Norm Macdonald: Mr. Wrong

He was demoted at 'Saturday Night Live,' and his first big movie bombed; can he turn wrong into right on his sitcom?

Norm MacDonald during the 'Weekend Update' skit on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (Episode 20), May 17th, 1997 Credit: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Norm Macdonald is crazy. A particularly functional, inspired and funny kind of crazy, but one that makes him capable of the sort of strange grin or bizarre utterance that might make you move a couple of seats away from him on the bus. He's a man's man. He likes booze and gambling and jokes about prison sex. In a world full of eager-to-please comedians, Macdonald remains a dark knight. He turns the mind-fuck into performance art.

As an actor and a comic, Macdonald is best known as Saturday Night Live's sardonic anchorman. There he was allowed to offend and, more often, unsettle a nation, while all the time wearing a tie. It was a job that showcased Macdonald's schizophrenic genius — his warped worldview and his childish pleasure in the absurd. He has always been well in touch with his inner brat. "You know those kids who seem much older than their years?" the thirty-six-year-old Quebec-born comedian once asked me. "I was the opposite of that. When I was three, people would always go, 'You seem like you're one, or zero.' " Still, whether he was giving us dada Weekend Updates or inhabiting Burt Reynolds, Macdonald brought a sense of barely contained anarchy and danger to the Saturday Night proceedings.

Then, in January 1998, Macdonald was ousted from his anchor chair at the urging or NBC's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer. Depending on whom you asked, it was either one too many cutting jokes about the executive's pal O.J. Simpson or the fact that Ohlmeyer later made news by forbidding NBC to air ads for 1998's Dirty Work — Macdonald's first big feature film. Eventually NBC relented, but the film still fizzled at the box office. And somehow, due to the perverse alchemy that is show business, that's when Macdonald's career really seemed to take off.

"I got demoted at SNL, and then I got sort of hot," Macdonald explains. "Then the movie didn't happen, and then I got really hot."

Which explains The Norm Show: a sitcom custom-built for Norm, in part by Norm, and thus a proposition that initially seemed like a hard sell to the masses.

It's early fall 1998, and Macdonald is sitting in Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge at Los Angeles International Airport, about to board a plane back to Vancouver, where he's shooting a new movie. He and his trusty assistant, Lori Jo, flew in this morning so that he could take a meeting with ABC about the planned midseason sitcom he's supposed to be developing for Warner Bros.

Macdonald — dressed a bit like a senior citizen in a multicolored workout suit that he also wore to the meeting — seems only vaguely interested in talking about his show. He absent-mindedly turns to the TV in the corner and checks out a recent bombing being aired on CNN. "What's going on?" he barks. "A war or something?" No one in the room bothers to answer.

Asked about his meeting, he says simply, "It went all right. I just sat there." His eyes drift back to the bombing.

Didn't he have to at least try to sell it?

"They wanted me to, but I didn't," Macdonald claims. "So I just kinda sat there and made stupid jokes."

To hear him tell it, a sitcom is only on the agenda as something profitable to do now that Dirty Work has put him in what he terms "movie jail." (The Vancouver project just got started a few months ago.)

"As soon as the contract ended with SNL, I was going to do all these movies," Macdonald recalls. "Then, when [Dirty Work] came out, I thought, 'Maybe I'll never be able to do a movie again.' I trust Bruce — that he can do a sitcom. And I get to stay in Los Angeles for a while, make some money and then get back to making movies."

Bruce is Bruce Helford, the co-creator and executive producer of The Drew Carey Show. The pair first met under what seemed like the most intense of TV circumstances: working at the famously ulcer-inducing Roseanne. Helford was running the show, and Macdonald was no fan of the form. His worst professional experience came pre-SNL when he played a supporting character — an anti women's-lib construction worker — in a Fox pilot that wasn't picked up. But even the better TV series don't inspire Macdonald.

"I loved Roseanne as a stand-up," says Macdonald. "When I got the job, they gave me, like, forty tapes of the show to watch to watch. So, I had to go in this room. I watched, like two or three. I got real sleepy — I just don't watch sitcoms. Like, I don't even know anyone who watches them. I never had any drive to do a sitcom, because I never had an idea that low-concept."

And exactly how much of a concept has he developed at this point for his own show?

"None," Macdonald says.

It's November, and Macdonald's pilot was originally supposed to have been filmed by now, but it remains a work in progress. "Yeah, I want to work on it," he says, without much conviction or interest. "I don't want to rush it."

Later it will emerge that one setback has been that Laurie Metcalf, the former Roseanne co-star, whom the hard-to-impress Macdonald deems "fuckin' hilarious," is trying to put together her own pilot and is currently unavailable. The search to find somebody else to play the character written with Metcalf in mind has been difficult. Reading with other women turns out to be trying for Macdonald. "Horrifying," he confides with a pained look. "Because everyone that comes in, you have to pretend they're doing good and stuff."

In the meantime, he's struggled with second thoughts himself — concerns that he'll be creatively castrated or defanged in prime time. But right now there's other work to attend to. He's wrapped the Vancouver project, Ballbusted — through the film may be called Pittsburgh or something else entirely — and he has just done a few days on Milos Forman's Andy Kaufman movie.

He's also making a comedy album, and this afternoon he's recording a bit with former SNL colleague Will Ferrell. Ferrell arrives at the Hollywood sound studio, and talk turns to the recent upheaval at NBC. "Because of Seinfeld, they cut our food budget," says Ferrell — a fact that brings a smile to Macdonald's face. After all, he knows a thing two or two about being cut at NBC.

They prepare for taping, and Macdonald explains why Ferrell is here: to get brutally sodomized.

"We're just normal dudes — until the yelling starts?" Ferrell asks, searching for his character's proper motivation. "Yeah, I think it will be funnier if it's all clean, then there's the ass-fucking noise," Macdonald responds.

Veteran record producer Brooks Arthur — who named the boards for Adam Sandler's albumns — sends the pair into the studio to take a pass at the bit.

"I'm nervous," Macdonald says as he positions himself at the microphone.

"I'm not that nervous — and I'm the one getting fucked in the ass," Ferrell tells him.

The pair play Bill and Fred, two bland, middle aged married guys who have just finished watching a football game when Norm's character, Bill, offhandedly suggests a little sodomy.

Norm: You don't have a vagina, do you?

Will: No, sorry?

Norm: That's all right. Hey, guess this was a stupid idea. I feel like an idiot.

Will: Hey listen. Don't feel bad. Live and learn, I always say. Hey, wait a minute. Do you?...

Norm: Do I what?

Will: Do you have a vagina?

It's a classic Macdonald — Beckett meets buggery, with a little absurdist heteroanxiety thrown into the mix. At one time, Macdonald had planned on doing the sketch with his late friend Chris Farley, but now it's Ferrell — a gifted improviser — screaming in faux tortured pain, exclaiming things likef, "Oh, God, mother of all things holy, please let this nightmare stop!"

After a few run throughs, Macdonald suggests that Ferrell make his character sound more like Harry Caray, the late sportscasting great and one of Ferrell's arsenal of SNL characters.

Arthur laughs at the next take but recommends calling to get a legal check on this change. Macdonald won't hear of it. Still, later he engages in a very hear of it. Still, later he engages in a very rare act of self sensorship. He decides that Ferrell,s line "Please, I'm begging you to stop. Your huge twenty-inch cock has turned my ass into a fountain of blood" needs to be altered. Instead of "huge twenty-inch cok," Macdonald inserts the phrase "unrelenting sexual pounding."

Why the switch? "The other way was so dirty," he says.

By mid-december, the buzz regarding The Norm Show isn't particularly good. "I hear Norm wants out," one industry insider tells me. "The network doesn't like it." The fact that every aspect of the show's schedule keeps getting pushed back — including a last minute one-night delay in filming the pilot — cannot be encouraging. The only good omen is that Laurie Metcalf's project fell through, so she's playing the part written for her after all.

Most anxieties fade, though when the pilot is finally shot, two nights before Christmas. From its first moment, The Norm Show turns out to be unusually sharp and smart — a great fit for its somewhat reluctant leading man. Wisely, Helford has opted to let Norm be Norm in the role of Norm Henderson, a former professional hockey player sentenced to five years of public service for gambling and tax evasion. Metcalf plays his more sincere co-worker in the welfare office. There are lines in the script that scream Norm — "You're a huge whore," in paraticular (though off-screen, Macdonald might prefer his beloved phrase "crack whore"). Then there's another moving moment when Norm tells a prostitute client, "All right, fine. I'll go to jail but let me tell you something, young lady: You're going to have to give me a few pointers on how to please a man."

In near-record time, this formerly troubled show gets a prime slot, following The Drew Carey Show, and a ten-episode order from ABC. The buzz is suddenly all good.

A few weeks later, The Norm Show is in full production on the second floor of the second floor of the same generic office building that houses Drew Carey, on the Warner Bros. lot. A tired-looking Macdonald stands in the doorway of a room, listening to the assembled writers with a hard-to-read, there-and-yet-not-quite-there look on his unshaven face. This may have something to do with the fact that he's wearing a two hats these days — a writer's and a star's. To hear Macdonald tell it, only one hat fits him comfortably.

The writing he likes. Acting is less thrilling for him, though he has a different name for the art of the thespian: "Memorizing," he calls it, with the slightest sense of contempt. "I don't presume to call it acting," explains Macdonald. "But the memorizing is tremendously different. Any side issues, like publicity, taking pictures and so forth, are just unbearable. This is way harder than Saturday Night Live — they have an incredible amount of time off. When I came to SNL from Roseanne, everybody told me how crazy and grueling SNL was. That's just completely fabricated."

Today, with the second episode of The Norm Show about to go into production, the pressure is on to finish the first couple of follow-up episodes to the pilot and to "break" some stories for the rest of the season. At 11:45 A.M., Helford arrives in the rom and pulls out a copy of a script for what will likely be the third episode: a show titled "My Name Is Norm," in which Norm is wrongly placed in the rehab.

"Good episode," Helford says; then he proceeds to diagram a new structure for its first act. He's short, so he can't comfortably reach the top of the board.

Macdonald smiles at the sight. "Do you write up or down?" Macdonald asks Helford.

"I write down," he says.

"Because if you write up, you're an optimist, and if you write down, you're a homo," says Macdonald, king of the non sequiturs.

A little later, Macdonald whispers across the table to Helford to ask about the status of another Norm concern. In a future episode, the father of one of the main characters will appear, take a liking to Norm and then turn out to be gay. Macdonald is convinced that the only actor for the part is Jack Warden, the wonderfully gruff, macho veteran character actor who play Macdonald's father in Dirty Work.

Helford places a call to the show's liaison at ABC, who tell him that the network loves the idea of Warden but not the fee that Warden is said to have requested to guest star. The limit is half of what he asked for — still a very healthy five-figure amount. It turns out that Macdonald is willing to pay the difference, with the help of Helford.

"They apologize profusely," Helford explains. "They can,t justify the money. So the question is, how much do you want him?"

"It's going to be decided by the outcome of the Super Bowl," says writer Frank Sebastiano, an SNL vet who cowrote Dirty Work, referring to Macdonald's penchant for the occasional gamble.

Helford tactfully suggests that perhaps this discussion about Warden should be off the record.

"I don't know," Macdonald says after only a moment's thought. "It makes me pretty heroic, doesn't it?"

Later, Macdonald and Helford head to the studio's ritzy executive dining room. Like a sitcom, this elegant power-lunch room seems an unlikely place to find the brutally blunt and thoroughly unpretentious Norm. Before ordering, the two discuss the key to breaking the Norm code, sitcomically speaking. "We had a little bit of a thing about my character, because I didn,t want to be too good," Macdonald admits. "But then we ironed that out."

"It's like it's very important for a character to be likeable," Macdonald explains with audible disgust. "I don't understand, because I always think, if you are funny, you are likable. Apparently you have to be funny and you have to be likable — Bruce convinced me of that."

In other words, Norm had to figure out who Norm was. "I've learned that Norm is a person who is naturally skeptical, so I always have to be very careful," Helford says.

Given Macdonald's track record for repeatedly failing upward, I ask him what he thinks about the possibility of success, if it means spending the next half decade or more in a format he derides and in a city that he despises.

For Macdonald, who is separated from his wife, the only reason he's looking forward to being based on the West Coast is that he'll be closer to his six-year-old son, Dylan. "Los Angeles is all the show-business people," he says. "It's cool seeing celebrities from the old days, but there are less and less of them. I only like guys that were famous before I got into show business — everyone else is, like, so what? It's a one-industry town — which is always boring. And show-business people are even worse, because they think they're interesting." Then, half returning to the original question, he says he thinks it'll be great if the show succeeds. Because then he could quit the business.

Still, more than ever, Macdonald is facing the fact that he is show people now. As he and Helford exit the dining room on the way back to the writers room, they run straight into the embodiment of TV success today: the entire cast of Friends — minus Courteney Cox and plus actor Micheal Rappaport — sitting at an outside table, having lunch.

"You guys really are friends!" Macdonald proclaims. "Good to see you."

"I didn't recognize you," Jennifer Aniston tells Helford, with whom she's worked before.

It's explained that Macdonald is doing his own sitcom now.

"Oh, how great," Aniston offers sweetly. Of course, it will be on a competing network. "Oh, that's all right," Lisa Kudrow says comfortingly.

"Are you still on Saturday Night Live?" Aniston asks Macdonald.

"No," he responds.

"I thought you still were," she explains apologetically.

"No, it's been like three or four years," Macdonald says, before correcting himself. "No, it's been like eight months."

The Friends folks are then misinformed that The Norm Show is about this guy Norm who has five pals who hang out at a coffee shop. "

Hey, I'm worried here," says David Schwimmer.

As Helford tells Schwimmer the actual setup of the show, Norm mentions that he recently caught Kudrow on a talk show and passes on a memory from an old Letterman appearance while at SNL: "When I went out and shook his hand, he whispered in my ear, 'Your show is shit' — all angry."

"You won some award, right?' he then asks her. "You got the Golden Globe?"

"No, no," Kudrow says. Actually, she won the New York Film Critics Circle award for BestSupporting actress in The Opposite of Sex. "What about the Golden Globes?" Macdonald insists.

"No, nothing," Kudrow confesses.

"Well, the New York Film Critics are more prestigious," Macdonald says diplomatically. Everyone commiserates about Golden Globe politics and for shining moment, the idea of Norm Macdonald as a prime-time sitcom star seems — that's right — just crazy enough to work.