Norm Macdonald, the celebrated stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member, died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a private battle with cancer. He was 61.
Macdonald’s manager, Marc Gurvitz, confirmed the comedian’s death to The New York Times. Macdonald had reportedly been battling cancer for nine years, but did not want to make the diagnosis public, according to his longtime producing partner and friend Lori Jo Hoekstra.
“He was most proud of his comedy,” Hoekstra said. “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.”
“Today is a sad day. All of us here at SNL mourn the loss of Norm Macdonald, one of the most impactful comedic voices of his or any other generation,” Lorne Michaels said on behalf of the show. “There are so many things that we’ll miss about Norm – from his unflinching integrity to his generosity to his consistent ability to surprise. But most of all he was just plain funny. No one was funny like Norm.”
David Letterman was among the many comedians to pay tribute to Macdonald, writing on Twitter, “In every important way, in the world of stand-up, Norm was the best. An opinion shared by me and all peers. Always up to something, never certain, until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you. I was always delighted by his bizarre mind and earnest gaze. (I’m trying to avoid using the phrase, ‘twinkle in his eyes’). He was a lifetime Cy Young winner in comedy. Gone, but impossible to forget.”
Conan O’Brien also issued a statement, saying, “I am absolutely devastated about Norm Macdonald. Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again. I’m so sad for all of us today.”
I am absolutely devastated about Norm Macdonald. Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again. I'm so sad for all of us today.
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) September 14, 2021
Macdonald had a prolific and multi-faceted career, working as a stand-up, actor, and writer. Between 1993 and 1998, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and for three of those seasons he presided over Weekend Update with a style that blended acerbic punchlines and deadpan delivery.
Born in Quebec City, Canada, in 1959, Macdonald began his career as a stand-up in Canada, later appearing on the talent competition Star Search. His first major showbiz gig was writing for Roseanne in the early Nineties, but he left after just one season after being hired on Saturday Night Live.
Macdonald’s SNL stint is probably remembered most for his anchoring of Weekend Update and, in particular, his ruthless and relentless coverage of O.J. Simpson during his murder trial. In subsequent years, Macdonald would claim that these jokes were part of the reason he was fired from SNL in 1998, saying that they upset then-NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, whom Macdonald said was friends with Simpson. Ohlmeyer, however, disputed these claims, and in a 2011 interview with Marc Maron, Macdonald revised his position, saying he was probably axed because SNL brass simply stopped finding him funny and because of his penchant for insubordination.
But on top of Weekend Update, Macdonald appeared in an array of memorable sketches that helped cement his place as a SNL fan favorite. He impersonated Letterman and Larry King, and even stepped in as Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential campaign. And he appeared as Burt Reynolds on SNL’s long-running Celebrity Jeopardy! spoof, becoming perhaps the second-most famous antagonizer of Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek, just behind Darrell Hammond’s incorrigible Sean Connery.
Macdonald’s first major post-SNL project was the 1999 movie Dirty Work, directed by Bob Saget, which flopped (his feud with Ohlmeyer even briefly led to NBC pulling its ads for the film). The following year, though, Macdonald launched a new sitcom, The Norm Show, which would go on to air for three seasons on ABC.
Macdonald was a consistent presence in comedy throughout his career. He racked up memorable film roles in movies like Billy Madison, Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Doolittle (he voiced the dog, Lucky), Funny People, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, and appeared on TV shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Mike Tyson Mysteries, and The Drew Carey Show. Macdonald was also a reliable guest on late-night television, and a sublimely crafted shaggy-dog joke about a moth, delivered on O’Brien’s The Tonight Show, is a perfect encapsulation of Macdonald’s sense of humor.
In 2006, Macdonald released an album of sketch comedy, Ridiculous, while he later helmed two stand-up specials, 2011’s Me Doing Stand-Up and 2017’s Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery. He published a largely fictionalized memoir, Based on a True Story: Not A Memoir, and hosted a popular podcast, Norm Macdonald Live, between 2013 and 2017. In 2018, Macdonald scored a Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, which ran for one season (its arrival was also marred by some controversial remarks Macdonald made about the #MeToo movement).
Throughout his career, Macdonald’s comedy almost always had a classic feel. He largely eschewed politics, and a 2018 New York Times profile noted his continued pursuit of the Platonic joke. He offered one up in the piece’s closing moments, quipping: “Making people laugh is a gift. Preaching to them is not a gift. There are people who can do that better — preachers.”