The True Story of Norm Macdonald, Comedy’s Best Liar
Yesterday, Norm Macdonald, comedy legend, SNL cast member, and reluctant prose stylist, died after a battle with cancer. It ended in a draw; the cancer is dead too.
In one of his acts, Norm said: “When the fuckin’ sickle of death is over my goddamn neck, I’m gonna be so cowardly. I’m afraid of going on Ferris wheels and shit. I’m not gonna be brave.”
Like most of the assertions he made on stage over the years, this was a lie.
Norm was not a coward. He lived with cancer in secret for about a decade, writing and performing like always. He put out two stand-up specials. He did a show for Netflix. He stuck his neck out for people. He urged forgiveness as a spiritual imperative. He posted on Twitter a whole hell of a lot. He maintained his insane, unbeatable record as the greatest talk-show guest of all time. He even wrote a book, a crafty Moebius strip called Based on a True Story that’s part novel, part parody, as slyly ambitious as his routines. There were tells, if you’re morbid enough to look for them. He joked about impending death, maybe even more than the average comedian. And then he shuffled off without a warning, shortly after the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a monumental tragedy he was of course unafraid to skewer.
It’s comforting to just bask in his accomplishments as an entertainer. The time he filleted Carrot Top, like a bored cat laying open a wounded bird, during a routine appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The time he did a set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and made a lot of powerful people look like they wanted to vanish or quit their jobs or simply die. The time he almost won a million dollars for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang charity. The punchlines that crept up and knocked you cold like a spring-loaded Daffy Duck contraption with a big red boxing glove on the end.
The basking could go on. I’d rather reflect on what it was about Norm that made my entire circle of family and friends, even the most jaded and cynical ones (and maybe especially them) shut down so completely on the day of his passing. How so many people came together to post This Is The Funniest Thing I Have Seen In My Fucking Life clips without ever referencing the same one. How he could be difficult, problematic, often stubbornly wrong, and still force basically everyone who creates or consumes entertainment to stop their day and call him a genius without qualification. How did you do it, Norm? I’ve been watching the guy’s comedy since I was in middle school, and I still don’t have an answer.
Maybe it’s the gambling. Norm was a self-identified addict who lost his entire net worth more than once. As an entertainer, he placed the biggest bets you’ll ever see. When he bombed, he dragged the whole crowd to hell with him. He raked his audience, and himself, over the coals with a little grin on his face, as if to say that audience reaction was none of his concern. He never just let a joke fail. He’d double, triple, quadruple down. He’d make it so bad you’d get embarrassed for yourself and then for him and then maybe the promoter.
That approach had pros and cons. He staked losing claims regularly. He ended up on the wrong side of history a lot more often than I’d like to admit as a lifelong fan (though he did eventually issue an oblique, blanket apology for his jokes about trans people). He lost gigs, jobs, crowds. But when he bet big and won, he did things nobody in his field has ever come close to achieving. For once, “pushing the envelope” might actually be apt: At his best, Norm was the Chuck Yeager of comedy, breaking records we didn’t know you could break.
When, on SNL’s first episode after O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, he pronounced that “murder is legal in the state of California,” you could feel from the look on his face, the sound of the crowd, that he had just delivered the best late-night joke of all time. He knew it, and he wasn’t even smug. He was just pleased about his craftsmanship.
Norm made seasoned comedy veterans break, really break, with routines that sound on paper like the worst ideas ever. He had Jon Stewart convulsing over Steve Irwin jokes 10 days after the man’s death. He cracked up the entire Howard Stern show staff with a lengthy description of, essentially, the My Lai Massacre. On Conan, he rambled through a story about a conspicuously Russian moth that left his host tongue-tied.
I came to know Norm in 2014, after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I was unemployed and living on the outer edges of Redding, California, a separatist community a few hours north of anywhere. I had written a goofy little blog about a decrepit strip mall frequented by a lot of down-on-their-luck types, including me. There was a pay phone there with a sticker advertising Norm’s then-latest special, and I thought it was crazy, because this wasn’t a place where cult comedy was supposed to go, it was a place where 20-year-old chewing tobacco wrappers were supposed to go. Somehow, Norm saw the piece about the pay phone with his face on it and told me I was a good writer. He didn’t have to do that. It was unprompted, sincere, and kind, descriptors that generally don’t apply to “epic celebrity acknowledges fan” stories.
Our last messages, in 2016, were about Based on a True Story. He thanked me for praising it (I’d compared a passage to Chekhov) and bemoaned marketing imperatives. He wrote:
“It gutted me that the NYT would not put the book in its fiction list, but I’m trying to get over it. I went to a Chekhov play in NYC lately, and had never seen a play of his and am ignorant of plays. So I was disappointed but it might not mean much because of my ignorance. But I’ve never read better short stories, so for you to say such a thing means the world to me. I find myself in a predicament. All I want to do is write short stories or a book, but other things, often that I’m no good at all at, are offered me for much more money.”
Based on a True Story: A Memoir might have been Norm’s biggest bet. It contains almost no true stories. It’s a pack of preposterous lies, a collection of tall tales and shaggy-dog stories that put its author’s finest talk-show bits to shame. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, of course; the audiobook is a must. It’s also a novel, a metafictional sendup of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, with a ghostwriter named “Keane” as its Charles Kinbote. Like Kinbote, Norm’s Keane can’t resist hijacking the text, and his deluded self-insertions transform a simple job (stamping out a hacky celebrity memoir for a quick payday) into a twisted labor of obsession and jealousy that ends in murder.
There are three interwoven narratives. The first is Norm’s “memoir,” ghostwritten and mostly invented by Keane. There’s a present-day framing story in which Norm and Comedy Store manager Adam Eget are forced into hiding after an ill-fated Vegas trip; Keane is behind this story too, but as an impartial chronicler and eventual participant. Finally, there’s Keane’s bitter, discursive first-person commentary about writing the whole thing. Only one chapter is authored by Norm himself: It’s an incoherent rant about ordering chili.
Keane is a talented ghostwriter. He renders Norm Macdonald’s life story in vivid detail, from his breakthrough as a stand-up to a memorable gig at a hospital for the criminally insane to a bloody seal hunt north of the Arctic Circle. He applies just the right amount of restraint to the Canadian farm boy’s probable abuse by a local gardener known as “Old Jack.” Only Norm’s stint in prison, for hiring a hit man to kill Sarah Silverman’s boyfriend, is described in bad taste — but then, Keane may be letting his own prejudices show. All along, stream-of-consciousness interjections by Keane, a thwarted novelist, paint “the real Norm Macdonald” as selfish, bigoted dullard, patently incapable of writing his own book.
Does this sound overachieving for a celebrity memoir? Norm — the real Norm, not “Keane” or “Norm” — is right: They’re the cheapest form of writing. If you were on SNL for even a couple of seasons, a memoir is like falling off a log into a million dollars. Even the ones that aren’t ghostwritten might as well be. Norm could have written a regular, straight-ahead, “here are the times I met Lorne and Chris Farley” comedy memoir in his sleep, and it would have been a contender for the best one ever. But he never took the easy money.
How did you do it, Norm? He was so much smarter, better, more mature than the crowd he came up in. He elevated live storytelling — distinct in so many ways from “stand-up” — to something beyond an art form. He tricked people. He taunted them, goaded them, left them speechless. He made Barbara Walters really, really mad. He seemed to love being underestimated. But however hard he pushed his audience, he pushed himself harder.
I’d love for there to be a nice ribbon here that makes it all make sense and wraps up this remembrance with dignity. I know he was a great lover of country music, Billy Joe Shaver in particular (Shaver also died in the last year; wherever they are now, they’re probably together). Besides all the Nabokov stuff, Based on a True Story contains a reference to Shaver’s song “Live Forever:”
I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now
You’re gonna wanna hold me
Just like I always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now
But then I think of the end of his novel and feel it’s more appropriate, even without context: Turkey fucking chili. story of my life.