Norm Macdonald Goes Gonzo

Before tackling our listeners' etiquette questions, the comedian explains why his new memoir is filled with half-truths and how he missed out on his dreams of being anointed by Johnny Carson.

Norm Macdonald has been a major figure in the comedy world since at least the early ’90s, when he began a long run as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” He ultimately helmed the show’s “Weekend Update” news segment, where he managed to delight and/or outrage the audience and his bosses with his take no prisoner satire.

Later, he started three seasons of his own sitcom, starred or made cameos in a slew of films, and now he’s published a memoir. It’s called “Based on a True Story.”

Interview Highlights:

On the decline of etiquette

Norm Macdonald: One of my pet peeves is etiquette in the modern world…. Like no one says “I’m sorry.” I swear to God. You’ll go, “Can I have some pancakes?” And the guy brings out a fajita and then you’re like “Wait, what about my pancakes?” And the guy goes, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. You’re like wait, what? Instead of saying I’m sorry.

On why he wanted to tell his life story (kind of)

Rico Gagliano: You wrote this book about your life. Except much of what is in this book, we get the feeling it maybe didn’t happen. It actually reads a little less like a memoir and more like a Hunter S. Thompson novel, complete with the drug trip to Vegas. It always feels like there’s at least a germ of truth in the stories that you tell in there. Why do it that way? Why tell your like story kind of?


Norm Macdonald: Well, because, here’s why: When you look at your life, you have to make 100,000 words. And then when you look at your life, you’re like, “OK, what do I do? I wake up in the morning. I eat some Count Chocula. I finish. I phone a friend. I say what about lunch? I can’t have it right now and I kind of just had that Count Chocula.”

So you plan your lunch. You go to lunch. At lunch, you’re texting, trying to figure out what to do for dinner. So, most of it is food. Most of life is getting food, evacuating food.

I understood this with my son because when I was a young boy, ’cause I’m of a certain age, my dad had a [Super 8] Bell & Howell camera with film our birthday parties… and so there was no volume, bright, garish lights, you know, blinding. The picture would be of the children around the birthday cake, waving in a pixelated manner. But it worked because it mirrored your memory, sort of.

I, with my son, had a video camera that I had, and I taped it in real time as a birthday. And it took two hours and I will never show it to him because it just shows the utter banality of, you know, he’s there and then he walks over there, then the other kid walks over there, then he eats a piece of cake… it’s like reading “My Struggle.”

Rico Gagliano: So basically, the reason you did it this way was just because it was boring otherwise. You just threw in some excitement?

Norm Macdonald: Well, I’ve had incidents that were exciting in my life. Mostly gambling incidents, where everything became rarefied and stuff like that. And when I was a young man, I did narcotics and stuff. So I kind of blended it all together.

And then I had the idea to, because I like in Russian novels, where they just– a guy tells another guy a story, and sometimes for no purpose at all. The first 30 pages is just the guy gets to a bar and buys a loaf of bread and meets another fellow and they have a drink. And then he goes well I’m going to tell you a story now. And then you’re like, “Finally, this is the story!”

And then my son made an important, stylistic point. He said that I should change tenses. So that helped a lot. So I changed tenses between my Vegas adventures and my memories.

How he just missed out on making an appearance on Johnny Carson

Norm Macdonald: When I first moved to Los Angeles, that was my dream [to appear on Carson’s show]. That’s why I went to Los Angeles, because he had only eight months left, Johnny Carson, when he announced his retirement and I decided I would be the last comedian on the program. And Johnny Carson would anoint and I would go down tough in history.

And then, this guy, Jim McCawley is his name, he was the booker. And, oh my God, he was terrible. I finished a set and he’d come up to me to me and he’d go, “I didn’t like it, but I was drunk!” And I would go, “Oh, jeez.”

Sometimes I’d be performing. I’d look over and he’d be kissing a girl. I’m like, “Oh my God.” So then, finally, he said, “You’re a Jay comic.” And I’m like, “Oh, what?” Because Jay Leno was doing Monday nights. He was guest hosting. He goes, “You’re not a Johnny comic. You’re a Jay comic.” Whatever that meant. So I didn’t get on.

[Ed. note: Above, Norm does an impression of Carson with Jimmy Fallon.]

On a particularly dark chapter in the book

Rico Gagliano: Probably the darkest moment in the book is you imply pretty strongly that you were sexually abused as a young man at the hand of a seemingly kindly family friend.

Norm Macdonald: Ah, well. I just write what I remember happening.

Rico Gagliano: Did that give you any pause, first of all, to look back to it?

Norm Macdonald: Well, I remember nothing. I don’t remember being– someone pointed it out to me later that it seemed to be a passage where people would just naturally infer that something bad happened. But nothing bad happened that I know of.

Rico Gagliano: Really? Because it’s a frightening moment in the book. And there’s a chapter where you do say, “I don’t remember anything that happened for the next several years.”

Norm Macdonald: Yeah, I had a lapse of memory for a few years.

Rico Gagliano: Do you have any interest in figuring out what did happen?

Norm Macdonald: No. If something terrible happened, why would you want to remember something awful? You never have a recovered memory that’s good. You never go, “I used to like blueberry pie.” It’s always something horrifically violent or sexual, so I don’t need that. I have enough trouble in life.

But actually, not everything has to be unconquerable. You can comeback from anything, except death… I mean, interminable pain is tough, but it’s still– I knew a guy in a wheel chair who could only move his head a little bit. It was a ski accident. Terrible depression in the first year. And then the second year, I saw him, I was talking to him, and he bitchin’ about “The Bachelor.” He’s like, “how could he pick her?!?” And I was like, “Well what about your thing?!” So I guess everybody regresses to the mean.

On one particular “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which his Andy Rooney gag wasn’t exactly a hit with the audience

Rico Gagliano: Well, here’s the thing about [that sketch] that’s amazing: the gag was that Andy Rooney is not that funny. There’s a long monologue where Andy Rooney, instead of telling jokes, is just listing states that he’s gotten fan mail from. [Ed note: Watch the sketch in question here at 42:30]

Norm Macdonald: That’s amazing you remember that because it got zero laughs… I listed way more than I was supposed to. That was the last episode, and I was really afraid Lorne might fire me.

But, yeah, it came because everybody had done impressions of Andy Rooney, and then I heard him say that he had never said, “Do you ever notice…?” You know, because we would always say, “Do you ever notice…?” And he said he never said it.

So then, I looked at him and stuff, and I realized, yeah, he’s not that funny, and he uses way too many examples. Like, he’ll go, “There’s too many cotton in pills.” And then he’d have a bottle of pills. He’d go, “Here’s some anti-psychotic, mostly cotton. This is for your heart — I don’t know what it is — mostly cotton.” So his desk would be filled with the same example over and over. That’s funny you saw that because, yeah, it was dead silent.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, what gave you the balls to do that? Was it because it was the last show?

Norm Macdonald: No, I thought it would get laughs. I don’t go into something thinking it’s not going to get laughs. I was convinced it would get laughs.

Rico Gagliano: But, I mean, in the midst of that joke, you just said that you extended it.

Norm Macdonald: Yeah, that was a dumb move. Because I was going with that theory that if you keep going, you know, that they’ll come around.

Rico Gagliano: I will tell you that I read it as kind of a middle finger to the audience. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t think this is funny? Well, I’m going to just keep doing it until you get it.”

Norm Macdonald: Yeah, a little bit. I’d do that sometimes, yeah. I try not to, but you get bored, you know. You get bored.

On having a cult following vs. “selling out”

Brendan Francis Newnam: But this kind of comedy has earned you, like, a huge amount of respect from other comedians and a rabid cult following, and, in fact, according to this book, that’s been the case since your early days as a stand-up in Canada, but you write, “Being a stand-up comedian with a cult following just means most folks hate your guts.” Would you want it any other way, though? I mean, what…?

Norm Macdonald: Yeah, of course. Well, I mean, I just want to make myself laugh. I don’t know any other way to do it. I don’t know if anyone does.

I remember, on “Saturday Night Live,” there was one guy who could write very hacky sketches, and they would kill. And then, there were other kind of headier writers from Harvard that would write precise, high-concept, funny ideas, but they would not work. They were too writerly.

And so, the one week, the writerly guys said, “We’re going to write hack stuff like this guy!” And they all failed. They couldn’t do it because the guy that wrote the hack stuff, he loved it, and the other guys, they would write it and you could see the contempt in the words.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. I’ve had…a friend of mine actually said, “If it was easy to sell out, we’d all be doing it. We’d all be making a million bucks.”

Norm Macdonald: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, that’s great.

Be sure to check out Norm’s etiquette segment here. We don’t suggest you take the advice, but it will make you laugh.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

*(Ed. note: News broke today that while Mr. Macdonald was out of the country, his housesitter, a family friend, overdosed in his home. This event occurred several days after this interview was taped, and the story broke after we posted this episode.)