With comedy at such a crossroads, I was pleasantly surprised that all paths led to one subject this past month.
Norm Macdonald, the sly and provocative comedic superstar, died at the age of 61 this past month, leaving every comedic generation at a loss. Legendary entertainers such as Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern paid their condolences, which was nice to see. However, “every” generation also meant my fellow 1990s babies chimed in with their Norm experiences, as well as some 2000s babies.
Scrolling social media feeds in the wake of Norm’s passing was endearing, yet a bit perplexing. How come my generation, still in diapers during Norm’s “Saturday Night Live” run, has so much respect for the comedian? Aren’t these the same folks who consider 10-second TikTok videos the height of modern humor? Personally, I’ve appreciated Norm’s bits and elongated tall tales for years, but I’m a comedy nerd who seeks this stuff out.
So, what gives? What attracted younger viewers to someone they never saw in the prime years? I started with a dive into the now-famous “I’m Not Norm” YouTube channel, filled with clip compilations of Macdonald’s work, looking for clues. Sure enough, a pattern came to light through the most popular videos. Of course, the first mentioned is Norm’s classic late 1990s appearance on O’Brien’s late night show, in which a particularly spry Macdonald puts Carrot Top in a verbal casket. I even renamed my fantasy football team to “Chairmen of the B-O-R-E-D” as tribute to an all-time late night moment. Other clips of long-lauded Norm roast sessions popped up as popular fare, such as his constant haggling of Barbara Walters and O.J. Simpson.
That’s when it began to click. In today’s comedic generation, nobody “goes there” anymore. Like other entertainment mediums, comedy has become a place where it is impossible to ruffle feathers without immediate consequences. Any hint of controversy, any (mostly invalid) reasoning to label someone “dangerous,” and executives will shy away from handing that elusive television or streaming special. Perhaps as a subconscious thumbs-down to the current “no toe-stepping” culture of comedy, my generation has sought out Norm clips as an appreciation of how things should be done.
While there is some wild Norm material I cannot print here, the man became immune to being “canceled,” a Teflon figure for us amongst a crowd of apparent evildoers. This is because the man was not only a traditional comedian, but a regular sociologist. Every potential “went too far” bit about Simpson on “SNL” was quickly followed with Norm remarking that half of the crowd will now hate him. The self-depreciating humor was a distraction to keep any would-be fury at bay, as was his penchant for telling long stories that turn out to be made up. Since Norm made up 10-minute bits about his dirty uncle Johnny, it stood to reason that many of his more racy bits were also falsifications.
Norm straddled the line of controversy by being himself, something my generation has gained an appreciation for in a comedy world that’s more phony than ever. Norm didn’t aim to get ahead, just to get a laugh. Whether it be as Turd Ferguson, Bob Dole, or just Norm Macdonald, he got just that.