It’s 3 p.m.! Let The A.V. Club briefly make use of a few precious minutes of your rapidly depleting leisure time with some pop culture ephemera pulled from the depths of YouTube.
This article originally ran in 2018. The A.V. Club is re-promoting it in memory of Norm Macdonald, who died on September 14, 2021 at the age of 61.
Normally, it would be difficult to pin down the three funniest words that a comedian—especially one who’s been going for as long, and as brilliantly, as Norm Macdonald—has ever said. But, then, most comics aren’t as generous as Macdonald, who was once nice enough to boil so much of his subversive appeal into a single appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, creating one of the best moments, not just of his career, but in the grand pantheon of great/awkward/funny talk show appearances.
Chances are decent that you’ve seen the above clip—in which Macdonald ruthlessly eviscerates Carrot Top’s 1998 film Chairman Of The Board right in front of co-star Courtney Thorne-Smith—before, but if you haven’t watched it recently, it really is worth a second (or third, or fiftieth) look. For one thing, the pacing here is so exquisite that it feels practically scripted, as O’Brien—clearly struggling to be nice—does his best to help Thorne-Smith promote her movie, even as his disdain for prop-based comedy inevitably bleeds through. But then, like some sort of hilarious horror movie villain, Macdonald starts popping in from the sides, expressing increasing incredulity that Thorne-Smith ditched Melrose Place for this. (And O’Brien, who’s always walked the line between pop culture anarchist and traditional talk show host, can’t help but follow in his wake.) It reaches its climax when she attempts to tell O’Brien what the movie’s called, and Macdonald gleefully unleashes his own title, one of the meanest things anyone has ever said in the smiling, we’re-all-in-this-together history of late-night talk:
“You know what a good name for it’d be? Box-office poison!”
There’s an argument to be made that this segment is unnecessarily cruel to Thorne-Smith, a working actress whose laughter seems as aimed at looking like a good sport as it is actual, mortified amusement And yet, the moment is so transcendent that it’s hard not to give Norm a pass, as he condenses his entire “There are rules, and they’re dumb, and isn’t fun that I’m breaking them?” approach to comedy into a single handful of moments. It’s worth noting that he’s staring straight at O’Brien when he delivers the line, clearly intent on making his buddy break. And break he does, especially when Macdonald manages to top the first line with something even meaner, creating one of the greatest moments in Late Night’s storied history.