Norm Macdonald, whose laconic delivery of sharp and incisive observations made him one of Saturday Night Live‘s most influential and beloved cast members, died today after a nine-year private battle with cancer. He was 61.
Macdonald had been battling cancer for several years but kept his diagnosis private, his friend and producing partner, Lori Jo Hoekstra, told in a statement.
“He was most proud of his comedy,” Hoekstra said. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic. He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”
Born on October 17, 1959, in Quebec City, Macdonald started his show business career in the comedy clubs of Canada, developing the deadpan style that would become both his trademark and a highly influential touchstone for a generation of comics. After being a contestant on Star Search in 1990, he landed his first regular TV writing gig on The Dennis Miller Show, fronted by the man who anchored “Weekend Update” from 1986-91.
He quickly became known for his deadpan and sardonic delivery and in 1987 was given the opportunity to perform at the “Just For Laughs” Comedy Festival in Los Angeles.
That first taste of LA made an impression and Macdonald moved to the city, intent on breaking into Hollywood. He found work writing for the sitcom “Roseanne” in 1992.
He joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” the following year, where he became known for his impressions of David Letterman, Larry King, Burt Reynolds, Quentin Tarantino and others.
But it was as the anchor of the news satire segment “Weekend Update” where Macdonald hit his stride.
He held the position from 1994 to 1998.
He was an SNL cast member from 1993-98, making his greatest impact as the anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” segments for three seasons. Remembered for his droll style — and for his refusal to go easy on O.J. Simpson despite reported pressure from NBC execs — Macdonald would prove one of the most impactful “Update” anchors, pivoting away from the slapstick approach of Chevy Chase and toward the more barbed political approach of his successor, Colin Quinn.
In a 1998 interview on David Letterman’s show, Macdonald said Ohlmeyer told him, “You’re not funny,” adding, “He also thinks that O.J. is innocent.” Years later, Macdonald told the New York Times he thought the “experimental” nature of his material, not the Simpson connection, was why Ohlmeyer soured on him.
Macdonald went on to star in his own comedy series, “The Norm Show,” which ran from 1999-2001.
He also appeared in films like “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Dr. Dolittle 2” and “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.”
His stint hosting a 2018 Netflix talk show titled “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” was overshadowed by comments he made defending his friends Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr, both of whom had been mired in controversy, during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
He appeared in a number of films including Dirty Work, Grown Ups, Funny People, Screwed, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, the Dr. Dolittle film trilogy, The Ridiculous Six, Jack and Jill, The Animal, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Billy Madison — several of which featured fellow SNL veterans. He also released comedy albums Me Doing Standup (2011) and Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery (2017) — both taken from TV specials — and Ridiculous (1996), a sketch-comedy disc that also featured Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon and other SNL vets.
Comedy Central named him to its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.
His eccentric approach to comedy even extended to TV commercials: In 2016, he starred in a short-lived series of spots for KFC as Colonel Sanders, polarizing viewers with the absurdist ads. He also hosted the podcast Norm Macdonald Live, also on YouTube.
Over the years he made numerous appearances on various late-night shows, including Late Night with David Letterman and Conan, eventually assuming a revered “comedian’s comedian” stature as he routinely left Letterman, O’Brien and anyone within earshot in stitches. In one memorable 2014 appearance on Conan — which O’Brien’s Team Coco later posted on YouTube under the title “Norm Macdonald Tells the Most Convoluted Joke Ever” — Macdonald reduces the talk show host and his sidekick Andy Richter to tears of laughter and frustration with a rambling, shaggy-dog tale about Quebec, beluga whales, baby dolphins and an outrageous pun that prompts O’Brien to admit, “I love you, I really do.”
In his 2016 memoir Based On A True Story, Macdonald reflected on his continued love for stand-up comedy, and how fortunate he felt for an ongoing career that many viewed as dominated by his four-year run on SNL. “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,” he wrote. “They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter. I’ve been lucky.”