My Favorite People in the World

Prologue

When I had a Facebook account, I would relish designating favorite items on my profile. I had a warped vision of friends and acquaintances (even strangers!) being fascinated by my choices. I would expose them to the inner recesses of my mind, which they would appreciate all the more, while doing them the favor of expanding their imaginative boundaries. Never mind that the vast majority of my selections dovetailed with the mainstream*, that is when they weren’t altogether vacuous.** I figured I would share myself with the world, and the world would be all the better for it.

*Ah yes, that undiscovered gem of a time travel adventure-comedy, Back to the Future.

**Blink-182, son!

In their treatment of favorite items however, Facebook allowed but a few categories: movies, television shows, sports teams, and music. From the beginning, I wanted ‘people.’ Sure, they offered a heroes category, but I didn’t like the designation. My mom is my hero. Firefighters and policemen and first responders are heroes; the guy who came up with Doritos Locos Tacos. But I didn’t want to recognize any of them (except maybe my mom). I only wanted to recognize my favorite people, without placing them on some kind of moral or ethical pedestal.

Facebook never corrected this, what I saw as a blatant oversight. Maybe they were reluctant to admit a fundamental failure. Maybe their ideas people couldn’t handle my truth. Most likely, maybe it was because it’s complete semantics, and I’m the only person on earth who gives a shit. It doesn’t matter. The point is that I’m going to use this space to write about some of my favorite people. They’re not necessarily my heroes or role models – though they can be that as well. They’re simply, for reasons I hope to elucidate, my favorite people in the world.

Norm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald’s career has arguably long passed its apex. He ‘currently’ hosts an entertaining though rambling YouTube video podcast, one that will supposedly return from a 6-month hiatus in February. Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is the amount of weight Macdonald’s put on in recent years – a regular topic of conversation with guests. Meanwhile, his Twitter account shows flashes of his trademark brilliance, but is generally overshadowed by literally hundreds if not thousands of benign and utterly forgettable live-tweets regarding the latest golf tournament.*

*Inspiring the always fun back-and-forth between 1) fans complaining about his tweets and 2) fans admonishing that group for complaining about free content. I belong in a third category, 3) fans who want to murder both of those groups.

Still, Norm Macdonald remains a vaguely familiar face to most, largely due to his time on Saturday Night Live (1993-1998). Since then, he’s starred in a couple of box office duds (Dirty Work, Screwed), headlined some mediocre sitcoms (ABC’s The Norm Show, airing from 1999 to 2001; and FOX’s A Minute with Stan Hooper, which lasted all of six episodes in 2003), and cameo’d sporadically in Adam Sandler productions (most recently, 2011’s Jack and Jill). To the general public, Norm is a failed SNL alumnus, an unremarkable figure. They’re idiots, of course.

Comedy is, naturally, subjective. There’s something about the material, the way a joke is constructed, the way a comedian presents himself or herself, and a million other variables big and small that will add up and register for some folks but not for others.  If you watch a video of Norm performing his act, you will like it or you won’t. I don’t expect to change your mind. Norm Macdonald’s dry, sardonic wit, complete with stilted delivery and aloof nature, after all, has evidently not translated to mass audiences, nor elevated him to leading man status.

But there’s something about the way Norm works that resonates completely with me. It’s so straightforward – no bullshit, no schtick, just the trademark cadence, the familiar deadpan sarcasm. His movements on stage are completely negligible; at most, he does an exaggerated double-take, or he rubs his chin with his thumb and forefinger, as if pondering.  His stand-up sometimes seems less a routine than an internal monologue that the audience happens to be in the vicinity of. It’s fitting that his album is simply entitled “Me Doing Standup.”

What makes Norm amazing is that he doesn’t give a shit.* He knows comedy, knows that he’s funny, and as a result, he takes risks that other comedians don’t. That last bit is such a cliché, I realize, but Norm never presents anything other than himself (consider his Burt Reynolds ‘impressions’ on Celebrity Jeopardy). Rewatching old Weekend Updates, I’m struck by the lack of response to a great number of his jokes. But Norm rolls with it. He stares at the audience. He lingers on the punchline. He finds humor in that tension, in that uneasiness.**  And when HE is ready, he moves on.

*“You want to please [the audience] as a byproduct, but you don’t want to write with that in mind.” (January 2006 interview)

**“Comedy is surprises, so if you’re intending to make somebody laugh and they don’t laugh, that’s funny.” (May 2010 interview)

Because of this approach, Norm’s work is by nature divisive. He famously offered a series of corny, 1930s-style zingers during The Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget, anti-humor performance art at its finest (“You have a lot of well-wishers here tonight, and a lot of them would like to throw you down one – a well!”). His first album, “Ridiculous,” was comprised of vignettes about premises he follows to their logical extensions (e.g. a sports commentator with money on the game he is covering). I can’t say that I’ve loved everything he’s done. But his body of work is a reflection of Norm as a comedian.

I got into Norm when I was a teenager. I have Dirty Work on DVD, which I got autographed after attending his set at the Irvine Spectrum a few years ago. Every so often, I relive his standout appearances on Conan and The Dennis Miller Show. I loved his short-lived 2011 “Sports Show” on Comedy Central, as it was far more true to him and his persona than anything since Weekend Update. I even watched his ill-fated animated “The Fake News” series on the comedy website Super Deluxe (don’t ask). I’ve long thought of Norm Macdonald as one of the funniest people ever. And he remains one of my favorite people in the world.

Highlights

In an April 2011 interview:

I tried to cut all cleverness out of the joke. I’ve always been very averse to innuendo, especially sexual. I find it cowardly or something. Like on Will & Grace, my mother will laugh at it, then I’m like, “You know what that joke’s about, right? Like, that one guy fucked that guy in the ass.” And then she’s aghast, and I’m like “That’s what he just said when he talked about the tunnel! So why didn’t he just say it?” It always maddens me that people can laugh at sexual innuendo, then you can say what it really means, and they’re like “Ah! I can’t hear that!” So on Update, the only real original thing was trying to take away the cleverness of the punchline and make it as blunt as possible.

In an October 2009 interview:

It’s very hard to be aware of what you’re thinking of because you are just thinking of it in the moment. I never write stuff down or anything like that. People will come up to me and say “Do you remember that thing you said? It was so funny.” And I go, “I said that?” I just told them as I was talking. And I think, “I should’ve written that down or something.”  …As long as the subject is interesting enough, then I can find variations on the theme. A thousand variations on the theme. Just attack it from every possible angle.

Every time Norm shows up on Conan, he’s memorable. In his final Late Night appearance in February 2009, he started right in with “It’s stunning how Jay Leno outfoxed you again” (referring to the 10 pm experiment, which proved to be prophetic). The best, however, was when he hijacked a May 1997 interview with Courtney Thorne-Smith.

Finally, Norm hosted the ESPYS in 1998. He’s never been asked back.

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