Canadian comic Norm Macdonald dies at 61 after a private battle with cancer

TORONTO — Norm Macdonald, whose dry, caustic wit propelled him from Canadian comedy clubs to “Saturday Night Live” fame, lived by a “purist” comedic philosophy that won him the admiration of his famous contemporaries, even if it polarized audiences, says his brother.

Neil Macdonald said the sardonic standup lived by the maxim that comedy should always surprise and never pander, preferring that a joke be met with boos than to stoop for the cheap laugh. Macdonald was devoted to the craft of comedy, he said, and never aspired to make the transition from the stage to the big screen.

“If you speak to his friends like Adam Sandler, David Spade or Tim Meadows — the people he came up with at ‘SNL’ — they would all agree that Norm was the purest amongst them,” Neil said by phone from Los Angeles. “He was the comic’s comic.”

Macdonald died in Los Angeles from leukemia Tuesday, Neil said. While his diagnosis was never made public, Macdonald had been dealing with cancer for “a long time,” and his condition took a turn for the worst last month, he said.

The Quebec City-raised standup was best known for his tenure on “Saturday Night Live” from 1993 to 1998 where he manned the “Weekend Update” desk and became known for impressions including a mischievous Burt Reynolds as a contestant on “Jeopardy!”

News of Macdonald’s death sparked an outpouring of grief on social media, with Steve Martin, David Letterman, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart and Bob Saget among the comedy heavyweights paying tribute.

Macdonald went to great lengths to keep his illness a secret from everyone but his family, because he didn’t want it to affect his comedy, said his brother.

Neil, a former CBC journalist, mused that Macdonald would mock the maudlin cliches that have pervaded coverage of his death.

“It’s almost ironic sitting here watching stories about Norm’s courageous ‘battle’ with cancer,” he said. “He actually did a bit on stage about how stupid that is. What battle? It’s your own body. Is it a win or lose thing?”

Born in Quebec City, Macdonald showed a predilection for comedy from a young age, said Neil, recalling his brother using a hammer as a make-believe microphone while telling jokes as a kid.

One night, Macdonald decided “on a dare” that he would try his hand at performing in front of a real audience at an Ottawa nightclub, said Neil.

Macdonald made a big impression on the audience, said Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin, a longtime friend.

“He combined a laconic delivery and a deadpan look, and yet he had this great twinkle in those blue eyes of his that let you know everything was kind of a joke,” said Breslin, a longtime friend.

“And it was a real powerful combination all those things.”

Breslin said it wasn’t long before his sheer talent made him a name on the Canadian comedy circuit.

Macdonald landed a gig as a writer on “Roseanne” in 1992.

He was cast by “Saturday Night Live” the next year, becoming the face of “Weekend Update” where he poked fun at topical events from behind the news desk.

The role showcased countless sharp-edged punchlines but ultimately marked his fall from “SNL.”

Macdonald’s sense of humour was divisive and some felt it was too prickly.

Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast division, pulled the comic from “Weekend Update” midway through the 1997-1998 season, replacing him with Colin Quinn and citing bad ratings.

However, Macdonald attested that he believed his dismissal was because he refused to stand down from controversial jokes about O.J. Simpson, who was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife.

After leaving “SNL” that year, Macdonald created “The Norm Show” for ABC where he played a hockey player banned from the National Hockey League for tax evasion. The show ran from 1999 until 2001.

He went on to become a favourite guest on late night talk shows, and appeared in a number of films with fellow “SNL” alum, including several with his friend Adam Sandler, among them “Billy Madison,” and a bit part in Rob Schneider’s “The Animal.”

He also led the 1998 Hollywood comedy “Dirty Work,” directed by Bob Saget, where he played one of two friends who launch a revenge-for-hire business. The film was a box-office flop but found a cult following when it was released on home video.

Later in his career, he would host his own Netflix talk show “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” and voice the character of Pigeon on “Mike Tyson Mysteries.”

Over the years, Macdonald amassed a devoted following among comedy fans for his ribald rejection of rote “setup, punchline” standup.

He seemed to relish the sound of a crowd’s silence as he unspooled a joke to an anticlimactic end, such as a meandering story about a moth he infamously delivered on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

“Some people got him and some people didn’t,” Neil Macdonald said. “And the people that got him were fanatical about him.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2021.

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