The Anti-Politics and Anti-Comedy of Norm Macdonald

From his early days honing his craft at comedy clubs in Canada to his later Saturday Night Live fame, Norm Macdonald was one of the most brilliant stand-up comedians of his generation.

Norm Macdonald performs at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2009. (Bobby Bank / WireImage via Getty Images)

When Norm Macdonald passed away last month at the age of sixty-one, most major outlets ran obituaries praising his long career in comedy. Many of us were reminded how funny Macdonald was and took to YouTube to dip into the deep reservoir of his material.

Notable figures of the online right did the very same thing, some of them claiming Norm Macdonald as one of their own. While they may have overstated their case, it can nonetheless be difficult to square appreciation for Macdonald’s comedy with his ambiguously conservative politics.

In an era when right-wing comedians claim to be “truth tellers” smashing liberal taboos to get laughs, Norm Macdonald considered himself no such thing. “I guess there came a time, and I missed it, when revealing everything started to be considered art,” he said in 2018. “But I’d always learned that concealing everything was art.” Macdonald didn’t enjoy political comedy and on stage spared his audience his personal opinions on political matters: “Let’s not get into this shit, man,” he told Marc Maron in 2011 when the topic of politics was broached, “I can see people not laughing now.”

Macdonald’s concealment was a smart call by a canny performer, but it was also a deference to his audience and their enjoyment, and perhaps we should see that as a kind of generosity. And without understanding the extent of this self-concealment — something many of the obituaries missed — we don’t fully appreciate Macdonald’s life, art, and politics.

The Early Years

The details of Macdonald’s childhood are hard to ascertain because he frequently fibbed about his background. Although he was born in 1959, he claimed to be four years younger than he was. He also maintained that he grew up “dirt poor” in “rural Ontario.” In reality, both of Macdonald’s parents were teachers — a firmly middle-class profession in Canada — on Valcartier military base, north of Quebec City. As revealed by Macdonald’s older brother Neil, a senior journalist with the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Macdonald’s rural experience consisted of summers at a grandparents’ farm near Avonmore, Ontario.

Although raised in a francophone province, Macdonald was resolutely anglophone (he said his father wouldn’t allow him to learn French). The family moved to Ottawa when Macdonald was in his teens. He attended high school there, later studying philosophy at Carleton University. In 1985, at the age of twenty-six, he began doing stand-up comedy.

Besides indulging Macdonald’s delight in tall tales of rural life, many of his biographical untruths were aimed at cultivating an unsophisticated persona. For years, he claimed to have not finished high school when in fact he graduated two years early. On Macdonald’s YouTube show, Norm Macdonald Live, guest Sarah Silverman called him out for his purposefully ungrammatical speech. “I like how you make the choice to say ‘acting good,’” she said. “You know that it’s ‘well.’ It’s a choice to be like ‘I’m going to be a regular guy and say ‘acting good.’” Macdonald looked uncomfortable and didn’t respond.

Macdonald wanted to seem relatable or nonthreatening, and it was for the sake of the audience. “The last character you want to be is a guy who’s smarter than the audience,” he said in another interview. “It has nothing to do with making people laugh.”

Working in Canada

In his 2016 book Based on a True Story, a heavily fictionalized memoir, Macdonald recounts working in construction before becoming a comic, and practicing jokes in his head to tell his coworkers at the card table. A more reliable source (his brother Neil) recalls Macdonald crewing a ship in the Caribbean, selling magic mushrooms on Vancouver Island, and working as an insurance underwriter. When Macdonald started performing at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa, he earned fifteen dollars for a five-minute set. If he could do two sets a night, he made more than he did in eight hours at his day job.

The Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs, which currently has nine locations across Canada, enjoys notoriety in comedy circles. The Ottawa venue opened in 1984, during the first wave of the chain’s expansion, taking advantage of the era’s boom in stand-up. Befriended by Yuk Yuk’s co-owner and cofounder, Mark Breslin, the young Macdonald could regularly perform, tour and earn a living in this relatively new culture industry in Canada. “It was a great place to start,” Macdonald said.

Comedians complained, however, about the chain’s employment practices, claiming they were denied work if they accepted outside gigs, and in 1991, Yuk Yuk’s was investigated by federal authorities for anticompetitive practices. Years later, Macdonald himself recounted how he was unable to perform at Yuk Yuk’s for several months after not accepting a spot on The Joan Rivers Show, where Breslin was a producer.

Canada’s relatively small cultural sector shaped Macdonald in other ways, too. ​“There were only two comedians in Ottawa where I started so I was very lucky,” he said in 2016. “I went from amateur to headliner in one month.” In another interview he mused, “I think that made us better stand-ups.”

Personally, I had no ambition beyond stand-up at all. There was no TV or movies in Canada. I realized when I went to the States that people were doing stand-up as a springboard to get to something else, a way to be seen, but in Canada there was none of that. […] None of us were going, “Hey, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie needs a new sidekick.”

Macdonald’s first big show, in his telling, was his performance at the 1986 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, the largest comedy festival in the world. “Because the Montreal festival was in Canada,” he said, “we had a quota to fill. I would have never of gotten on it if I was in the States.”

Macdonald played comedy clubs in New York and LA. After several spots on the short-lived Pat Sajak Show, in 1990 Macdonald made his first of many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. His set is still funny. In it he jokes about the The Dating Game: “The prize on that show? Another contestant. Talk about cheap!” After a stint writing for the sitcom Roseanne, in 1993 he was hired at Saturday Night Live (SNL), the next year occupying the coveted desk at “Weekend Update.”

Comedy and Anti-Comedy

Macdonald brought a more brazen style to “the fake news” as he introduced it each week on SNL. In his memoir, he says he and his writing team wanted to turn the segment “punk.” There certainly was an undercurrent of aggression in his flat, nasal voice, as if he had sublimated insult comedian Don Rickles, one of his heroes, into his reserved Canadian manners. The segment made Macdonald a star, but in 1998 he was fired by NBC president Don Ohlmeyer, as was widely reported at the time, for his scathing jokes about O. J. Simpson.

Perhaps more than punk, Macdonald’s comedy was influenced by the anti-comedy of the 1990s. In successful anti-comedy, the subversion of comic conventions provokes laughter through surprise, delight, or anxiety. Macdonald’s time at SNL was contemporaneous with the resolutely weird The Kids in the Hall (1989–94), as well as his fellow Ottawan (and later friend) Tom Green, who would inaugurate a new subgenre of comedy of outlandish public stunts on The Tom Green Show (1994–2000). Macdonald’s willingness to do unconventional material won him his reputation as a comic’s comic.

Macdonald reached the most sublime heights of anti-comedy in a 2008 roast of Bob Saget. Instead of the vulgar insults that were expected, Macdonald told a set of corny old-fashioned jokes that, as he later admitted in an interview, he had cribbed from a joke book his father had given him when he first began in comedy. “Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower. Yeah, a cauliflower!” Another: “There are times when Bob has something on his mind. When he wears a hat!” Once they clued into what was going on, the audience loved it.

Whatever his mischievous inclinations, Macdonald didn’t stray far from what he thought would make the audience laugh. “You just want little drops of subversion,” Macdonald said in 2018. “Letterman in the ’80s would be 90 percent a great talk show and then 10 percent subversion. If you get to 30 percent subversion, you’re in Andy Kaufman land.” For Macdonald, anything that lost your audience was a bad thing.

Politics and Anti-Politics

Macdonald claimed he didn’t care about politics. “I’ve got no opinions,” he began a 2017 stand-up special, “political and stuff.” He also criticized overtly political humor in a 2018 interview:

What I think happened was Jon Stewart, wonderful comedian, became a political figure of not inconsiderable weight in this country. […] He spawned . . . a bunch of fucking shit. Suddenly every talk show host had to be a political pundit.

Macdonald bristled at the idea that comedians were supposed to be anything other than entertainers. In another interview Macdonald joked, “Imagine in the old days, you go ‘Hey, what do you think about religion… LOU COSTELLO?’”

This wasn’t just a belief that comedy should not be political, it was also a kind of anti-politics, a belief that politics didn’t matter — perhaps not unsurprising for a comic who came of age at the end of history. With seemingly nothing material at stake, politics becomes a question of individuals and their rivalries, plotlines, and performances. “Politics are just gossip, really,” he told Tom Green in 2010. “It’s pretty easy to tell who to vote for.”

But undergirded by the despairing sense that nothing can change, anti-politics has been a fertile ground for conservativism — political figures on the Right have been better able to harness anti-political sentiment. Conservative figures seemed to attract Macdonald more and more over the years. In 2014, Macdonald wrote a series of tweets in support of Rob Ford after the right-wing mayor of Toronto was diagnosed with cancer. “I like Rob Ford,” Macdonald said in an earlier interview. “I wonder if he’s doing a Chris Farley.”

For the most part, Macdonald avoided overtly political topics in his comedy, but in 2000 Macdonald got into hot water on The View, where the hosts criticized him for having appeared in photos with then presidential candidate George Bush. “I love George Bush. He’s a good man, decent.”

When the hosts disagreed, Macdonald doubled down, claiming he figured at least Bush was better than Clinton who had “murdered a guy,” referring to the suicide of Vince Foster, a Clinton aide whose death was the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories (which Macdonald, he later clarified, did not believe). When Barbara Walters exclaimed, “You really have gone too far,” Macdonald dug in further, “I thought it was a matter of public record!” For all the outrage, everyone on stage was laughing.

In later years, Norm identified himself as Christian, talking about a desire for faith and his fear of death. On Last Comic Standing, where he was a judge in 2015, he took umbrage at a contestant’s satirical comments on the Bible.

In 2018, he was widely criticized for an interview in which, commenting on recent controversies involving comedians, Macdonald claimed that “victims didn’t have to go through” what Louis CK and Roseanne Barr experienced. Macdonald then botched an apology on The Howard Stern Show. The unwelcome attention marred the launch of his Netflix talk show, which was not renewed for a second season.

Class and Work

Macdonald never quit performing. His latter output never surpassed the popular success of his years on SNL. His ABC program Norm ran for three seasons, while another on Fox, A Minute with Stan Hooper lasted six episodes. These shows were funnier than the average network fare, but the bright lights and canned laughter mixed uneasily with Macdonald’s subversive sensibilities.

His feature film star vehicle, Dirty Work (1998), was neither a commercial nor critical success, although it has since found a dedicated fan base. Macdonald often dismissed his own body of work: “I’m really proud of my stand-up,” he told Tom Green in 2014, “and I’m ashamed of almost everything else.” (After a beat he added “and I like this interview.”)

His love of stand-up was one reasons that at the age of fifty-eight, as reported in the New York Times, Macdonald was still on the road forty-four weeks of the year. Another reason was he couldn’t afford to stop. According to his own stories, on three separate occasions Macdonald “lost everything” to gambling — a compulsion he battled all of his adult life.

His down-on-his-luck demeanor — however spurious — made the celebrity Macdonald more relatable and, at times, pitiable. Macdonald did not have the aura of a star. He talked frequently about hating Hollywood parties. He complained about power dynamics in the industry where he felt belittled and exploited. “The head writer is never the funniest writer,” he observed.

He’s the political guy who can talk to the network. And naturally the actual comedy writers are isolates and not very good socially to make the money, but they tell the jokes that the rich guys use.

Macdonald’s healthy disdain for bosses was endearing. In Dirty Work, the protagonists open a “Revenge for Hire” business. Their first two contracts involve getting back at bad employers. Reevaluating his dismissal from SNL years later, he mused, “I think the whole show was tired of me not taking marching orders.”

At times, Macdonald’s jokes reveal a comedian with populist economic instincts. When Tom Green brought up the subject of tech billionaires, Macdonald quipped: “A billion dollars? That’s more than my dad made in his lifetime!” Veteran broadcaster Larry King bragged about having just met Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico. “A good family man,” said King, “a humble kind of guy.” Macdonald broke in: “Yet bloodthirsty.”

The Consummate Guest

What turned out to be the last act of Macdonald’s career began in 2013 with his YouTube talk show, Norm Macdonald Live, where his shambling presence and comic eviscerations of cohost Adam Eget were relentlessly entertaining. His impressive repository of jokes and stories, both polished and spontaneous — honed by his decades of performance — worked well in the loose online format.

His late career popularity was fueled by YouTube in another way, too — the site enabled the circulation of his apparently infinite appearances, over the course of three decades, on talk shows, radio shows, and podcasts. The consummate guest, Macdonald’s meandering stories and non sequiturs were consistently funny, his mischievous instincts slicing through the vacuity of the format to produce a more sincere sociality.

At its best, the talk show was an early example of parasocial televisual media — a replication of social experience that we gravitate to more and more in an era of intense loneliness. Norm Macdonald’s gift for parasociality is the reason why so many felt a connection to him, despite what he kept concealed — or, perhaps, because of it.