Saturday Night’s Children: Norm Macdonald (1993-1998)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Watching today’s chipper incarnation of Weekend Update, it’s easy to forget that the segment was once helmed by the smarmy cynicism of Dennis Miller, the absurdity of Kevin Nealon, and Norm Macdonald, whose delivery both on Update and in all his sketches came tinged with his trademark dry sarcasm. Macdonald’s scathing coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 made Update wildly popular during an otherwise struggling era of SNL and groomed unsure audiences for the satiric late-night news style that would become popular after The Daily Show’s 1996 debut.
The middle child of three sons, Norm Macdonald grew up in Quebec City. Both of his parents were teachers, but that didn’t stop him from dropping out of high school at age 15, then again later from Algonquin College in Ottawa, where he briefly majored in television broadcasting. After shifting his focus to standup, his first big break came at the 1987 Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, which led to writing jobs on The Dennis Miller Show and Roseanne in 1992, and SNL a year later.
Alongside Jay Mohr and Sarah Silverman, Macdonald was brought on as a season 19 featured player. A standup at heart, he shied away from recurring characters save for Stan Hooper, a lazy, apathetic anti-character who showed up as a coma patient, game show contestant, newscast interviewee, and fortune teller customer in different one-off sketches. His lanky frame and crotchety cackle of a voice lent weird gravitas to several impressions including Larry King, Bob Dole, David Letterman, Andy Rooney, and, most famously, ’70s-era Burt Reynolds in the “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches, which Macdonald first created simply as an excuse to perform as Reynolds, complete with ‘stache, bolo tie, and great clipped delivery: “Yeah, that’s right. Turd Ferguson. It’s a funny name.”
Macdonald’s real SNL success came with his turn as Weekend Update anchor in 1994, where his bitingly dry take on the news harkened back to the straight-delivery style of Chevy Chase and Dennis Miller with an added touch of aggression, even when at the expense of the audience. Among his biggest recurring gags were references to Germans loving David Hasselhoff and “note-to-self” tape recorder asides, and his biggest punchline targets were Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson, the latter taking up most of SNL’s publicity buzz at the time. (“According to the National Transportation Safety Board, sleepy truckers are responsible for one thousand deaths a year. In second place? O.J. Simpson at two deaths a year.”)
The rumor that Macdonald was fired from SNL by NBC exec Don Ohlmeyer due to his relentless O.J. Simpson jokes still lingers, but the true story – or at least the one Macdonald has supported in interviews – is that Ohlmeyer (a friend of Simpson, it should be noted) just felt that Macdonald was “not funny” and insisted on the change. Whatever the reason, Macdonald’s demotion from Update began on the January 10, 1998 episode, and he was replaced by Colin “Joe Blow” Quinn. Macdonald continued to appear in sketches but quit before the end of the season. (Check out his weirdly hilarious post-firing Letterman interview here.)
After SNL, Macdonald went on to write and star in 1998’s Dirty Work and 2000’s Screwed and to appear in Sandler/Schneider flicks (Billy Madison, The Animal, Jack and Jill, Grown Ups), television shows (The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, The Drew Carey Show, The Middle, and a handful of strangely memorable late-night talk show appearances), in addition to starring in his own comedy specials and shows, from the ABC sitcom Norm to his more recent Comedy Central series Sports Show with Norm Macdonald. He also returned to SNL as host only in 1999, using his monologue to crack jokes on his firing only a year after it happened:
How did I go from being not funny enough to be even allowed in the building, to being so funny that I’m now hosting the show? How did I suddenly get so goddamn funny?! It was inexplicable to me, because, let’s face it, a year and a half is not enough time for a dude to learn how to be funny! Then it occurred to me: I haven’t gotten funnier, the show has gotten really bad! So, yeah, I’m funny compared to, you know, what you’ll see later. Okay, so let’s recap, the bad news is: I’m still not funny. The good news is: The show blows!