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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