Norm MacDonald’s stand-up is raunchy, often despicable stuff that deals in the darker side of news and taste. But the veteran comic is so matter-of-fact with his punchlines that it’s easy to forgive him, and see the brilliance in his bluntness. It takes a little getting used to, though, and MacDonald’s career has been defined by a series of misfires. He’s still best known for his five years at the Weekend Update desk on Saturday Night Live, a gig from which he was fired at the insistence of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer in 1998. His sitcoms Norm and A Minute With Stan Hooper, as well as his rambunctious 1998 feature Dirty Work, were enjoyable for fans, but failed to connect MacDonald with a larger audience. He’s spent recent years popping up in Adam Sandler movies, reprising variations of his Burt Reynolds impression on My Name Is Earl, and touring as a stand-up comic, but he’s shaking things up in 2011. Sports Show With Norm MacDonald premières April 12 on Comedy Central; it’s a commentary show in the vein of The Daily Show and Tosh.0, where MacDonald takes on the sports news of the week and appears in occasional sketches. He also appeared in his first-ever stand-up special, “Me Doing Stand-Up,” on Comedy Central in late March. Both projects tease a new era for MacDonald, one where he abandons any pretense of playing a character and tries, as he did on Weekend Update, to simply be himself. The A.V. Club chatted with MacDonald in the Comedy Central office about bombing onstage, returning to television, and what it takes to be truly original.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said you originally envisioned filming Sports Show live. What was the appeal?
Norm MacDonald: I just love live things. Then they can’t fuck with it and shit, you know? [Laughs.] They fucking talked me into doing a stand-up special, and I always resisted it, you know, because I hate editing. But they gave me a lot of control with editing. But even then, I still had to edit it. So the appeal of live is no editing, and they don’t know what the fuck I’m going to say.
AVC: What else don’t you like about televised stand-up?
NM: It never really makes me laugh. The only one I ever saw that I liked was Richard Pryor, and that was [shot on] film. I’ve just seen really, really funny guys, and if I didn’t know them, I wouldn’t know they were funny from the television. I don’t know what it does, it just sucks it away. It’s a live experience. It’s like when they fucking show—I know nothing about plays and shit, but sometimes they’ll show a play on TV, and it’s fucking shit, because you’re like, “What the fuck, am I supposed to think that’s a moon?” Like it’s a cardboard moon or some shit.
AVC: It’s easier to notice the imperfections.
NM: Yeah. You’re used to a TV show, and TV is just made for TV shows. It’s not made for live events, you know? So anyways, I was resistant to it, but I did it anyway.
AVC: How do you feel like it turned out?
NM: All right.
AVC: A decent representation?
NM: No, not really. Not really. Because they put lights on you and shit, and they light the audience. So it’s a completely false representation of what stand-up is. And the audience becomes a participant, rather than a true audience. That’s why I like stand-up, because the fucking audience can hate your guts sometimes and you can bomb, or they can like you. It’s always different. But on the TV, they’re participants. All of a sudden, they know when you stop talking, they’re supposed to laugh. It’s all different shit. That’s what I loved about Saturday Night Live, man. They didn’t warm up the audience. They didn’t fucking tell the audience to laugh, to Lorne’s credit, so sketches could completely bomb. In any other show, they would lather up the audience and force them to laugh at all the shit. The only two TV shows I saw do that, where they don’t warm them up and you can really bomb, was Saturday Night Live—and that’s why it gets a lot of heat, too. Obviously it gets criticism fairly, too. But a lot of it is because Lorne lets the audience decide and doesn’t force them to laugh.
And the only other one I ever saw was the old Letterman show. I loved doing that fucking show, because you could go do stand-up and see them fucking bomb on that show, and it was so funny. It was so real and true and shit. One time, I wrote a sitcom when I first started, and I was like, “Fuck, this whole fucking show is going to bomb. These jokes are all shit. We’re in trouble, boys.” And everybody’s like, “It’ll be all right.” I was even betting people, saying, “This fucking joke, they’ll boo.” And everything kills. They’re feeding pizza to the audience, and if a joke doesn’t work, they fucking do it over and they’re like, “Laugh when this guy stops talking.” And it’s all just fucking fake. I had a show that people thought used a laugh track. It wasn’t; it was the real audience going crazy after everything that resembled a joke, that they could technically call a joke.
AVC: For a lot of people, TV is this unattainable thing. Then once they’re in a TV audience, they have certain expectations for how it’s going to go. They’re primed before they go into the audience.
NM: Whereas with stand-up, they paid money and shit, and they’re your enemy, you know? I think that’s what an audience should be: just a fucking mob of motherfuckers that you’ve got to tame, and they can turn on you.
AVC: Do you feel that way even in comedy clubs, where audiences are familiar with stand-up through TV, and go simply to laugh?
NM: Some idiot crowds will laugh at any fucking shit, yeah. I don’t really like those types of crowds. But there are certain clubs that people go to laugh, so it doesn’t really matter what the fuck’s going on. There are these showcase clubs where 14 guys will go on in a row and people are laughing at everything, and I’m like—I can’t laugh that much. That’s so weird to me.
AVC: What do you get from bombing? What is that feeling like to you?
NM: It’s kind of fun. It’s interesting. Because the funny thing about it is, you don’t ever intend to bomb. You’re trying your best to make people laugh; then if you fail, they hate you. But your intent’s the same. It’s not like you’re trying to do evil to them. Like, if a fucking singer is bad, you just listen to his stupid song; you don’t start yelling at him. Or you wait for the next song. But as a fucking stand-up, you could kill for 20 minutes, but four minutes, you bomb, you’re dead. You cannot fucking recover. But I guess what I find funny is that when I’m bombing, I start smirking; then they fucking hate me. Because they think I’m making fun of them or something. But the reality of it makes me laugh. Comedy is surprises, so if you’re intending to make somebody laugh and they don’t laugh, that’s funny. It’s definitely funny watching. If I’m in the back of the room and a guy’s fucking bombing, that’s the fucking funniest thing ever. There’s nothing funnier than seeing that. So I have a little bit of an out-of-body experience where I enjoy the scenario, and I really do like seeing a crowd turn into a mob, and I do nothing to stop it. People can become really dangerous.
AVC: Is there a particular story that you’re thinking of?
NM: Sometimes it’s split. That’s when I like it best. Because a lot of people like you and a lot of people fucking hate you. And I don’t really know why, because I’m not very controversial. I’m not like fucking Bill Hicks, or whatever the fuck he did, I don’t do any of that shit. I just talk about retarded stuff. But for some reason, some people hate my fucking guts and then other people really like me, and sometimes they’ll fight, and that’s my favorite.
AVC: And you just stand there?
NM: They’re just fighting each other in the crowd. “You shut the fuck up.” “No, you fucking shut up, he’s not funny.” “I think he is!” [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s part of the comedy experience that most audiences will never see.
NM: [Laughs.] Exactly. And then I get to watch people argue about this pointless fucking shit I’m talking about. It’s not like I’m talking about fucking whatever-the-fuck, serious stuff. There’s nothing in there, nothing in my act that will spark any controversy content-wise, except the fact of whether it’s funny or not funny. [Laughs.] You don’t remember when you did good, so it can’t be that fun.
AVC: Is it possible for you to bomb on this new show?
NM: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, it would be more possible if it was live, but I won’t let them sweeten anything. Hopefully, you know? They fucking get these audiences from fucking somewhere, so they might tell them shit, I don’t know, they might tell them to laugh. It’s this audience-getting service you get to get the audience. But I’m trying to figure out a way around that. I was trying to figure out some how, some way to get people in there.
AVC: People who have no idea what’s happening?
NM: Yeah. That would be my dream. [Chuckles.] Like they’d want to go to another show.
AVC: What is it like coming back to play yourself again on TV?
NM: It’s great, man. It’s fucking awesome.
AVC: Ever since you were on SNL, every project you’ve done has involved playing a character very much like yourself.
NM: Yeah, I can’t act or do characters. So looking into a camera and doing jokes is the closest thing to stand-up that there is, so I’m fucking thrilled. It’s so humiliating, acting. “Acting.” Having to fall in love with a girl or some fucking thing, you know? Stuff I never ever wanted to do in my life. I never had any interest in sitcoms or motion pictures or anything like that.
AVC: So why did you do it?
NM: Because it’s fucking crazy shit. When I started in Canada, I just did stand-up. There’s no show business in Canada, so everybody just did stand-up and we all thought, “Oh, we’ll just keep doing stand-up.” And then I’m like, “There’s more work in the States.” Then I found out when I got to the States that they’ll take stand-ups and put them in these fucking TV shows and movies, and they suck. They’re no fucking good, because stand-up doesn’t train you to be an actor. It’s the opposite. The audience is antagonistic toward you. You’re not talking to anyone. In the old days, they put serious actors, real actors, in comedies, so it’d be Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or some fucking thing. It wouldn’t be George Jessel, or fucking Milton Berle wouldn’t be starring in a fucking comedy. But then I don’t know what happened. I think [Bill] Cosby was good, or Roseanne, and then they started giving sitcoms to stand-ups who are fucking awful. Even the [star of the] greatest sitcom ever, Seinfeld, can’t fucking act at all. If you watch that show and you didn’t know it was called Seinfeld, you’d think it was called The George Costanza Show.
It’s a very odd thing with Hollywood, where you do stand-up, you’re good at it, then they go, “How would you like to be a horrible actor?” Then you say, “All right, that sounds good. I’ll do that.” So I’m fucking excited about not having to pretend to know what I’m doing with acting, because it really is nerve-racking. It really is so humiliating. If it wasn’t so pointless and ridiculous, it would be more humiliating, you know? Also, if there weren’t so many people as bad as myself—equally untalented people—it would be even more humiliating.
AVC: In theory, stand-up would teach you to be a writer for TV, so you could break in that way.
NM: Yes. Stand-up has the best writers, because it’s the hardest writing by a million miles. If you think about it, and you can write an hour a year, you’re fucking amazing. You’re an amazing writer. And there’s only a handful of people who can do that. And if you can write an hour of great stuff, you’re like fucking Tolstoy. Nobody’s ever done that.
NM: Yep. He’s done a couple. Louis is great. But I don’t know how many you could do.
AVC: It must be hard to abandon jokes that you know you like, and that you know people will like.
NM: Not for me, man. I love abandoning shit, because I don’t like doing shit over and over and over. I’ve thrown so many jokes away. First of all, I’m not a good enough performer to pretend that “I just thought of this,” that kind of shit. It’s saying the same word over and over again, it loses its fucking meaning. Also, generally I don’t like traveling around saying the exact same thing. I don’t think that’s a very good thing to do with your life.
AVC: So when you tour, what do you do? Do you do roughly different acts each night?
NM: No, no, not different, but nowhere close to the same. I generally have a lot of fucking material, so I probably have like six or seven hours of good stuff, and about three hours of great stuff. I can pick and choose and shit. I generally have a real strong idea or a strong punchline, and I just try to get to it by rambling around, as I don’t like to memorize words. And I can’t be naturalistic enough to make it sound real. So instead, I just wander around aimlessly knowing that I’ll be funny enough with stream of consciousness until I get to the actual explosively funny part. [Laughs.]
AVC: Since you’re so averse to doing the same jokes over and over, how do you decide on the jokes you wanted for the hourlong special, where it can be immortalized in DVDs and whatnot?
NM: Well, I pick what I think is the better stuff, but I’m really bad with time. Like, I don’t know how long anything is, so that was the biggest [challenge]. And it wasn’t an HBO special, so it had commercials and shit. There was one joke that I had that was like, 11 minutes or something. I said it couldn’t be cut into two pieces, so I had to get them to agree to let me do 11 minutes straight without cutting to commercial. But there’s some places where I need lengthier time to explain myself, so people don’t get the wrong idea about some jokes.
AVC: At this point so far into your career, after having been reticent about doing TV and film, why are you going back to TV? And not just, say, doing more live stand-up shows?
NM: I don’t really like doing big stand-up. Whenever I do theaters, I don’t like ’em. I don’t think they’re right for stand-up. I’ve seen people in theaters, and it just doesn’t work, because you’re talking to the guy next to you the whole time. There’s too much fucking distance. And then arenas, they’re fucking crazy. I don’t know how the fuck that works.
AVC: So there’s no immediacy?
NM: Yeah. There’s no attention. In a stand-up club, you can capture them. But I’m not fucking Jimmy Swaggart. I can’t control a fucking theater. And I’ve been in theaters. Like Brian Regan, who I love—loved him so much more when he did the Improvs. And then in a big theater—nobody’s that good. I guess Pryor was that good. I never saw him in a theater, but I imagine he was that good, because he was such a phenomenal actor. But, there hasn’t been an original voice in stand-up since Sam Kinison.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
NM: Being original is near impossible. I remember a guy telling me, “I don’t like Howard Stern, but I think he’s original.” And I’m like, “Fucking Christ, how can you not like someone who’s original?” In my entire life in comedy, I’ve only seen Kinison, Stern, Saturday Night Live when I was a kid, and Letterman’s first talk show—those are the only original things I ever fucking saw in my whole comedian life. Everything else, you say, “Oh, I’ve seen that about 10 billion times.” There’s that saying, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” The inverse is kind of true. I know art, but I don’t know what I like. You get so immersed in it that nothing appeals to you.
AVC: I suppose it’s also that newer comics can be exposed to so much more nowadays, and it subconsciously influences them.
NM: I mean, Letterman, man, more than anybody, fucking influenced this culture like crazy. Fuck, it’s unbelievable how that guy changed everything—the way people talk to each other and shit. It’s amazing. Just in real life, you know? The fact that people like a secretary at your office will do a rim shot after your joke is so advanced. So those guys, young people come along, and they might think they’re doing something original, but it’s like reading some young novelist. You’re just like, “This is fucking Chekhov.” And maybe the guy doesn’t even realize it. It’s like when you hear an atheist writer like Christopher Hitchens or atheist comics like Bill Maher and shit, you’re like, “Fuck man, wasn’t that figured out in the Enlightenment? You think you just came up with this knowledge?” [Laughs.]
AVC: How important is it to you to be original?
NM: Kind of all-important. I’m not original, but I strive toward it as much as possible. I tried really hard on Weekend Update to do something that I considered original, which was, I tried to cut all cleverness out of the joke. I’ve always been very averse to innuendo, especially sexual. I find it cowardly or something. Like on Will & Grace, my mother will laugh at it, then I’m like, “You know what that joke’s about, right? Like, that one guy fucked that guy in the ass.” And then she’s aghast, and I’m like, “That’s what he just said when he talked about the tunnel! So why didn’t he just say it?” It always maddens me that people can laugh at sexual innuendo, then you say what it really means, and they’re like “Ah! I can’t hear that!” So on Update, the only real original thing was trying to take away the cleverness of the punchline and make it as blunt as possible. And then I tried to make the punchline as close to the setup as I could. And I thought that was the perfect thing. If I could make the setup and the punchline identical to each other, I would create a different kind of joke.
AVC: Do you feel like you were successful?
NM: I feel like I got fired for doing that. But now, I see that style of joke a lot, the same one that got dead silence back in the Update days. You know the funniest fucking thing? When they said, “What do you want to do for your sign-off for [Weekend Update]?” I said, “What if I said, ‘It’s the fake news,’ because it’s such a fucking retarded thing to say.” [Laughs.] I’ll just say ‘It’s the fake news,’ and I’ll sound like a fucking idiot, because it’s not fake, you know? It’s like what a child would call it. And then later, people would use that phrase, I would read it, and they’d describe The Daily Show as a “fake news” show, and I’m like, “No, no, no, that’s a mock news show. It’s not fake! You just didn’t understand when I was trying to say something retarded.”
AVC: You’ve been described as “misunderstood” and “underappreciated” in the press and by fans. What do those labels mean to you?
NM: Jeez, I don’t know. It probably means I’m good. [Laughs.] Richard Pryor is my favorite stand-up ever. I’ve shown people Richard Pryor who’ve never seen him, and most of them don’t like him. And Kinison, when he started out, he’d come to Canada when I was first starting, and he’d always [bomb]. And then when people told the audience that he was good, he was accepted after that. Oh, and I’m not comparing myself to those guys at all. But “misunderstood,” it’s pretty fucking easy to understand. I’m not doing anything very complicated.
I completely understand why a businessman would fire me from [Saturday Night Live]. Because he was seeing Jay Leno kill 10 minutes a night, doing his monologue with wall-to-wall laughs and applause, then I do 10 minutes a week to, sometimes, breathtaking silence. He’s just listening for the laughs. But fortunately, I don’t really care about success or money or shit. I could give a fuck. I hate fame. I hate being recognized, because I don’t know how to talk to people. I see Sandler, man, and I’m like fuck, goddamn, I don’t know how he does it, those people are fucking everywhere he walks. If you’re walking with him, all you hear behind is people whispering. It’s almost like being fucking stoned, or a paranoid schizophrenic or something, where you think people are talking about you, but they actually are talking about you. It’s fucking surreal. I don’t have any ambition. [Laughs.] I got my computer. The great thing about the computer is that you only need enough money to buy a computer and some food, and you’re all right. I don’t have to go to premières. I don’t have to go to people’s fucking parties. I don’t have to meet actors. I’m really blessed that I don’t have to do all that horseshit.