys on the Paramount lot in L.A. in 2003. Any chance you remember that?
Oh sure, I remember. Can you text it to me?
[Norm, via text message] Wow, that is so crazy. I have a vivid recollection of that because I had long known of the Trailer Park Boys but had never seen them. I am pretty sure that I thought your uncle was one of them. Also, I wore that sweater yesterday.
OK, back to the show quickly: Why did you get rid of the monologue for your show and have guests read jokes at the end instead?
We went back and forth about a monologue or not. I wanted to show jokes for what they are: things that are written, then read. We stayed with this format because a lot of times a joke will spark something in the guest; it’s a mild hypnotic state they are in while reading.
The late Burt Reynolds, who you impersonated on SNL, would have been a great fit for the show.
We tried very hard to get Burt. I was on the phone with him [for] an hour trying to convince him. He really wanted to, but he just wasn’t in shape for it.
Will there be a second season and, if so, who would be an ideal guest?
We will know if there is a second season within 30 days of the drop; the folks at home will decide. My ideal guest remains Robert Blake.
That would be a great interview. Thanks for extending this one, Norm.
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