Fame, Farley and Frank the Beaver
Comedian Norm MacDonald wants to be funny, not famous
Some comedians are born funny, others have funny thrust upon them.
Norm MacDonald is one of the latter kind.
Quirky, offbeat and a master of deadpan humour, MacDonald’s lethargic and often laidback delivery is a sharp contrast to the hyperkinetic energy of most comedians working the standup comedy circuit. By his own admission, he’s lazy and prefers to work at his own pace, not bowing to outside pressures or bosses who think they know what tickles the funny bone.
A favourite guest of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, MacDonald was unceremoniously dumped in 1997 from Saturday Night Live, after an NBC network head reported said he didn’t find the Canadian comedian’s sharp jabs at celebrities and politicians in the Weekend Update segment funny.
MacDonald went on to appear in several movies, to star in two television series and to do some voice work — notably Frank the Beaver in Bell’s “Frank and Gordon” commercials — but he kept returning to his first love, standup comedy. Now 48, he is on a comedy tour and returns to Ottawa Thursday for a show at the Bronson Centre.
CBC reporter Neil MacDonald is Norm MacDonald’s brother, and he believes his sibling was terrified when success came his way.
“He became far more famous than he wanted to become and I think it frightened him,” says Neil. “I almost have a feeling that he deliberately didn’t want to become as famous as some of his friends, like Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Fame killed Farley.” The overweight American comic died in 1997 of cardiac arrest after a drug overdose.
Neil MacDonald says his brother is not prone to waxing philosophical about comedy or more serious issues, preferring instead to answer probing questions with one-word answers.
But in a recent interview, Norm MacDonald was friendly and engaging, almost downright chatty as he ruminated about fame, politics, comedy and his life on the road.
“I never wanted fame at all, I just wanted to do standup,” he explained. “ I found when I came to Los Angeles to do more standup comedy that people wanted me to do other things, which I really didn’t want to.”
‘Standup is an odd kind of job where, if you’re good at it, they figure you’ll be good at other stuff in show business, which is usually not the case.’
“ Standup is an odd kind of job where, if you’re good at it, they figure you’ll be good at other stuff in show business, which is usually not the case.”
MacDonald says he never had a desire to become a celebrity and shunned the Hollywood social circuit out of fear of damaging his comedy credentials. “I don’t go to parties or hang out or anything. I see friends in Los Angeles but that’s about it.”
MacDonald has attracted a cultlike following among some fans. “I have a stalker now,” he says warily. “ That’s the price of celebrity, I guess, but you can’t do anything unless they kill you or do a violent act upon you. I don’t feel my life is in danger, but I guess it’s more in danger than if I was doing manual labour in Pickering,” he jokes.
MacDonald caused a big stir in 2003 when he appeared on The View and publicly renounced his Canadian citizenship over the government’s decision not to participate in the Iraq war.
“I was saying that to deliberately provoke the people on the program,” he laughs. “ When I go on shows, whether it’s a right-wing or left-wing show, I just take a contrary position for humorous effect. Iwas saying that only to provoke Barbara Walters because she was talking about the Iraq war and everybody on the panel was against it. But I knew Barbara would get angry, which she did, and that made me happy. It makes for good television.”
In the same vein, he once called Ronald Reagan “the best president of the 20th century.”
“I couldn’t think of anybody else who can rival him,” he says about his admiration for the 40th president of the United States, adding that George W. Bush was an “awful” president.
“ When you say someone is the best it doesn’t mean they’re the smartest. Reagan was not very smart, but he was the best president because of his cowboy philosophy. At the time, that was sort of dangerous.
“The media said this guy was going to destroy the world, hit the button. He scared us, but he scared the Russians more. If you’re going to have a Cold War, you might as well have a cold warrior.”
MacDonald was living in New York during 9/11 and seeing the city undergo that frightening event up close rocked him emotionally
“People who weren’t there can’t understand the visceral quality of the fear. I was pretty close to it. I saw lots of blood and bones (on the street), so it really hit home.”
MacDonald is writing a memoir, which he hopes to have out soon, and in less time than it took to complete his last comedy album.
“Lorne Michaels ( Saturday Night Live producer) wanted me to do a comedy album. I wanted to do it in the vein of Monty Python or Cheech & Chong. I was supposed to do it in six months; it took me eight years to finish.
“I wanted to keep making it better. It’s hard to get anything finished because you can keep reworking it forever. After it came out it was too late for albums to make any money.”