The incredibly sad and shocking news came down Tuesday afternoon that Norm Macdonald died after a private, nine-year battle with cancer. He was 61.
“He was most proud of his comedy,” his friend and producing partner Lori Jo Hoekstra told Deadline. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic. He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise; it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”
The comedian was a cast member on Saturday Night Live from 1993 to 1998 and also appeared in the 1998 cult classic Dirty Work, the sitcom The Norm Show, and countless, hilarious spots on Conan, Letterman, and Howard Stern. He also worked the standup comedy circuit throughout his entire career.
But he’ll be best remembered by many as the fantastically droll anchor of Weekend Update during his run on Saturday Night Live. The O.J. Simpson murder trial was the biggest story in America during much of his tenure, and he hammered it at every possible opportunity.
“According to retailers, the most popular Halloween mask this year is O.J. Simpson,” he said during one broadcast. “And the most popular Halloween greeting is, ‘I’ll kill you and that guy that is bringing over your glasses, or treat.'”
“Well, it is finally official,” he said in the first Weekend Update after Simpson’s acquittal. “Murder is legal in the state of California … At the moment the verdict was delivered, Court TV scored its highest ratings ever. An hour later, the channel went out of business … Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Mayor Marion Berry praised the verdict as ‘wise’ and just.’ And he called upon people of all races to please get him some crack.”
The O.J. jokes were a big hit with audiences, but Don Ohlmeyer, the president of NBC’s West Coast Division, removed him from the Weekend Update chair in late 1997 and replaced him with Colin Quinn. Macdonald and many others believed Ohlmeyer’s friendship with O.J. Simpson was the primary reason behind the move. “My only concern was what I thought was best for the show,” Ohlmeyer told Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller in their 2002 book Live From New York: An Uncensored Oral History of Saturday Night Live. “I might be wrong or full of shit, but it wasn’t like I had some political agenda. The O.J. Simpson thing was over by this time.”
Macdonald’s fans were incensed, but he took it surprisingly well. “I was never bitter,” he told Shales and Miller. “I always understood that Ohlmeyer could fire me because he was the guy that owned the cameras, so that didn’t bother me … I was always happy that SNL gave me a chance. Other comics, when they were young, wanted to be on Johnny Carson. To me, it was like that, you get to be on Saturday Night Live, it’s a dream come true, and then everything after that is not going to be as good. To me, just getting there was the thing.”