Norm MacDonald doesn’t seem to care whether or not he gets a laugh. With a seasoned wit and disarmingly blunt delivery, MacDonald garners respect in the stand-up community for his willingness to explore a wide (and sometimes esoteric) variety of topics, regardless of the outcome. His commitment to comedy brought him from the clubs of Canada to a career in film and television, including a memorable run as anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live (he’s only person to receive approval from Update’s originator, Chevy Chase), a starring role in the cult film Dirty Work, and roles in films such as Dr. Doolittle with Eddie Murphy and Screwed with Dave Chappelle. The Travesty managed to get a hold of MacDonald and received an education in dealing with hacky fifth-grade humorists and the business side of comedy.
Texas Travesty: You are the quintessential smart ass. Were you a smart ass or a class clown growing up?
Norm MacDonald: No, I was not. I was extremely the other way. I always loved comedy, but I would notice in school that the tremendously unfunny guys were the ones who people considered funny. So that was very frustrating. I would be kind of quietly saying something and not get any response, and then some hack would be the funny guy [laughs].
TT: So you were already identifying hacks when you were in the fifth grade?
NM: I hated them so much. The class clown was always the hacky guy, you know? But he’d be the guy getting all the girls and the funny guy at the party. And I’d just be seething quietly to myself [laughs].
TT: Do you think your comedy was underappreciated when you were younger?
NM: Yeah, I would talk kind of quietly and people would look at me. I always had the kind of comedy that girls would look at me and say, “You’re weird.”
TT: So you were not a ladies’ man growing up?
NM: No, not at all. They thought I was retarded or something.
TT: When did you start doing standup comedy?
NM: I started doing it eighteen years ago.
TT: Do you feel that the stand-up comedy scene has changed much since you started doing it?
NM: Yes. I think there are too many comics. I think there were too many comics when I started, as well. See, I never knew there was this comedy club circuit when I was a young boy. I thought there were only a few comics such as Bill Cosby, Robert Klein, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. When I was a boy, there were only about fifty or sixty comics around and only five or six of them were good. Now, there are about five or six thousand comics and only five or six good ones. It’s not like supply and demand works in this scenario.
Just like comedy writers, people began to do stand-up as a way to make money rather than be funny. When I went to Saturday Night Live, I met a couple of guys who were genius writers, especially Jim Downey who had been at the show from the very beginning. He went to Harvard and took Russian literature or something like that. Sometimes he would write something down for the Harvard Lampoon. He was tremendously smart and funny, and the Lampoon consisted of genius writers who eventually went to Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and so forth. Eventually people began going to Harvard to become comedy writers. It wasn’t just super geniuses that happened to be funny; it was guys on purpose knowing that, if they had the Lampoon listed on their CV, they could get work.
One time we did a sitcom with this older guy who was very funny. They wanted to fire him because he was 70, but he was so funny. He told me that when he started out people thought he was a retard. When he told people that we wanted to get into comedy, people were like, “What the hell?” He was just this odd duck who was a funny guy. It wasn’t like he thought he’d make money or anything. I think that comedy went off track when it became a big business.
TT: So you don’t think that comedy is something that can be learned?
NM: No. Unfortunately, the craft of it can. For instance, when I was in stand-up I would go to clubs and then come back to the clubs and recognize the opener on stage. I would ask, “Who is that guy?” and they would tell me that he was the door man. So, people can observe and learn the tricks of comedy. It’s almost like if you see a magician, you know what I mean? You know he is not sawing that lady in half! It’s still very impressive, but you know that he buys his tricks from the magic store. Now, if you saw an actual sorcerer like Richard Pryor, an actual guy that is funny and has notes for everything, those are the guys who astonish me. The guys who throw away all the tricks and are genuinely funny, you know?
TT: When you sit down to write comedy ,what’s your writing process like? Do you sit down with a newspaper? Do you watch other comedians? What’s your approach?
NM: I started out lame like everyone else, but what I try to do now is try to take a subject... I kind of do long form comedy. I try to take something that I find interesting. When I was younger I was doing this show, really funny jokes, but on inconsequential subjects. I was talking to [Sam] Kinison and he said “You can talk about anything you want on stage. If you want to talk about a fucking dog that you owned and how it was different from a cat, go ahead. It’s your life, if you really find that interesting to you.” That opened my eyes because I wasn’t interested in the jokes that I was doing. I was pretending to be interested in them.
I started looking at comics—and I love Jerry Seinfeld—he takes the minutiae and blows it way out of proportion. He’s very upset about a sock or something. So, that is a funny way to go, but I realized, after Kinison said that, that that’s not really what interests me the most. The greatest comedian that I ever saw was Pryor. He would just talk about things. So I tried to work more towards that way. So, what I try to do now is whatever honestly interests me. I kind of try to ruminate on that subject for as long as I can, and if I can find some dissonance—like for instance just yesterday I was thinking about my friend who is a vegetarian. Now this is not very funny, but I know it will be very funny when I’ve figured it out. But I suddenly realized, as I was talking to this girl, who I always kind of thought was nuts, and I suddenly realized as she was talking to me that I agreed with her. Ethically, it’s not right to kill animals if you don’t have to to survive, but I will never be a vegetarian. I do now kind of believe it is akin to murder, but I’m willing to do it for a juicy Carl’s Jr.
TT: Yeah, no doubt. I feel the exact same way.
NM: I know that there is comedy right there in that dissonance between what I do and what I believe in my heart. I know there is comedy in there and I know that if I ruminate long enough, I know that I will have fifteen minutes of material on that exact subject, because there are things that are always percolating in the back of your mind that you are too lazy to catch and grab. It’s very hard to be aware of what you’re thinking of because you are just thinking of it in the moment.
I never write stuff down or anything like that. People will come up to me and say “Do you remember that thing you said? It was so funny.” And I go, “I said that?” I just told them as I was talking. And I think, “I should’ve written that down or something.” That’s what I try to do now. I just try to really stick on a subject and go over and over and over it until I have it. My comedy has become very long form. Last time I brought up the death penalty, and in two weeks that went to eight minutes. As long as the subject is important enough—I shouldn’t say important—as long as the subject is interesting enough, then I can find variations on the theme. A thousand variations on the theme. Just attack it from every possible angle.
TT: Do you improv much on stage?
NM: I improv a great deal. It’s good, for me especially, because I have basically no memory. So when I used to write jokes word for word, I had them so rote that I could hardly deliver them because I was so into trying to memorize the perfect wording. I really admire comics who have perfectly structured jokes, but I don’t have that. So what I do is I have the idea, and then I go on stage and just talk for as long as I can until they stop laughing. And then usually well beyond when they stop laughing. Then eventually it winds down and becomes very strong after that. have to take a beating before I get there.