Norm MacDonald was a legend. If you want to know one of my sure-fire ways to procrastinate, it’s been watching clips of him on Youtube and holding my belly laughing.
His recent death hit me like it did many. We all lose people, and it seems odd to feel a hit when it’s about someone you never met. But we all influence each other in ways we don’t fully understand.
He may not be your cup of tea. The guy could swear like a sailor and had no issue with offending any number of people and has been involved in his own share of controversy.
In any case, since learning of his death, there have been any number of his fellow comedians, friends, and the like who’ve spoken about him, often with deep reverence. I’ve often described the quiet smile of a master at his craft, and he had it.
Much of mastery is about finding fundamentals, weaving them into one’s fiber through not only regular practice but also play.
Take a look at one of his more circulated appearances of the Moth Joke.
Conan describes the story behind it. Norm had only a few minutes to prepare. He took a 20-second joke he’d once heard from Colin Quinn (though I think Superdave Osborne also did it on the Youtube Norm MacDonald Live Podcasts), and then expanded it with a flavor of Russian literature and his characteristic drawl into the 7 minutes he needed to fill. Beyond that, his setup, describing it as a joke he got from his driver, the pauses, the timing of recoveries from Conan’s interruption, and even his comment “What?” when Conan says his name after the joke, are all aspects of that playful mindset.
It’s that part of him that could reflexively act using rules of comedy that I can hardly fathom, but I know are there. While Conan says that Norm broke “every rule in the book”, I would disagree. He broke many, certainly, but he also knew the form of a joke down pat and could play with it.
As a result of knowing his craft so well, he could have that striking confidence that so many have described. When he told a joke, it’s like he didn’t care whether the audience got it or not. He knew it was funny.
Whether you agree or disagree with the content of his material, there is no denying that he was able to connect to something deep within himself to create something. He mastered and re-mastered the fundamentals through play.
PS. If you want to start heading down a rabbit hole that is Norm MacDonald, which goes way beyond his SNL appearances, consider I’m Not Norm’s Youtube channel. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, though.