A Tribute To Norm Macdonald, Late Night TV’s Agent Of Chaos

Norm Macdonald passed away this week at the age of 61 after a long and private battle with cancer. Today we’re republishing this piece, which was originally published in 2016, because it touches on some of the reasons why he was so beloved. Rest in peace, Norm.

Most of the interviews on late-night shows are pretty bad. That’s not even meant as a complaint, really. It’s more just a statement of fact. And given the constraints of the traditional format, there’s not much that can be done about it. Famous people swing through as part of the promotional tour for their latest movie or show or book or viral YouTube video, and they get 5-8 minutes to try to be charming under the hot studio lights. That’s a tough ask for anyone, if we’re being fair about it. But it’s an especially tough ask if the guest is the type of celebrity who has gotten to that point in their career without developing much of a personality. What usually happens in that situation is a long and meandering story about their dog, or one about a bad travel experience, or one about a bad travel experience involving their dog. You’ve seen these before. You get the idea.

But there is a silver lining to this dreck: Whenever something happens to break out of that routine, it really feels like a breath of fresh air. It can be something as simple as two seemingly mismatched funny people appearing together. It can be something as high-concept as a then-little-known SNL cast member showing up in character as a famous crooning lounge singer and calling the host “Johnny,” despite the small fact that the host is named Conan. It can be… well, any of the things Bill Murray did when he showed up on Letterman. The key is to mix things up a little bit, have some fun, and throw a wrench into what can otherwise be a pretty monotonous endeavor.

And this brings us to Norm Macdonald. Macdonald is an all-time great late night guest because he always does just that. He injects a little chaos into the machine. And he’s been doing it for decades, too. Here he is in 1995 joking around with Letterman. Be careful clicking on that, though, because you’ll probably notice the pile of related videos on the right and then whooops there goes your day. One minute you’ll be minding your business watching the “Sully Sullenberger: Airport Pilot” bit from Conan then next thing you know it’ll be dark outside and you’ll be finishing the two-part, 45-minute compilation of him making Letterman laugh. The clips are like drugs.

(I give you this warning because that’s exactly what happened to me when I was putting this post together. I told my editor “Hey, maybe I can write about what a great guest Norm Macdonald is,” and then I spent the next four hours watching clips on YouTube. One of those times I’m really glad about the career choices I’ve made.)

If you’d rather not spend a full day staring at a screen and laughing like a lunatic, though, the Norm As Late Night Guest can really be summed up in three videos. Let’s discuss.

The Moth Joke

It seems silly and pointless to try to explain The Moth Joke (title case, because it deserves that kind of respect) when you could just watch the video, but let’s give it a shot: Norm Macdonald used a guest spot on a popular late-night talk show — valuable television real estate, that many publicists would kill to get their clients in — to tell a four-minute-long joke that developed at an absolute glacial pace. That fact by itself might be funnier than the actual joke. He just goes and goes and goes until he finally gets to the payoff. It is one of my favorite things ever. The trick is to watch the video twice. The first time, watch Norm. That’s important. But the second time, watch Conan whenever it cuts to a wide shot. Watch his face. He’s so happy. Good guest appearances are a treat for the host, too.

The Carrot Top Incident

Two things about this clip:

1) Courtney Thorne-Smith is on Conan’s old NBC show to discuss the end of Melrose Place and her upcoming role in the Carrot Top-starring Chairman of the Board, and for some inexplicable but wonderful reason, Conan left Norm out there next to Andy Richter during her interview. What follows is a few minutes of the funniest television you’ll ever see. The hammer here is the “Chairman of the B-O-R-E-D” line at the end, which is perfect both because it is great and because he came up with it on the spot, but please also note the part where Courtney jokes that the film is sexy “like 9 1/2 Weeks but with Carrot Top” and Norm replies “Is it called 9 1/2 Seconds?” and then pauses an extremely long time before adding “Because he’s a premature ejaculator.” That’s a good piece of business.

2) Poor, poor Courtney Thorne-Smith.

“Why Would You Become A Cook?”

Gordon Ramsay has a long history of showing up on late-night shows and doing an abbreviated version of his Hell’s Kitchen schtick, where he yells and cusses at people while they try to make some dish. I am on the record multiple times in multiple forums as saying that it would be okay with me if someone smashed a pineapple on his head. But if I can’t have that, I’ll settle for this clip, in which Conan invites Norm to tag along during Ramsay’s segment.

It all starts going to hell quickly as Gordon gets on them about their improper segmenting of oranges, but you see Norm start to turn on the whole thing around the 1:30 mark. There’s a little “Get a load of this bozo” thumb and look to the audience a few seconds later, but then, a little after two minutes in, he just turns to a ranting Gordon Ramsay and says “Why would you become a cook?” in the most dismissive manner you can imagine. It takes all of the wind out of Gordon’s sails for a second, legitimately throwing him in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s no pineapple smash, sure. But it’s the next best thing.

All of which is to say, well, thanks, Norm. Late-night television is much better when you’re a part of it, whether you’re wasting expensive production time talking about depressed moths or making jokes about bad movies or just ruining the day of people who could stand to have a few more ruined days. You’re doing a public service, basically. And it’s much appreciated.