Canadian comic Norm Macdonald dies at 61 after private battle with cancer

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TORONTO – Norm Macdonald, whose dry, caustic wit propelled him from Canadian comedy clubs to “Saturday Night Live” glory, has embraced a “purist” comedy philosophy that has won him the admiration of his famous contemporaries, although it polarized the public, says his brother.

Neil Macdonald said the sardonic stand-up lives by the maxim that comedy should always surprise and never flatter, preferring a joke to be greeted with boos rather than stooping for a cheap laugh. Macdonald was dedicated to the comedy profession, he said, and never aspired to make the transition from the stage to the big screen.

“If you talk to his friends like Adam Sandler, David Spade or Tim Meadows – the people he met on ‘SNL’ – they would all agree that Norm was the purest of them,” Neil said by phone from Los Angeles. “He was the comic book comic.”

Macdonald died Tuesday in Los Angeles from leukemia, Neil said. Macdonald was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, and his condition worsened last month, he said.

The Quebec high stand-up was best known for his tenure on “Saturday Night Live” from 1993 to 1998, where he served as the “Weekend Update” office and became known for his impressions, most notably a mischievous Burt Reynolds as a nominee. on “Jeopardy!”

News of Macdonald’s death sparked a wave of grief on social media, with Steve Martin, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart and Bob Saget among the comedy heavyweights paying tribute.

Macdonald went to great lengths to keep his illness a secret from everyone except his family because he didn’t want it to affect his acting, his brother said.

Neil, a former CBC reporter, thought Macdonald would poke fun at the tearful clichés that pervaded coverage of his death.

“It’s almost ironic to be sitting here watching stories about Norm’s courageous ‘battle’ with cancer,” he said. “He actually did a little bit on stage how stupid it is. What battle? It is your own body. Is it a winning or losing thing? “

Born in Quebec, Macdonald showed a predilection for comedy from an early age, said Neil, recalling his brother using a hammer as an imaginary microphone while telling jokes as a child.

One evening, Macdonald decided “out of defiance” that he would try his hand at performing in front of a real audience at an Ottawa nightclub, said Neil.

Macdonald made a strong impression on the public, said Yuk Yuk co-founder Mark Breslin, a longtime friend.

“He combined a terse delivery and a straight face, and yet he had that big twinkle in his blue eyes that let you know it was all kind of a joke,” Breslin said.

“And it was a really powerful combination of all of those things.”

Breslin said it wasn’t long before his talent made a name for him on the Canadian comedy circuit.

Macdonald landed a writing job on “Roseanne” in 1992.

He was chosen by “Saturday Night Live” the following year, becoming the face of “Weekend Update” where he poked fun at current events behind the news bureau.

The role featured countless sharp punchlines, but ultimately marked its downfall from “SNL.”

Macdonald’s sense of humor was divisive, and some found it too prickly.

Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast division, pulled the comic from “Weekend Update” in the middle of the 1997-98 season, replacing it with Colin Quinn and citing bad ratings.

However, Macdonald testified that he believed his firing was due to his refusal to back out of the controversial jokes about OJ Simpson, who was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife.

After leaving “SNL” that year, Macdonald created “The Norm Show” for ABC where he played a hockey player banned from the National Hockey League for tax evasion. The show ran from 1999 to 2001.

He became the favorite guest on late night talk shows and appeared in a number of films with another “SNL” alumnus, including several with his friend Adam Sandler, including “Billy Madison” and a small role. in Rob. Schneider’s “animal”.

He also directed the 1998 Hollywood comedy “Dirty Work”, directed by Bob Saget, where he played one of two friends who start a revenge-for-pay business. The film was a box office flop but found a cult following when it was released as a home video.

Later in his career, he will host his own Netflix talk show “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” and play the character of Pigeon in “Mike Tyson Mysteries”.

Over the years, Macdonald has amassed a devoted following among comedy fans for his saucy rejection of the rote “setup, punchline” stand-up.

He seemed to enjoy the sound of the silence of a crowd as he unrolled a joke with a disappointing ending, like a curvy story about a moth he infamous in “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”.

“Some people got it and some didn’t,” said Neil Macdonald. “And the people who got him were big fans of him.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 14, 2021.

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