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It was Frank Skinner who first brought my attention to Norm Macdonald. Years ago – I can’t remember how, as this was before YouTube – he showed me a clip of a matinee idol-looking man at the Montreal comedy festival, doing a bit about lying. But a very specific element of lying. “You ever lie for no reason at all?” he says, in his impossibly rootsy North American voice, crazily upbeat – which was so much part of his delivery, of his ability to charm but also to make the things he was talking about, often very familiar, become strange and new. “Someone says, ‘You seen that movie with Meryl Streep and the horse?’ And you go: ‘Yes.’” And here he pauses, and does another very Norm thing: he stares for a long time, nervelessly, at the audience, making them understand, just through pausing, that this is a lie, and that that is funny, before saying: “And then you think: what am I lying about over here? I stand to gain nothing from this lie.”
I was hooked. Much as I love many American standups, Norm – who was Canadian – had something going on which I perceive is unusual in that world. American standups are often clever and insightful and satirical and possessed of extraordinary stagecraft, but not that many of them are what I would call funny-boned: by which I mean, Eric Morecambe-boned, the ability to make you laugh while doing virtually nothing. Norm totally was. Watch him on Weekend Update on SNL, the gig that made him most famous. He often does nothing. He says the joke, and then leaves – on live American TV – the longest silence, letting the laughs build simply by the force of his impossibly twinkly eyes. Of course the joke in Norm’s case, was often something that most people would not say. That too was part of his technique, the juxtaposition between his extreme comic touchstones – “crack whore” was virtually one of his catchphrases – and his apparent sweetness. That sweetness is there too in his astonishing TV chatshow appearances – only Billy Connolly comes close for the greatness of these – notably in his legendary reframing on Conan of an old joke about a moth as if it were a Dostoevsky novel.
I never met him. We had one exchange on Twitter, after I’d written something nice about him in this very paper, and he asked if he could see my show about my family. I told him he’d have to come to London, but I very much hoped he could make it over. He never did, but as with all great comedians, I felt I knew him anyway. Later in his career he said some stuff which flirted with what we now call cancellation. I’m not sure he was ever that bothered. He’d been cancelled before cancellation was a thing, sacked from SNL after refusing to stop making jokes about OJ Simpson. And that’s the key thing I love about Norm. A deep commitment to comedy: a fuck it commitment to comedy. We live in complex times for comedy, when it is more policed than it used to be, and some of that is valuable, but some of it may not be conducive to the flourishing of pure funny. Norm was pure funny. The – also very funny – writer Simon Blackwell said to me that watching Norm gave you that “glorious feeling where you’re suspended in that comic register and anything can be said. Not in some route-one shock jock ‘Have I triggered you?’ shit way, but like partaking in a secular mass.” For as long as I live, and laugh, I – an atheist, a superfan – will continue to pray at Norm Macdonald’s altar.