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 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.”
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.”
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…