Norm Macdonald has, after what amounts to a decade-long absence, returned to television as the star of his own show. I know many of you will greet this news with a “Who cares?” Macdonald is almost as polarizing and distinctive a comedian as Andy Kaufman, though it is easy to overlook this because of the pathological purity of his approach. He’s an intelligent man who would seemingly rather die than make a joke that was even slightly “inside”, and a fairly gifted mimic who wheels out an impression maybe once every three or four years.
The ultimate Norm Macdonald punchline is a simple statement of the obvious, delivered in a spondaic sort of way; the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson jokes that defined his tenure as host of SNL‘s “Weekend Update” segment largely consisted of these, and if you appreciate the approach, you will probably love his Comedy Central Sports Show. (It turns out that Tiger Woods’ “sex addiction” is very, very amenable to this sort of treatment.)
Though Macdonald has a sizable cult, his continuing recognizability has relied, to an unusually large degree, on the reverence of comedy peers like Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien. A person turning 18 today would have been four years old when Norm was fired from Saturday Night Live, and only 12 when he put out his lone comedy album, Ridiculous. There is a natural temptation to blame Macdonald—because of his diffident way of speaking and his love of gambling—for his own low profile. He doesn’t like letting evidence of special effort show in his comedy, so one assumes he doesn’t like to work very hard. Well, it’s more than an assumption: he has joked that he got into comedy because it seemed like the most congenial “of the unskilled labours”.
I find myself wondering whether Macdonald pushed himself back into a higher gear because of his friend Artie Lange’s bloody suicide attempt, which deprived us of a fast-improving talent in its prime. The fact is, though, that Macdonald has already taken several runs at creating TV and web projects where he sits behind a desk and cracks wise à la “Weekend Update”. Based on hints he has dropped about the conditions of his release from SNL, he probably has to be careful not to just do a straightforward “Weekend Update” clone. The sports theme of his new show seems like a Solomon-like solution, and if it succeeds, it could fill a nice little three-of-a-kind with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central franchises.
I hope Canadians are pulling for Norm. Of all the Canucks who have gone south to seek fame and fortune in the entertainment business, Macdonald is in many ways one of the most Canadian. I still remember hearing his vertiginously raised vowels for the first time on SNL and experiencing a rare shock of recognition. He carries one passport, a Canadian one. And he has one of the stronger theories out there about why Canadian comics enjoy disproportionate success in Hollywood.