When Darrell Hammond joined Saturday Night Live in 1995, it was the beginning of a fruitful creative partnership and a 25-plus-year friendship with Norm Macdonald. The comedians collaborated on countless beloved SNL sketches, including “Celebrity Jeopardy!” (where Macdonald memorably played Burt Reynolds and Hammond did Sean Connery) and worked stand-up events together over the decades. All along, Hammond remained floored by Macdonald’s bravery onstage — “[He had] no filter between brain and mouth, almost like the joke formed as it’s rolling off the tongue… Here it comes, lock, load, fire” — and his innate lovability.
“Have you ever heard the thing about, ‘You don’t ever want to appear on Broadway with a child or a dog?’ Because the child and the dog are utterly themselves, and people can’t take their eyes off them. That was Norm,” Hammond says. “Utterly himself. You couldn’t turn away.”
An emotional Hammond spoke with Rolling Stone shortly after news broke on Tuesday of Macdonald’s death at 61, recalling memorable moments they shared, as well as his friend’s kindness and humility.
The best story I can think of, if you want to know anything about Norm: [In 1995], when he took over Colonel Sanders [in KFC commercials] after I had been playing Colonel Sanders, he went out of his way publicly to state that I was the best one. Whether or not that’s true, here he is on the cusp of a wonderful new commercial spokesperson career but his only concern was me. Weird. Gen-Xers, he was their personal cult comedian, but everybody loved him. You gotta love a guy that would even think to put a balm on my pain when he’s the one that should be in the middle of victory lap. He was a — I mean, it’s passé to say — “a heart-on-your-sleeve” kind of guy.
I used to sit beside him during read-through [at SNL] when he was doing Bob Dole and he could really crush it. The Quentin Tarantino was quite good as well. But when he was doing Burt Reynolds a.k.a. Turd Ferguson [live] on “Celebrity Jeopardy!” I remember looking up into the balcony and watching the heads moving… People are laughing hard and expelling oxygen and drawing oxygen to expel more oxygen when a comic’s on a roll and just pounding, pounding. Every laugh sounded like 300 pieces of glass breaking, it was so loud. But I just remember the heads moving back and forth as people couldn’t contain [it]; they were laughing too hard.
In any theater or comedy show I’ve ever been in, the show can be going quite well, but it’s not the same thing as when a great comic turns the engine on full speed because he’s on a roll. It’s like seeing a prize fighter when he’s suddenly closing in for the kill [to] see Norm sense what’s out there, what’s funny, and then deliver it. And again seeing those torsos, moving back, swaying, ’cause they’re laughing so hard. You don’t see if often.
I did a show with him at the University of Iowa [in 1997] and he went into a patch of road where he wanted to talk about some things in a specific way [Ed note: Such as gay sex and bestiality porn]. And, you know, at first the audience groaned. You get out there in big theaters, sometimes you have a Republican crowd and sometimes you have a Democrat crowd. And if you really dig in and shoot flaming arrows at either party’s [ideals] you risk losing part of the room. I think he didn’t mind that if he had a point of view. If he had an itch to scratch, he would unload. Oh, God, there was a large chunk of the room [that night], he lost a lot of people. It was a big theater.
It’s difficult to believe how honest [he was]. I remember everybody backstage going, “This is gonna be a fucking catastrophe, this is a catastrophe.” None of us had ever seen a catastrophe of that size before. But he was still speaking utterly from the heart. [He basically told the crowd:] “Nobody wants for you to feel disrespected, but I’m the guy with the microphone, and they gave me a lot of money, and I’m supposed to say my stuff. So, I mean, come on, let’s be friends.” To watch him patiently say the things that he wanted to say until he was finished saying them, and then get [the audience] back by the end of the show? For him to state what he said was vintage Norm.
I have always tried to please both sides of the aisle — I’m always trying really hard not to offend the people in my audience if I can help it; I do a lot of character-driven stuff. If I was in the middle of a show and I realized that [I lost] 500 to 1,000 people, I’m not sure I’d know what to do. And what he did came naturally: “I didn’t mean to disrespect you, but what am I supposed to do? I’m getting paid a lot of money to do my thing, so… OK?'” Is there a lesson? I guess [it’s] you can be utterly yourself and still make money in show business if you’re funny enough.
Norm was exactly the same person [onscreen and off]. You hear great comics talk about those years where they weren’t funny, they were trying to learn how to be funny, and they had to come up with their “stage character.” It’s like, “I’m funny sitting around with my friends at the bars, but now I’m in a different context where I’m gonna have to be different.” As a stand-up comic, that could take years. So you would see, for instance, with me, nobody thinks I’m funny off-stage; I don’t talk the same way off-stage. But Norm’s [comedy] was a constant stream. He was utterly himself all the time.
People think that Norm was the Gen-X cult hero, and he was. But there isn’t any demographic, there’s not any culture, there’s not any age group, there’s not any language, if [his comedy] were translated into another language, in which people wouldn’t say, “That’s our higher angel right there.”