HomeEntertainmentIn the heart of Hollywood, an un-Hollywood celebration of Norm Macdonald

In the heart of Hollywood, an un-Hollywood celebration of Norm Macdonald

At the Fonda Theatre, a block down the Walk of Stars from Hollywood and Vine, the marquee read: “Celebrating Norm.” On the two windows adjacent the entrance, N-O-R-M was spelled out vertically in black letters.

That was it. In a neighbourhood where just about every message is promotional, shamelessly blasted into your face, the event at the little theatre existed out of time. Which was utterly appropriate. Norm was famously a purist; he didn’t make his name hyping his funniness, he made his name by simply being funny.

It has been eight months since Norm Macdonald quietly left us. He chose to die privately, his cancer undisclosed to all but a tiny family circle. In an era when people write soul-baring essays about a torn rotator cuff, he kept his condition a secret from just about everyone – from his friends, from his million-plus Twitter followers, from the vast audience of fans who to this day spend the wee hours surfing his talk show appearances on YouTube.

As the New York Times pointed out after he passed, Norm loathed today’s confessional trends. He offered the public his comedy and nothing else.

And on this day in early May, a few hundred people gathered, in the words of Conan O’Brien, the day’s emcee, to make some sense of his death. As though that is even possible.

The audience was arranged as Norm would have wanted. Family members sat up front. Three rows back sat the gravitationally famous and somewhat sad-looking Bill Murray. At the table next to him the woman who tended bar at a Vegas golf club Norm liked. When Molly Shannon, an old SNL friend, spoke onstage about how Norm used to write “Don’t do crack” when people asked him for an autograph, she yelled, “That was me! He wrote that to me!”

The woman who took care of Norm’s ancient cat Kitty while he was on the road was there. A bunch of chronically unappreciated writers, from SNL and onwards, who worked on some of Norm’s shows and who clearly regarded him as a comedy antihero, were there.
The woman who actually tried to teach Norm Pilates was there. Adam Sandler, who used his fame and Hollywood power to boost the careers of his old comrades when they hit tough times – including Norm – was there, masked and quiet and somber.

David Spade did a very funny bit about Norm texting in the middle of the night, waking him up, asking some inane question about professional basketball, and then, when Spade eventually replied, going silent: “Crickets for the next two weeks.” Norm frustrated just about everyone with his text-then-ghost routine, with the exception of his mother, whom he always answered promptly.

Conan O’Brien told the origin story of one of Norm’s famous comedic moments. Forced to do a last-minute second segment during a late-night gig on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Norm took a fifteen-second joke about a moth visiting a psychiatrist he’d heard from Colin Quinn and stretched it into a five-minute essay on existential dread. The joke went down in comedy history.

Jim Downey, the immensely influential comedy writer whose writing dominated Saturday Night Live for decades – the fellow behind Tina Fey’s definition of Sarah Palin – was given a standing ovation when he took the stage. Downey helped Norm score his Weekend Update gig in the Nineties, beating out Al Franken. He then helped write all those OJ Simpson jokes, and was fired from SNL, along with Norm, for it.

Downey talked fondly about Norm’s habit of constantly lying about his past. So did everybody else. After the speeches, the old comrades asked Norm’s brother Neil, my husband, which of their favourite Norm reminiscences were true, and which ones weren’t. Neil obliged, to the best of his memory. Not that it mattered. As Norm said about his book, a lot of it wasn’t fact, but it was all truth. Which makes a weird kind of sense.

Downey, like most of the other speakers, talked about Norm’s fearlessness. That was a popular theme. Norm’s fearless skewering of OJ. Norm fearlessly roasting the very concept of a roast by telling corny fifties jokes from an old book of gags during a roast of Bob Saget, who back then grinned in delight as the audience sat in confused silence.

Actually, Norm so fearlessly refused to compromise or pander that he died without achieving the spectacular wealth of most of the people there to memorialize him.

To be clear, this was not a televised event. None of the people who spoke at the lectern was paid to appear, and these are people accustomed to being paid very well for taking a stage. All of them, like Norm, made it out of the merciless comedy-club circuit on sheer talent, and all of them have been reminded in recent months that of how short their moment is.

One year ago, Norm was still with us. So was Gilbert Gottfried. So was Bob Saget. So was Louie Anderson.

The event ended with the projection of a black and white photo of Norm, looking like Samuel Beckett, as his voice, modulated and unweakened by cancer, read an excerpt from his so-called autobiography, “Based on a True Story.”

He talked about his gambling, and the price he paid for being so damned unbending. But, he said: “I’ve been lucky. It’s true I lost it all a few times, but that’s because I always took the long shot and it never came in… The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful, it’s too late. Of course, the young man will never understand this truth.”

And then it was done. We’d celebrated Norm. It was poignant, it was funny, it was lovely, and he’s gone.

Oh, wait: there was an Easter egg. It turns out Norm left an hour of new material behind, recorded in his apartment during the lockdown. It’ll be a Netflix comedy special soon. So, we have that. Which is precisely what Norm wanted. 



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