The Washington Post

Norm Macdonald

The acerbic comedian and 1990s “Saturday Night Live” writer and cast member has died of cancer at 61.


Norm Macdonald, a comedian and 1990s cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” whose acerbic satires of news events as anchor of the “Weekend Update” segment led to acclaim and controvers­y over his continued jokes about O. J. Simpson’s murder trial, died Sept. 14 at 61.

The cause was cancer, said Whitney Brooks, executive assistant to Marc Gurwitz, Mr. Macdonald’s agent at Brillstein Entertainm­ent Partners. Mr. Macdonald had apparently been treated for cancer for nine years without making his illness public. Further details were not available.

Mr. Macdonald worked in bluecollar jobs for years before becoming a standup comedian, winning acclaim in the mid-1980s at a comedy festival in Montreal. He wrote for “The Dennis Miller Show” and for Roseanne Barr’s sitcom “Roseanne” before joining the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1993.

He was a standout writer and had a droll physical presence, often delivering over-the-top impression­s of such figures as Sen. Robert Dole (R-kan.), broadcaste­r Larry King and especially actor Burt Reynolds.

Mr. Macdonald was instrument­al in developing a sketch in 1996 that has since become a staple on “Saturday Night Live”: a spoof of the game show “Jeopardy!” with celebrity guests.

“When it came time to do the sketch, I went down and saw my wardrobe and there was a white beard and a bald white cap, and I said, ‘ No, no, I want to do Burt Reynolds from 1972,” Mr. Macdonald told radio host Howard Stern in 2016.

Wearing a black wig, a mustache and a black leather jacket, Mr. Macdonald’s version of Reynolds smacked gum in his teeth as he wisecracke­d through the “Jeopardy!” skit, with Will Ferrell playing an increasing­ly exasperate­d Alex Trebek as host.

“Yeah, I’ll take the condom thing for 8,000,” Mr. Macdonald said as Reynolds.

“That’s ‘condiments,’” Ferrell replied. “For 400.”

In 1994, Mr. Macdonald took over the anchor chair of the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, whose previous hosts included Miller and Chevy Chase. Mr. Macdonald often introduced “Weekend Update” by saying, “Now for the fake news.”

“It was my idea to say ‘fake news’ — as if you need to say that,” he told Playboy magazine in 1997. “When you do a parody, you’re supposed to pretend it’s real, so I thought it would be funny to say it’s not real. Later I found out that when I did some harder jokes, the censors would say, ‘Oh well, if he says it’s fake news . . .’ It turned out to be a disclaimer.”

“With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered,” talk show host David Letterman told The Washington Post in 2016. “With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combinatio­n of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligen­ce. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”

Mr. Macdonald had a deadpan, almost folksy way of speaking, delivering his satirical quips without so much as raising an eyebrow. If the audience didn’t get his jokes, he would often ad-lib a comment that evoked more laughter than the original punchline.

During his three years on “Weekend Update,” which he largely wrote himself, he changed the style of the segment from one heavily based on political commentary to a darker, more acerbic view of society. Rather than joke about President Bill Clinton, he would search for humor in the story of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer or in the collection of skulls found in a Haitian general’s house.

He was one of the first comedians on SNL to joke about Donald Trump, then a publicity-seeking real estate developer in New York. When Trump’s second marriage to Marla Maples was breaking up, Mr. Macdonald joked, “According to Trump, Maples violated part of their marriage agreement when she decided to turn 30.”

In another segment, Mr. Macdonald commented on the breakup of the marriage of actress Julia Roberts and singer Lyle Lovett: “Julia Roberts told reporters this week that her marriage to Lyle Lovett has been over for some time. The key moment, she said, came when she realized that she was Julia Roberts, and that she was married to Lyle Lovett.”

Mr. Macdonald was particular­ly merciless toward Simpson, who was tried in the 1994 killing of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. He often called Simpson a killer, even after Simpson was acquitted.

“Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California,” Mr. Macdonald said when the trial ended in 1996.

Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC’S West Coast division, was a friend of Simpson’s, and Mr. Macdonald’s comments did not sit well with him. Over the objections of “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, Ohlmeyer ordered Mr. Macdonald to be replaced as “Weekend Update” anchor in late 1997.

Ohlmeyer cited declining ratings for the show rather than the jokes about Simpson, but Mr. Macdonald went on talk shows to complain about his treatment, calling the studio boss “a liar and a thug.” Mr. Macdonald left SNL early in 1998 and never reclaimed the stardom he had during those years.

He acted in a few films, including “Dirty Work” (1998), a revenge comedy that received poor reviews. He was in several TV series, the longest of which, “The Norm Show” (later called “Norm”), lasted three years.

Mostly, Mr. Macdonald returned to standup comedy, appearing for years at comedy clubs and theaters throughout North America.

“I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar,” Mr. Macdonald wrote in what he called an autobiogra­phical novel, “Based on a True Story” (2016). “They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter. “I’ve been lucky.” Norman Gene Macdonald was born Oct. 17, 1959, in Quebec City, where he grew up before has family moved to Ottawa in his teens. Both of his parents were teachers.

Mr. Macdonald left school in his teens and, as he later wrote, “had a whole bunch of jobs where all I needed was boots.”

He was at different times a garbage collector, oil worker and logger. He said he happened to wander into a comedy club in Ottawa.

“So I said to myself, ‘ This is great, I can do this,’ ” he wrote. “It’s much easier than picking tobacco in Tillsonbur­g, Ontario.”

Mr. Macdonald eventually settled in Los Angeles, but he never learned to drive. Over the years, he said, an addiction to gambling caused him to lose his fortune several times. He lost as much as $400,000 at a single sitting but said attending Gamblers Anonymous only gave him the urge to return to the craps tables.

In addition to his standup and occasional TV appearance­s, he had a video podcast, “Norm Macdonald Live,” from 2013 to 2017 with co-host Adam Eget. In 2015, Mr. Macdonald was the final standup comedian featured on “The Late Show With David Letterman” before Letterman’s retirement.

In tweets in 2016, Mr. Macdonald said novelist Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” could not compare with another Canadian writer, Alice Munro, and said Atwood was “chasing celebrity and promoting anything for a buck.” He deleted the tweets, but not before a sharp outcry.

Two years later, he said the #MeToo movement was recklessly endangerin­g entertaine­rs’ careers. He cited the cases of comedians Barr — who made racially insensitiv­e remarks about former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett — and Louis C.K., who admitted to sexual harassment of women. Mr. Macdonald faced an immediate backlash, including cancellati­on of an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

Mr. Macdonald’s marriage to Connie Vaillancou­rt ended in divorce. Survivors include a son, Dylan Macdonald; his mother, Ferne Macdonald; and two brothers.

“When I was a boy, I was sure I’d never make it past Moose Creek, Ontario, Canada,” Mr. Macdonald wrote in “Based on a True Story.” “But I’ve been all over this world. Except for Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America. Oh, and Antarctica. But that’s really splitting hairs. I mean, how many people have ever been to Antarctica?”

 ?? 2003 PHOTO BY MICHAEL BRANDS/GETTY IMAGES ?? In 1994, Norm Macdonald took over as “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live,” changing the style of the segment to reflect a darker view of society. He left the show in 1998.
2003 PHOTO BY MICHAEL BRANDS/GETTY IMAGES In 1994, Norm Macdonald took over as “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live,” changing the style of the segment to reflect a darker view of society. He left the show in 1998.

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