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Over the course of his career, Canadian comedian Norm MacDonald's wise-cracking, smart-ass humor hasn't always been warmly received. He was deemed "anything but comedy" by the University Of Iowa after an "inappropriate" stand-up performance in 1997 and, later that year, abruptly kicked out of the Weekend Update anchor chair on Saturday Night Live after NBC executives had had their fill of O.J. Simpson, Frank Stallone, and "Michael Jackson is a pedophile" jokes. Despite such objections, MacDonald has resisted pandering to mainstream audiences or compromising his humor to please the companies that hire him--naturally leading him back to mostly performing stand-up at the usual comedy clubs. While most identify MacDonald with his unrivaled impressions of 1996 presidential hopeful Bob Dole and Celebrity Jeopardy! regular Burt Reynolds, his mostly ignored 1998 comedy Dirty Work has won more fans as time has passed, and two sitcoms, ABC's The Norm Show and FOX's A Minute With Stan Hooper, have kept him somewhat in the spotlight. Most recently, MacDonald has been prepping The Norm MacDonald Reality Show for FX, a faux-reality show in which a fictional version of himself experiences a rebirth in his career after he accidentally commits murder. Until then, the comedian has returned to stand-up touring—he's set to perform at Capitol City Comedy Club tonight, May 14, and tomorrow, May 15. Before the shows, The A.V. Club chatted with MacDonald about the future of his career, his fascination with death, and his sparkling reputation as an unpredictable talk-show guest.
The A.V. Club: What's the status of The Norm MacDonald Reality Show?
Norm MacDonald: Nothing. I’m just waiting. Well, there’s a pilot written and there was half a pilot made, but that got abandoned and then we had to go to another place. So much in LA is waiting. It’s so irritating. That’s what’s good about stand-up. You can go away and you don’t have to sit and wait by your phone. But it is very frustrating.
AVC: You were a guest on Conan O’Brien’s show during his last week. Did you guys bond over getting screwed by NBC?
NM: [Laughs.] It was funny because Conan and I started out the same year. I started on Saturday Night Live the same time Conan started on Late Night. We just had a relationship because I would be upstairs in the studio and whenever he couldn’t get a guest—which was often back then since he was just starting out—he would just call me down to be a guest. So I approached it different from other talk shows, because I never had any advanced warning. I would just yammer on, try to kill time. With Letterman, I’d always be very constructed and kind of frightened. But with Conan, because I knew him, I had no fear. It was a completely different dynamic. But that last show was pretty sad, mostly because the staff all had to relocate and now is cut dry.
AVC: Conan’s specifically mentioned you as one of his favorite guests. Why do talk show hosts like having you on so much?
NM: Well, I don’t go on shows to promote anything, for one thing. When I was young, I’d watch guys on The Tonight Show, Buddy Hackett, guys like that, where all they’d be is funny. Later, I remember, on Late Night with Letterman, I remember he’d have Jay Leno and Richard Lewis as first guests and the entire point was to entertain and be funny, and I think talk shows have kind of lost that. It’s mostly about super famous people telling long, dull stories about their swimming pools or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: You also seem to like to crack jokes when you’re sharing the couch with another guest.
NM: It’s very hard to just sit and listen to two people talking when you’re literally 6 inches away from them. So whenever I think of something, I just say it. Conan’s the only one with a couch. But it’s actually sort of the place where you can be funniest, because you can just cut in whenever you think of anything funny, rather than being the focus of the interview. I just hate plugs. It just doesn’t seem entertaining to me. I’ve never plugged anything in my life on a talk show ever. I understand people use that vehicle. It’s just not very entertaining.
AVC: Do other guests ever reprimand you for butting in during their interview with the host?
NM: [Laughs.] Well it’s become that they’re warned about me. Sometimes they’ll come on sort of defensively and freaked out, because I think someone tells them, "Oh watch out. Norm might say something." So sometimes they end up immolating themselves, because they keep looking for the broadside.
AVC: Have you ever considered being a talk show host?
NM: No, I never have. It’s been offered to me, but I have very little curiosity about people in general. When I watch Letterman, he’s so amazing at feigning interest in things I can’t imagine having any interest in. I’d interview people that I was interested in, but it’d be very difficult for me to interview a 25-year-old actress.
AVC: So you’d just be bored to death?
NM: Yeah, unless it was very specific. Like I just bought a bunch of camera and editing stuff, so when I go on the road now, I’m going to seek out people who interest me and talk to them and tape them and just see what it leads to.
AVC: Would these be people on the street or other comedians?
NM: No, I’m not interested in other comedians, and I’m always bored by regular people. It’s like on Larry King, they go to callers’ questions. Those are never good. The tweets are not good and Larry can never think of a better question.
AVC: Do you have an affinity for Larry King?
NM: He kind of fascinates me. He’s seen everything, so he’ll out of the blue be like, [impersonating Larry King] "Your son died when he was six. Paul Newman told me you never got over it." He can be just so passionless. This insane corpse talking to people. Also, he looks like a million-year-old. He’s 72 or something. [He's 76. —ed.] And also he prides himself on knowing nothing about the guests, which is kind of cool because sometimes he’ll ask very innocent questions that are interesting, but more often than not, it'll be like how he had [Jerry] Seinfeld on and he asked, "How did it feel when you were canceled?"
AVC: How much SNL are you watching these days?
NM: I watch all of it. I’ve watched it ever since it began and I still watch it.
AVC: What do you think of the show today?
NM: I think it’s very good. I particularly like Fred Armisen. It’s just different incarnations. Like this incarnation is a very good acting cast. They’re very good at acting, but they’re missing Adam Sandler, Chris Farley. They’re missing a gigantic, explosive force of nature type–like [John] Belushi, or Chevy [Chase] even. They’re more like when Dana [Carvey] and Phil Hartman did it, where they’re very good comic actors that work well as a cast, rather than singular explosive stars.
AVC: What about Weekend Update?
NM: It’s OK. It’s pretty good. It’s very difficult with Weekend Update because of The Daily Show, basically. The Daily Show has rendered it tough to do. It has to follow 30 monologues they’ve already done that week on talk shows. So Weekend Update is a pretty tough gig.
AVC: In 1997, you said in an interview that SNL will be the funniest stuff you'll ever do. Do you still believe that?
NM: Well, SNL is the closest to stand-up. It’s live. You can bomb on it, which on television is pretty rare. The only other show I remember is the original Late Night With David Letterman where comics could actually bomb on that show. I always liked that, because they didn’t lather up the audience. It’s more exciting than the rest of television in which you get the idea at home you sort of feel alienated that everyone’s laughing at gibberish the entire time.
AVC: You can bomb on it?
NM: I mean you can have a sketch on Saturday Night Live with no laughs. The rest of TV commands the audience to laugh. Saturday Night Live doesn’t warm up the audience or tell them to do anything. So they’re a true audience, rather than a participant.
AVC: Why don’t you think you can ever write something as funny as your SNL material?
NM: Well I can, but there would never be a vehicle as good as SNL, because SNL just allowed me the freedom to–which probably cost me my job by the end–it allowed me the freedom to do anything I wanted to. There’s no other place in television that allows you that. Even with stand-up, right now they want me to do a special and I’m mulling over because they're going to edit it. I don’t like the editing process. I don’t like the lack of creative control.
AVC: Supposedly your new stand-up includes some morbid subjects, like cannibalism and murder. Why are you focusing on that?
NM: I am kind of fascinated with death and it may have leaked in my stand-up [Laughs]. I haven’t considered it, but it probably does. I only did the cannibalism stuff a month ago. It’s because I had watched a big long show on the Discovery Channel about the history of cannibalism, so I got it in my head. I guess because I read a lot of stuff on murder, death, and so forth, it probably leaks into my jokes.
AVC: Why do you enjoy reading so much about death?
NM: It’s just interesting to me because it’s a big fear in everyone’s cortex. I can’t get enough, just like other people are obsessed with sex, I’m obsessed with death.
AVC: Are your fans perplexed by that kind of material?
NM: I guess as I’ve progressed through stand-up, I probably deal with issues that are more central to people’s lives than earlier stuff, which was pretty frivolous. This stuff is probably a little bit more stuff that I think about that other people might avoid thinking about, maybe. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s certainly not depressing to me. I think it’s the most important interest a person can have: their life, their death. Everything else is rather uninteresting next to that so that’s probably why it preoccupies me and it leaked into my stand-up with me knowing it.
AVC: Another bit that seemed to go over people's heads was the Bob Saget roast.
NM: There was nothing outrageous in that at all. It was the opposite of outrageous, but a lot of people didn’t get it, even though it was a simple grade- two arithmetic concept. People thought I was mentally ill or something. It just occurred to me, because I didn’t really want to do it and Bob kept asking me to do it. And the producer told me it should be shocking. I watched a tape of it and saw everything on it was vulgar and filthy, so I thought the only shocking thing to do was the antithesis of that. So it’s pretty simple.
AVC: What do you want to do with the rest of your career?
NM: I’m happy doing stand-up, but I’ll probably do a television show eventually. If not, I’ll delve into this Internet world and decide best how to harness it. What I like best about it is the independent movie style and the ability to just be completely reckless within that world. I like that a lot. I just have to acquaint myself with technology.
AVC: So no more leading film roles?
NM: No. There’s no chance. I would do small roles in my buddies’ movies, but other than that, it’s not much fun.
AVC: How about writing films?
NM: I might write a movie as long as it’s an independent movie that I have control over. I've got a western comedy I've written. It's like the same way Blazing Saddles was a parody of western movies, this would be a parody of modern western movies. It’s very violent. They say blood and comedy don’t mix, but I don’t believe that. I want to make a really brutal western that’s also a comedy.
AVC: I’ve never heard that about "blood and comedy" before.
NM: Oh yeah, it’s an old maxim in Hollywood. You don’t want to introduce blood. You don’t want to introduce death unless it’s done in a very campy way, like Throw Momma From The Train. Unless it has a happy, un-realness to it. So this is going to be like Unforgiven, but funny. The idea is to make the blood so bloody that people are finally reduced to having to laugh. That’s the key. I know it’ll work. I just have to find someone to agree with me.