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Norm Macdonald’s lie of a memoir is a rejoinder to oversharing comedians

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Norm Macdonald promotes his book on The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Norm Macdonald promotes his book on The Tonight Show. (Photo: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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Based On A True Story: A Memoir

Author: Norm Macdonald
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

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“There is the way things are and then the way things appear, and it is the way things appear, even when false, that is often the truest. If I am remembered, it will always be by the four years I spent at Saturday Night Live and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from that show. As long as SNL exists, then so do I.”

This passage, a quasi-philosophical koan followed by starkly honest self-appraisal, arrives near the end of Norm Macdonald’s Based On A True Story—a book that both isn’t a celebrity memoir and is, arguably, the best celebrity memoir ever written. Describing the people who attend his stand-up shows these days, Macdonald muses that it’s likely because they remember him “dressed as a young Burt Reynolds, insisting Alex Trebek refer to me as Turd Ferguson.” It’s a brusque assessment of his career, which (devotees of his cult film Dirty Work aside) has more or less been defined by that 1993-1998 run, where Macdonald’s dry, sardonic delivery at the Weekend Update desk both influenced a generation and made a lot of people hate his guts. As he writes about those audiences he leaves “happily disappointed” by not whipping out old bits about Frank Stallone and the Germans—maintaining, “I’ve been lucky” to have earned those fans in the first place—the effect is unexpectedly moving. Like the best of Macdonald’s comedy, it’s blunt in its honesty. It would make for a fine eulogy. And it takes up all of two pages.

You get the sense that Macdonald, pressed to write his life story, probably would have turned in those two pages and been done with it. (Judging by his repeated complaints about the burden of finishing his book, he surely would have been happy to do so.) Instead, Macdonald just made up a bunch of stuff. What precedes and follows this section is a big old pile of malarkey, as Macdonald might say in his folksy, door-to-door salesman patter, and most of what occurs across his book’s 237 pages is plainly, unapologetically false. Or at least, it is a truth so distorted by outlandish embellishment or winking irony, it’s near impossible to discern what, if any, kernel still remains.

As Macdonald has said repeatedly, Based On A True Story isn’t really a memoir, despite what its cover might say. It’s a novel—and in its most basic distillation, it’s a raucous, Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip involving a sleazy hack comic and his put-upon assistant (Macdonald’s podcast cohost Adam Eget), embarking on a suicidal mission for one last big score in Vegas. Along the way, Macdonald recalls his “life story” in a series of tall tales, fueled by narcotics, Wild Turkey, and a staunch refusal to let anyone know who he actually is.

In his retelling, Macdonald’s boyhood is a Steinbeckian tragedy set on “a hundred acres of Godforsaken hard and unyielding soil” in rural Canada, and starring a salty hired hand named Old Jack. He veers briefly into Jack London territory to recount taking a terminally ill, Make A Wish child deep into the Newfoundland tundra to fulfill his dream of clubbing a baby seal. Throughout these literary homages are tormented interjections from Macdonald’s “ghostwriter” Charles Manson (“not that one”), a Beat Generation almost-was who agonizes over his own sorry lot and his soulless, boring schmuck of a subject, then admits to crafting these fictions just to fulfill his word count.

Along the way, Macdonald zooms past all the expected signposts of his career, edging just close enough for you to recognize them before mockingly jerking the wheel. Of his days on SNL, for example, he writes about sealing his spot in the cast by offering Lorne Michaels “seven grams of government-grade morphine.” Is it true, at least, that Macdonald was infatuated with his fellow cast member, Sarah Silverman? Hard to say. His story of attempting to woo her spirals quickly into recalling how he hired a contract killer to take out her then-boyfriend, Dave Attell, before striking a bargain with the devil himself. Anyone looking for a juicy backstage peek at 30 Rockefeller Center will leave feeling not only disappointed, but slightly derided.

It’s a familiar sensation to anyone who’s followed Macdonald’s comedy. Macdonald specializes in this kind of deadpan put-on, whether delivering the “fake news,” rattling off corny one-liners at the roast of Bob Saget, or telling Conan O’Brien “The Moth Joke”—a Russian realist novel in miniature, which he faithfully transcribes here, that ends nearly four minutes later in a punchline straight out of Bazooka Joe. As Macdonald repeatedly sets the reader up with the expectation of gossip—for example, promising to tell them about the real Rodney Dangerfield, then revealing that his secret burden was he never got any respect—the book becomes a similarly deconstructive joke about our own, risible fascination with the celebrity tell-all.

“I’m no fan of phoney-baloneys. I like a man who is direct; I like a man who is honest and plainspoken,” Macdonald writes amid his litany of overwrought lies, and therein lies the great comic juxtaposition of his persona. So many of Macdonald’s best moments—on Update, where the punchlines often boiled down to “Marion Barry loves crack,” or telling poor Courtney Thorne-Smith her new Carrot Top movie was probably spelled Chairman Of The B-O-R-E-D—are based in comedy as the truth, bluntly stated. As he told The A.V. Club in 2011, Macdonald’s ideal joke would be to “make the setup and the punchline identical to each other.” In an industry built on so much extraneous cleverness and other horseshit, simply telling the truth counted as something subversive and new.

Even as it’s buried beneath its own, many layers of horseshit, Macdonald’s book also tells a frank and funny truth: Most celebrities are boring, and anyone expecting insight from them is a sucker. It’s a pointed thesis in an age when so much of our comedy, especially, is tied up with the deeply personal—not just in recent memoirs-cum-therapy sessions by people like Steve Martin, Tina Fey, or Amy Schumer, but on stages, in the garage pews of Marc Maron’s WTF, and across myriad Netflix and FX series, where the laughs are often more knowing than gut-busting. And Macdonald, for one, hates it. “Confessional comedy is the worst kind of comedy I’ve come across,” he recently told Vulture, dismissing (if not specifically naming) the wave of stand-ups and Louie-derived shows that “forget about being comedies” and instead mine humor from humiliation and pain. “In any art, the key is concealing, it’s not revealing,” he later added to Esquire.

Not that Macdonald doesn’t have his own truths to reveal; it’s just that he prefers withholding them until the moment they have their greatest power. Based On A True Story is, in its own discursive and dissembling way, also a confession of his lifelong struggles with gambling addiction, which he once described (on Maron’s WTF, no less) as having cost him “everything I’ve ever had” three times over. Here he talks fleetingly of the “profound sadness” and emptiness of wasted time it’s left inside him; in Macdonald’s story, there is always that looming specter of loss and blown opportunity. “I can see that my life since SNL has been a full sprint, trying with all my might to outrun the wolves of irrelevancy snapping at my heels,” he writes, yet he never tries to turn any of this into pity or self-deprecating gag. At every turn, he refuses that kind of gentle, mawkish laughter.

Which, come to think of it, is probably why he doesn’t have one of those TV shows, and why that threat of irrelevancy seems so ever-present. Geoff Edgers’ recent Washington Post profile poses the eternal question of why Macdonald isn’t currently on the air, starring in both sitcoms (The Norm Show) and talk shows (Sports Show With Norm Macdonald), yet never quite flourishing the way the deep reverence of fans and fellow comedians would suggest. Edgers’ article suggests it’s partly Macdonald’s refusal to play the industry game, as when he tanked a recent FX pilot by rewriting its script at the last minute behind the back of his collaborator, late Simpsons’ co-creator Sam Simon. It might also be his own oddly egotistical yet defeatist attitude that he’s funnier than just about anyone, but that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. There’s also the not-insignificant issue of Macdonald’s open distaste for acting: “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,” he told The A.V. Club years ago.

But it’s also because Macdonald refuses to be the kind of oversharer we’ve begun to expect, even demand of our comedians—accessible, vulnerable, and yes, confessional. After all, Macdonald doesn’t even use Twitter like he’s supposed to. Instead of cranking out pithy observations all day for free to shore up his personal “brand,” he’ll spend hours tweeting granular play-by-plays of golf games. When he does open up—offering poignant remembrances of Robin Williams, or telling a fascinating story about hanging out with Bob Dylan—he’ll just delete it all hours later, leaving behind only awed eyewitnesses and white-space-scarred blogs to piece together the tale. And now he’s written an entire memoir that barely even unburdens himself of a deeply private struggle. It’s like he doesn’t even want to be famous.

Actually, he doesn’t: “I don’t really care about success or money or shit. I could give a fuck. I hate fame,” he once told us. That shrugging commitment to keeping the world at an arm’s length of ironic detachment is, of course, what makes Norm Macdonald funny. And the world’s befuddlement—or outright apathy—in return demonstrates why he’s probably right that, yeah, these days being funny isn’t enough. Based On A True Story seems unlikely to change that attitude on either side, even after the current publicity blitz or the litany of endorsements from Macdonald’s famous, occasionally oversharing friends (including David Letterman, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Adam Sandler, and Louis CK, who also wrote the foreword). Instead, Macdonald will continue to do what he loves most—stand-up comedy—for all those people waiting to shake the hand of Turd Ferguson.

Nevertheless, he’s created a hilarious, innovative work, at a time when the work is only part of what makes a comedian successful. Maybe someday, when no one remembers Norm Macdonald or SNL (let alone any of us), future readers will rediscover and embrace it as a purely comic novel, like a 21st-century Tristram Shandy. Until then, fans can be grateful that Macdonald has written the rare celebrity memoir that, through so much blatant falsehood, presents the truest picture of himself.


Purchasing Based On A True Story via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.