Friday, March 25th, 2011

On Norm Macdonald, the Greatest Talk Show Guest Ever

Tomorrow at 11:30pm, Comedy Central will air a one-hour stand-up special (surprisingly, a first for the comedian), titled Norm Macdonald: Me Doing Stand-Up. And in a few weeks, Sports Show With Norm Macdonald will premiere on Tuesday, April 12. Norm is also on Twitter these days, sending out a truly odd mix of jokes, observations, and stream-of-conscious updates. His live-tweeting during the Oscars made it actually worth watching. Here’s what he had to say during one of the acceptance speeches for The Social Network. All I have to say is… good golly, am I glad that Norm Macdonald is back.

For the short five seasons he was on SNL, Weekend Update with Norm Macdonald was consistently the best thing on the show. I still chuckle when I think of that picture he would always use of Frank Stallone — one of the funniest non-sequitur punchlines ever. (Stallone, as it were, is actually pretty funny himself and often makes for a great guest on the Adam Carolla podcast). Add to that his impressions of Burt Reynolds, Larry King, David Letterman and Bob Dole, and it was easy for Norm to win me over as my favorite cast member. But he’s been missing for the past couple of years, no doubt gambling away his savings at the poker table of some remote Canadian casino.

So with all of this Norm activity going on now, I got thinking about the Norm of yore. Specifically, I got thinking about what may very well be my favorite bit of Norm ever — his guest spot on Late Night with Conan O’Brien on May 15th, 1997. It’s so good, I feel it should go down as one of the greatest talk show appearances ever, right up there with Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, and Joaquin Phoenix. But what makes Norm's appearance different, however, is that it's sustained. There was no scandal preceding him, or a shock-value moment like the Barrymore flash to cement itself into people's minds. Norm hijacked that episode of Late Night from the moment he walked out and it lasted through three segments, culminating in a moment so good, it rivals all the legendary moments that have ever made people laugh during late night TV, right up there with the infamous Ed Ames tomahawk incident on Carson.

I will revisit Norm’s appearance once or twice a year and it never stops being funny. A perennial favorite on my YouTube account, I will often queue it up for friends who’ve never seen it and Norm always brings down the house. Is Norm Macdonald the Greatest Talk Show Guest Ever? After watching these clips, it’s hard not to feel that way. But one thing’s for sure, he kills when he’s with Conan. During the final weeks of Late Night, Norm made his last appearance and fired off a joke that turned out to be more prescient than anyone could have expected, chiding that Jay Leno had "outfoxed" Conan again. This was made even funnier by the fact that it was basically the first thing he said after sitting down.

This hits on one of the many things that make Norm the performer that he is — a carefully constructed and concerted effort to not give a shit. I suppose you could put it this way: "oh that Norm, he's not afraid to say anything if he thinks it will get a laugh. Crackwhore… and so on." But I think it’s the opposite. Norm is at his best when he's saying things that shouldn’t get laughs. And it’s amazing how he’s able to pull off such a rebellious commitment to anti-comedy, while at the same time having this broad, man of the people sensibility that has mass appeal.

I would recommend watching the above clips in order. But if you only have time to see the main event, watch the 3rd clip. Just know that by the time Coutney Thorne Smith sits down, Norm has completely taken over the show. He then proceeds to take what would otherwise be a bland segment and turns it into pure comedy gold.

Ben Worcester thinks Norm Macdonald has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle… ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds.

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  • http://sorryyourheinous.tumblr.com/ sorry your heinous

    It's so weird that this is Norm's first stand-up special. Or, rather, weird that I hadn't noticed because he is so incredible in every other type of TV appearance, from his spots on Conan, to the ESPYs, to the Bob Saget roast (one of my all time favorite things). Just last night I revisited his Moth Joke from when Conan was hosting the Tonight Show and, even knowing the joke, having seen it when it aired and many times online, it still made me laugh like few things do.

  • dntsqzthchrmn

    > when he's saying things that shouldn’t get laughs


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kris-Collins/1016633273 Kris Collins
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kris-Collins/1016633273 Kris Collins

    "… while at the same time having this broad, man of the people sensibility that has mass appeal."

    Just like Letterman, probably why they have such great rapport. Brilliant dudes who aren't emotionally invested in being perceived as such.

    Norm on Letterman, right after he got canned from SNL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tudRETrphxk

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      Totally agree RE: Letterman… I am gonna check that link out.

  • HerooftheBeach

    That video where he humiliates Courtney Thorne-Smith is one of the best things he's ever done, but I hadn't seen the first two parts in a long time!

    Also totally amazing about his last appearance on Late Night was when he joined Conan and Gordon Ramsey during the cooking segment. The two of them have an amazing (violent) chemistry together and I would so totally watch a series starring the two of them. Norm knows exactly how to cut through Ramsey's bluster.
    (Conveniently flipped horizontally to make Conan look like a weird alien.)

    • HerooftheBeach

      Also note the lovely passive aggressive way Norm wipes off his hands on Gordon's shirt at the end. Genius.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      Props on another great supplemental link.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      The Courtney-Thorne Smith interview may be my favorite moment in a talk show interview ever.

  • steakm


    btw coulndt agree more, norm is the best! looking fwd to his show

  • Kim L

    Norm is my favourite… seriously, I would hit that so hard.

  • http://greathouseofhumor.blogspot.com Greathouse of Humor
  • http://greathouseofhumor.blogspot.com Greathouse of Humor

    "…has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle… ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds."
    I was just thinking of this joke today and how friggin' awesome it is.

    Thank you for writing this piece, Ben. This Conan interview alone deserves the attention.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      Right on, man.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

    I really hope Norm Macdonald's Comedy Central sports show doesn't mean the end of The Onion's Sportsdome. Don't get me wrong, I love Norm. He was way ahead of his time at SNL and his talk show appearances are ridiculous, but Sportsdome is too good to be knocked off by a competitor on the same channel (how the hell does Comedy Central do that in the 1st place?).

    The only problem is, most comedy nerds are the opposite of sports nerds so not enough people from both aisles realize how pitch-perfect a parody it is of Sportscenter.

    I caught My Name Is Earl on syndication this week and Norm was playing the son of Burt Reynold's deceased character on the show. Turd Ferguson lives!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Filup-Molina/2000761 Filup Molina

    Norm refusing to allow Conan to record the local promos… so freaking hilarious: