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RIP Norm Macdonald: The King of Cringe Dad Humor

61 was too young for this comedy legend to pass. Here's why we'll miss him.

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Norm Macdonald, a comedian who lived to make people cringe, has died. He was just 61 years old. He’d been around in recent years, turning up here and there on TV (both talk shows and series), and still performing standup at clubs (even during the pandemic), but he didn’t seem quite as ubiquitous as he once was. But now we know why: for the past nine years, he’d been waging a battle – a very private battle – against the cancer that finally claimed him on September 14. He once pointed out that dying of cancer didn’t mean losing the battle. Since the cancer died along with the person, he preferred to think of the outcome as a draw.

No one could deliver a line like Macdonald, who was as dry as the Sahara and practically defined the term “droll.” Born in Canada, Macdonald started out as a writer (on Roseanne, etc.) and rose to fame on Saturday Night Live, amusing viewers with his impressions of Bob Dole, Burt Reynolds, Quentin Tarantino, and other familiar figures, and anchoring Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live from 1993-1998. He also toured relentlessly and turned up in films (Billy Madison, Dirty Work, Man on the Moon, and made cameos in several additional Adam Sandler movies), TV sitcoms, and other shows (Norm, The Norm Show, The Middle, The Orville), and toplined his own talk shows and podcast (Norm Macdonald Live, Norm Macdonald Has a Show). Best of all, though, he made a career of serving as a guest on talk programs. He slayed, every time, cracking up hosts from David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon to Dennis Miller, George Lopez, Larry King, and Howard Stern. Sometimes, frankly, Macdonald appeared to play to an audience of two, the host and himself. He’d crack jokes in an “It takes one to know one way” that only his peers truly appreciated; he was Letterman’s favorite comic, and no one prompted O’Brien to laugh harder than he did.

Macdonald was the king of the offbeat, speaking slowly, in an awkward cadence, and usually punctuated his anecdotes — which primarily consisted of stories or commentaries — with a sly smile and a twinkle in his eyes. For a master class in it, just watch an old Conan clip in which Macdonald takes three-plus minutes to tell a joke he swears was given to him by the driver assigned to bring him to the show. It’s about a moth that goes to a podiatrist and the bizarre conversation that ensues. Macdonald milks and milks and milks the joke, dragging it out. It’s not particularly funny, actually, just uncomfortable… and Conan begs him to get on with it. It’s literally eating up the segment’s allotted time. Then comes the punchline, and it’s utterly worth the wait, not just because it’s truly amusing (and it is), but for the priceless reactions of O’Brien, Macdonald, and the audience.

Macdonald didn’t exactly tell dad jokes, but he did tell jokes about dads. He sometimes shared stories about his own father, but with Macdonald there was no way of knowing if he was telling the truth, exaggerating, or telling an all-out lie. His time on SNL, particularly his anchoring duties on Weekend Update, led Macdonald to tighten his delivery. He couldn’t tell sprawling stories from a “news” desk. That journalist guise made him, depending on one’s point of view, funnier or meaner — or both. Case in point: O.J. Simpson. Oh, how he loved to jab at O.J. Simpson.

During one Weekend Update segment, he noted, “O.J. Simpson was in a different courtroom this week, attempting to regain custody of his two children. In order to prove to the court how much he loves his kids, O.J. pointed out, ‘How, they’re still alive, aren’t they?’” The audience collectively gasped and then alternated between groans and cheers. Macdonald’s nonstop needling of Simpson reportedly got him fired from SNL, as then-NBC boss Don Ohlmeyer was a Simpson friend and golf buddy. Macdonald also tweaked President Clinton in relation to his daughter, Chelsea. And he didn’t spare pop icon Michael Jackson. “Yes, it is true, Michael Jackson is going to be a father,” Macdonald began. “Already he has hired an entire staff of nannies, nurses, and extra bodyguard, which hopefully will protect the child from… Michael Jackson.”

Norm Macdonald was an un-careful (if we can use that word) and bold comedian. He was also just a funny, funny man who will be greatly missed. He is survived by his mother, Ferne, two brothers, and his adult son, Dylan.