Q&A: Norm Macdonald
Norm Macdonald is a comedian’s comedian, one of the few Saturday Night Live cast members whose career continued in an constant upward trajectory since appearing on the long-running sketch-comedy series. That’s due in part because Macdonald has always made stand-up a priority rather than a springboard to something else, but he’s also effortlessly funny—a quality that will be enhanced synergistically when he appears onstage with SNL alumni Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider for their Feb. 13-14 appearances at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel. He spoke recently with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
You were just here at the Orleans, and I think you have a date scheduled later in the year. Is this normal for you to have so many appearances in Vegas?
I really don’t do Vegas that often, but it’s my favorite place to play. For a long time I was trying to get a room in Vegas but it’s very financially difficult to do. The only person that’s made money off it is Carrot Top, because you have to buy a room yourself and then sell tickets. It’s definitely my favorite place to play because I like to be in Vegas and I find the Vegas audiences the best.
If there were demand, would you take a room in Vegas?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. That would be amazing.
I couldn’t really find more information about the Feb. 13-14 shows at the Hard Rock Hotel beyond it’s you, Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider, and that Netflix might be involved with the tour. How did these shows come together?
It was Sandler’s idea. He was between movies and stuff, and he works like crazy. He works all the time on movies. He was talking about the old days when we used to do stand up, because we all did stand-up at The Improv. We weren’t SCTV guys before we did Saturday Night Live. We did stand-up, so we all hung out together at The Improv and we’d go on the road together. So he says we should do it again. I’d love for it to be a long time, but I’m sure he’s got another movie coming up. This tour is, like, 10 days and it ends at The Joint, which should be amazing.
I think David Spade joins you early on for one or two shows?
Yeah, we did a practice show in San Diego to see how it would go. … and it was phenomenal. Sandler, he wrote like 61 songs, 61 comedy songs. I mean, he writes like crazy, and he did like 20 of them. He’s just so prolific it’s crazy. I’d never really been to stand-up like that, because there were, like, 100 people backstage. It was like a Stones concert or something, for Sandler.
That sounds like the ’68 Comeback for Elvis.
(Laughs) That’s a good analogy. [SNL producer] Lorne Michaels was there for the ’68 Comeback, because it happened at 30 Rock downstairs. He said he was there working on it, and there were only 100 people in the audience. Colonel Parker was at the door, and he was selling, like, merch at the door to 100 people.
Is Netflix filming for it a special or are they promoting Sandler’s recent movie (Ridiculous 6)?
Netflix is sponsoring, but I don’t know what it means, whether they’re just throwing money to subsidize it or … I don’t think they’re taping it. They haven’t asked me, if they’re taping it.
One website I came across said your act on this tour “will include impersonations of Bill Cosby, Mr. Bean, Larry King, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino.”
Uhhh … (laughs).
I think they might have cut and pasted from Wikipedia.
Yeah, exactly. They make these weird bios exactly from Wikipedia. I’ve had ones where they talk about my mother and my brother, about growing up. I’m like, “What is this? It’s a full-length biography of my life.” But Mr. Bean, that’s really funny. I’ve never done Mr. Bean.
You’re going to have a memoir (Based on a True Story) out soon in which you’ll be able to correct all this, right?
Yes, my side of the story. I turned in the final draft last week. It took a lot longer than I thought. If I had gotten somebody to write it for me it would have been a lot easier.
What does it entail? Is it going to be your entire biography or does it focus more on your stand-up?
No, it’s mostly SNL. Nothing ever happens in stand-up, so mostly SNL. I just did manual labor before I got into stand-up, so I tell how I got into stand-up and what it took to get into stand-up, and so forth. It was fun to do, though. Just took a long time.
When did you get started?
Goddamn, like 30 years ago.
So you don’t go back to your roots? I don’t know much about your early life, but I know you grew up in a rural area, and I thought that might have been why you started making jokes to amuse yourself first rather than the other kids.
Yeah, more or less. When I was young, there was no such thing as stand-up or show business where I lived, that’s for sure. Then I just kind of stumbled into stand-up. I think everyone kind of just … at that time anyway. Nowadays people know when they’re a kid they want to be a stand-up. Back then you thought there was only five stand-ups in the world. But that’s the interesting thing about the tour because, when I met those guys doing stand-up, they were just finding their way. They didn’t have any big ambitions, and then we all got on SNL at the same time. It’s interesting, because I don’t think Sandler’s done a complete … I think I may have opened for him for one of the last tours, maybe 25 years ago. And then Spade’s just come back to it, because he’s been on TV straight since SNL. I shouldn’t bring him up, actually, because he’s not coming on the show in Vegas. Schneider has just been kind of doing standup within the last five years. I stuck with standup the entire time, because I never had faith in anything else.
You’re working with Kevin Nealon a little bit too, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! I’ve just recently been working with other people. It’s a cut in pay, but it’s so much more fun that being alone on the road. The other guy is going to kill so there’s less pressure, and it’s fun for the audience to see us together.
Is it better to be a favorite talk show guest of David Letterman, Howard Stern, Dennis Miller, and Conan O'Brien, or a favorite comedian of a journalist assigned to rank the funniest SNL cast members?
(Laughs) Now that was kind of a weird thing, but when I went to the SNL 40th, my friend had the Rolling Stone (Longtime RS contributor and television writer Rob Sheffield listed Macdonald at No. 135 in the February 11, 2015 issue, before Colin Quinn and after Randy Quaid.) I was so low, but I didn’t know, so he was like, “Guess where you are?” I said, “As long as I beat Morwenna Banks,” because she was on the show for, like, two episodes. “Nope! You didn’t beat her.” I’m like “What?!” I was searching my memory and I remember the first year there was this old man named George Coe in the cast because they thought they’d need an old man, and they fired him. So I was like, “As long as I beat George Coe.” And he was like “Nope.” … “What?!” They put out a fan poll in which I was really high up, but they put it out on Usenet. It wasn’t in print, so it didn’t mean as much. Of course, I’d rather have the affirmation of my peers rather than some guy. Some guy that makes lists.
He prepared that list before the show. You were really funny on the 40th anniversary.
Oh, thanks man. Seriously, I came a week early for the show, just like it was a regular show. People that showed up the day of the show said that was bizarre. I came a week early and helped write it, like it was a regular show. It takes all week to write a half-hour show let alone a three-and-a-half hour show. I was sort of taken aback by their nonchalance in writing that show, but it was really fun. It was one of the funnest things I ever did, just to see all those guys. Most people were bowled over by the music. I didn’t really care about them as much. Just seeing Aykroyd, Christopher Guest, all the comedians from the past … it was really awesome for me.
You created the definitive Burt Reynolds for Saturday Night Live. It was great to see him back.
I love doing the Burt Reynolds. That’s why I created Celebrity Jeopardy, because I just wanted to do Burt Reynolds. I couldn’t figure out how to do him (in a sketch). It was funny when I did it and we made the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch, I said, “We’ll just make all the celebrities stupid.” And then I said I’d be Burt Reynolds, and got Darrell (Hammond)—Darrell can do anybody—Darrell can do a real aggressive Sean Connery. And then when we went down, Lorne had the outfit for me. It was all, like, gray hair and gray beard, and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to be present-day Burt Reynolds.” No one ever really mentions it in the sketch but everyone is modern-day except Burt Reynolds, who’s from the ’70s (laughs).
I caught it. It’s hilarious. He’s Smokey and the Bandit Burt Reynolds.
Yeah, it was kind of weird.
I had no idea until I started the research for this that you created that skit.
Yeah, well, I sort of created it. I sort of stole it. When I was a kid I watched SCTV and they had a show called “Half Wits.” I didn’t want to do the show without asking them, so Martin Short came on the show and I asked, “Can I do this sketch?” He thought Eugene Levy would enjoy the sketch and he said it was fine. It was based on that, because on “Half Wits” they weren’t celebrities. They were just really stupid.
I think Richard Harris (impression by Dave Thomas) was on there one time.
Yes, that’s right! Wow, you remember that.
Oh yeah, I was an SCTV freak. I stumbled on it accidentally as a 10-year-old kid and it changed my life, like you discovering Letterman at age 13.
Yeah, those were the two shows that changed everybody’s … before that it was whatever, The Rockford Files. Carol Burnett. After those two shows everything changed.
You seemed very SCTV when you were on Saturday Night Live.
Yeah, yeah, well SCTV was … I mean, Letterman was the first thing I discovered, but SCTV was second, just because I was in Toronto. It was probably a pretty big influence, but also Canadians have a different sense of humor and SCTV were all Canadian. So it might have been that also, yeah—kind of softer, weirder sense of humor.
I think something happened after you left SNL, which is kind of rare for former cast members: Appreciation for your comedy grew after you left, and I think it continued to build in the years since until it kind of reached an apex with your last stand-up on David Letterman, when he was ending his run as host of Late Night. Maybe that was due to all the talk show appearances, but did you ever get a sense of this yourself?
Yeah, that was real strange because after I did SNL I did a sitcom (ABC’s Norm, 1999-2001) that didn’t really register much. Dirty Work (a 1998 comedy film co-starring Artie Lange) was sort of cultish, but I think it was just mostly going on stand-up shows and talking. I never stopped doing stand-up, so I was always on the road and kind of had a grass roots following doing that. I was always shocked, because when I go do stand-up stuff it’s all young people, and I’m like, “Why do these guys f*cking know me?” Saturday Night Live never replays shows, you know? It’s not even on YouTube. You can’t even find an SNL sketch on YouTube. It was always a mystery to me, but a lot of people just know me from stand-up, Conan appearances, Letterman appearances. I do find that to be very strange, that I was more popular after being on that TV show.
Yeah, strange and reassuring. Dennis Miller, who you’re good friends with, said, “I find Norm such a genius, I don’t want to interject and get in the way of his story” on one of his podcasts. And I think you kind of elaborated on that on Letterman, how you started to develop a rapport with talk-show hosts. They learned how to deal with you, I guess is the way to put it, to get the most out of the humor. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I mean that’s a real hard job, talk-show hosts, because they have to make the person funny, so they have to kind of control the interview. They have to find some way to get laughs out of it. What happened was, when I started going on, they had a pre-interview where you tell what you’re going to tell the host to the pre-interviewer, then he goes and tells the host. So I would just make up a bunch of fake stuff, because I didn’t want the host to know. I didn’t want to tell them, “here’s the joke,” now when tell it again I hope you laugh. I just had a different thing prepared, so then they stopped asking for a pre-interview after a while, and then I go on and just talk naturally. I think it came across real good because as hard as they try, talk-show hosts, it always looks stilted. The guy goes, “I heard a story that you bought a house,” or something. It all sounds weird. With me it’s just actual conversation, and sometimes I do push through the hosts’ questions because I haven’t finished my story yet (laughs).
I just thought of you making 180-degree interruptions on Conan O’Brien and almost started laughing out loud.
Conan especially, because Conan … Letterman, I was always sort of scared … not scared, but … yeah, I guess I could say I was scared. He’s my hero, so it’s like talking to your dad, but Conan and I started at the same time. I was never freaked out by talking to Conan. Whenever I’m on Conan and talking to Conan, if I have anything funny to say I just completely interject and change the subject (laughs).
It’s hilarious when you do that, man. You did this joke on there, “The Moth Joke,” and I just …
That was a totally improvised thing. The guy told me that joke, which is really a short joke: A moth flies into a podiatrist’s office and then says, “Oh, man, I have problems.” The podiatrist says, “Why are you here? You should see a psychiatrist.” He goes, “Because the light was on.”
But it’s such a short joke a guy told me like a week before, and then when I was on Conan I had a second segment. I was like, “I have nothing to say. I thought you were having me on one segment.” He goes, “Well, we gotta do another.” So I had to stretch a joke out as long as I could. It was a complete accident, but people really liked it.
I thought you made the part up about learning the joke from somebody else.
No, I made it up about learning it from the driver who drove me. Actually, a guy had told it to me a week before in a real short version, and then I added this middle part that’s, like, five minutes. The real joke’s only 10 seconds. I turned it into four minutes or something.
Yeah, I thought it was some kind of comedians’ comedian joke, like “The Aristocrats.”
People do think that. People laugh and think it’s like “The Aristocrats” but no it’s not. It was just something I knew and did on the spot to kill time. “The Aristocrats” is intentionally meant to be as dirty as possible to make the punchline innocent, but this, the middle part, was all pointless.
It was hilariously pointless.
You clearly have read your Russian literature.
Yeah, well, that’s the other thing. I had been reading a lot of Russian that week.
Artie Lange [on Joe Rogan’s podcast] said you’re “One of the funniest, smartest human beings I’ve ever met, but he’s got a true edge and a true danger. … He’s a rock star.” I thought about that quote when you went on that elliptical Russian discourse. All of a sudden you were doing Dostoyevsky.
(Laughs) Some people say that was dangerous, but its just stand-up comedy. I don’t know why it needs to be safe. It’s not like there’s anything at stake. I try not to upset anybody. That’s all I try not to do.
While I was watching your stand-up, I thought Sarah Silverman must have been influenced by your comedy. You must have a few comedians who show appreciation for you the way you do toward Don Rickles. Is there anybody in particular that’s told you you’ve been a strong influence on them?
No, I’ve never heard that. I’ve seen people that have definitely been influenced by me, but they don’t say it. Actually, there was one nice guy who said it, who is very funny. His name’s Anthony Jeselnik. He was very kind. He said he watched me as a kid and he learned to just go with the joke and forget about the audience. That was nice to hear.
Speaking of Anthony Jeselnik, do you think you’ll be back on Last Comic Standing as a judge?
I don’t know. I feel like it was axed or something. I feel like I should have heard something by now, so I’m a little nervous about that. I don’t know if I’m going to be back.
I’ve interviewed Roseanne (judge) and Wanda Sykes (producer). Their seasons are kind of strange. It’s like in England: a season is whenever they get around to making it.
Right, a season’s different there. You can have three seasons in a year. … I like that show. I like Anthony Jeselnik a lot. It’s fun.
I didn’t know you had wrote for Roseanne. Was she your connection for becoming a judge?
No, they just asked me by coincidence. Yeah, I wrote on her show. It was my second job. Dennis Miller got me a job on his show, then Roseanne got me a job on her show and then Sandler got me a job on SNL. Comics have gotten me jobs, so it’s awesome. Now Sandler got me a job on this tour, so that will be fun. It’s really odd going on tour. I feel like I’ll be going to some of these clubs and the last week it was like, “The Guess Who featuring Burton Cummings.” Maybe I am a super old man. The funny thing is the kids still show up for me, so I like that.
There’s an honestly to dark humor. I think in your case you think of things that are funny and just say them because they are funny, and you need to get them out. There’s been a restraint that’s accompanied PC culture that I think is going to spin in the other direction. That’s how culture cycles.
Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s just physics. If it does turn around, that’ll be good for me.
Sounds like it already is.
It is, it is, because I’ve never stopped doing stand-up. It always made me happy, so I’m glad I never stopped doing it. I turned down a lot of things along the way because I knew they’d get in the way of my stand-up, and I knew it wouldn’t be much fun even if it paid a lot of money. And fun is worth more than money.
And you didn’t really make another plan.
And I never made a plan, no. My plan was really to get on Letterman, which happened a quarter-century ago. Then it ended and I was like “Oh, there’s my life.” Everything else just happened accidentally. I never had a plan to be on SNL, certainly never to act or anything.
On your final Letterman appearance, I think you fell ass-backward into a historical moment. When people think back to the end of David Letterman they’re going to think of your stand-up set.
Yeah, that is cool. I did fall into it by complete accident, but maybe doing stand-up all the time, I was prepared to do it when I got the chance. I’m lucky.