Norm Macdonald Will Never Die

A kind soul who happened to be the best standup comedian of his generation

Norm Macdonald was not just the finest standup comedian of his generation, he was also one of the kindest souls on Earth. When I discovered, in 2015, that we shared the same tv/film management, I asked my agent if he might arrange for my wife and me to say hello at one of Norm’s Chicago gigs. A few weeks later, we went backstage between sets at City Winery. Not wanting to impose, I thanked him for all the joy he’d brought us for so long, then moved to leave. But he wouldn’t allow it. “Hang out, have dinner with me,” he said.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

And he insisted, then spent more than an hour asking us about our work, talking old movies, telling us about his own book project, and broadcasting us live to his fans on Periscope. He seemed grateful when I told him I’d written a glowing review of his film “Dirty Work” for the Chicago Sun-Times, a movie I truly loved (but most others did not). Turns out, he knew he was battling cancer even then, but never said a word about it, not to us, not to his two sold-out crowds that night, not in Milwaukee the next night (he took the train there, not a limo), not to any audience anywhere, never betraying what must have been going on emotionally.

While he scooped up a bowl of hummus, I told him I’d heard him talk in an interview about the power of the book The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, which argues that humans create character and projects and legacies in order to distract from an otherwise paralyzing truth–that we all must die, that we will all soon be food for worms. That book had influenced me more than any other, and here was my favorite comedian, one of my favorite observers of life, and he’d read it, too. I couldn’t have imagined at the time what he must have been going through.

One of Norm’s greatest bits is about dying. In his everyman style, he notes that his great grandfather died, his grandfather died, and his father died. “I come from a long line of death, that’s my point,” he says, then spends the rest of that bit, and some of the rest of his special, talking about mortality. It’s wonderful stuff, and it works because Norm MacDonald is saying what we all contemplate at 3 a.m. while the rest of the world has somehow fallen asleep and we try to comprehend what it means to disappear for eternity. And he says what we all say when we are finally able to close our eyes: “Fuck it, I ain’t dying.”

Just before Norm’s second set, we thanked him and said goodbye. On the way out, I told myself to remember a joke from his earlier set. It was offhand, almost a throwaway, about visiting Kingston Mines, a legendary Chicago blues club, when he was a young comic. He said he’d never been to a blues club but always liked the evocative nicknames given to so many of the musicians, names that captured not just the essence of the music but the man. Then he did an impression of club’s emcee: “Let’s put our hands together for a real Chicago bluesman, Shitlife Johnson! Come on out, Shitlife!”

The crowd went crazy. I told my wife on the way home that my dream would be to write a joke that good, to use language that perfectly.

Norm MacDonald was brave in a way that has nearly gone extinct in our politically correct, cancel-rabid culture (his relentless jokes about OJ cost him his gig on SNL). Yet, he was as sweet and sentimental a person as one might ever hope to meet (see his tribute to Letterman on one of Dave’s last late-night shows, which nearly brought Letterman to tears, linked below). I’m proud to have played his perfect special, “Me Doing Standup,” for my two boys long before society would have considered them old enough to hear it. I did it because Norm was a genius with a dear heart and an unflinching eye for truth, and it’s never too early to hear from a man like that.

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Robert Kurson

Robert Kurson earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and a law degree from Harvard Law School. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Shadow Divers and Rocket Men. He lives in Chicago.

One thought on “Norm Macdonald Will Never Die

  • September 15, 2021 at 11:48 am
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    Such a beautiful tribute, Rob. Takes one to know one.

    Like all artists, the best comedians bring us their take on important truths. Whereas philosophers will write volumes on the most arcane angels-on-a-pinhead topics, poets have to “use language that perfectly”, as you put it so aptly.

    But comedians have to do this LIVE, in front of a hopefully grateful audience – and they have to earn that gratitude immediately and sustain it. Even the greatest joke – one that will “kill” when told with the right kind of love, expertise and practice – will die if the timing or language it’s quite right. And then not only does it not work, the artist is standing there reaping the painful silence. Who tries to make a living taking that kind of risk, let alone succeed occasionally – not to mention connect enough times that we even know their name?

    A wise guy once pointed out to me how selfless this is: stand-up comics bear the weight of certain humiliation (it takes years to get really good) and to what end? To give the audience a momentary break (including from thinking about how we and everyone we love will soon be no more). But the great ones do that AND provide us a new angle on important truths we should be spending time contemplating (but most of the time allow ourselves to be distracted from by the latest intrusion of modern slave-to-technology society).

    I always thought Norm Macdonald was funny, but I haven’t taken the time to appreciate his art enough. Those two clips were a great start. Where would you recommend I go next – his specials, old SNLs, bits and bobs on YouTube?

    “Who’s gonna feed them hogs?” Perhaps Shitlife Johnson.

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