Down the Rabbit Hole: Norm MacDonald & SNL

This is the first installment of a very loosely recurring column which will look at those TV nostalgia time-sucks we sometimes get trapped in — ones where we latch on to a story or event of the past and fall deeper and deeper into the YouTube well, often amazed what we can find if we only look. Then it’s 2 A.M., you haven’t prepared for that meeting or whatever tomorrow, but was it worth it? Damn right!

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In the mid-’90s — long before he took the second-shift between Darrell Hammond and Jim Gaffigan as modern day Col. Sanders — Canadian comic Norm MacDonald was hired to Saturday Night Live, where he made a name for himself on skits like “Celebrity Jeopardy” as Burt Reynolds aka Turd Ferguson (what…’s a funny name) and as Republican presidential also-ran Bob Dole. But it was when he ascended to the “Weekend Update” news desk that the cynical humor and sharp wit of MacDonald found its place.

One-time home to comedy legends ranging from Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd to pre-rightwing-douchery Dennis Miller, MacDonald brought a special form of edge — a dark, focused wry rage — which, when honed in on a target he found especially loathsome, could be unwavering. His two most frequent quarries were Michael Jackson (“noted homosexual pedophile”) and O.J. Simpson (he believed If I Did It was very much non-fiction…brutal, juice).

Here’s video of Norm at his finest, it’s audio-only, but it’s a particularly sharp installment where he has both his “favorites” in his crosshairs.

While he did once accidentally let loose a profanity when surprised by the noises his own body made, the sort of slip that once led to the dismissal of post-Golden Age anchor Charles Rocket, that’s not the offense that did him in. It’s never been quite clear why MacDonald was given the boot by NBC President Don Ohlmeyer. Many have speculated it had to do with the exec’s close relationship to that ex-football player who MacDonald relentlessly called out as a killer (O.J. if you’re keeping track). MacDonald has generally publicly accepted that Ohlmeyer simply found him “unfunny.” He was not wholesale removed from SNL, but as someone who didn’t feel at home in character roles, the removal from “Weekend Update,” for all practical purposes, signaled the end of his tenure at the fabled sketch show.

Almost immediately after getting Ohlmeyer’s call, MacDonald appeared on the late night show of perhaps the one famous figure that the comic’s impressions indisputably nailed. He dropped in on Late Show with David Letterman on January 17, 1998, and if not confessionally drunk, he was disarmingly honest and vulnerable in a way you rarely got to view comedians back in the day. Here’s his visit to Letterman, followed by the classic sketch they refer to at one point where MacDonald mercilessly skewers the host’s mannerisms and penchant for repetition.

At one point in the above, MacDonald gleefully relates a story about meeting his hero Bill Cosby, who would later call the Canadian comic’s dad, also a fan, when the Cos played Montreal. Sadly, that would prove a bit ironic as Cosby would turn out to be just the sort of comic-book villain that MacDonald would tear into during his “Weekend Update” days. He addressed that with Larry King recently.

Roughly a year later, MacDonald would get redress of sorts when with the wounds of the dismissal still surely hurting, he would be tapped by Lorne Michaels to host the October 23, 1999 show. In an awkward, yet somewhat satisfying, monologue he expressed his shrewd theory as to what the f was going on here. It was not a perfect Hollywood ending, and nothing was particularly learned, but that’s kind of the point for the combative comic who made his bones absurdly ruffling any feather he could find.

 

 

 

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