Midway through the 1997-98 season of Saturday Night Live, it was shockingly revealed that Norm Macdonald, who had anchored the Weekend Update segment since 1994, would not be returning to his position for the first show of 1998. After this was disclosed, we would find out that the person responsible for Macdonald’s firing was an NBC executive named Don Ohlmeyer, who evidently was not a fan of of Macdonald’s humor.
Shortly after getting canned from the Update desk, Macdonald appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, where he would give one of that show’s most memorable interviews. Macdonald was surprisingly calm about the incident, going so far as to describe Ohlmeyer as a “good man.” Letterman was shocked by this, calling Macdonald a “quisling,” a word which Macdonald said he needed to look up. The entire 16-minute clip is hilarious, and it showed that while the comedy world was reeling from Macdonald’s removal from the Update desk, he was taking the whole thing in stride.
Throughout his three and a half season run on Update, Macdonald frequently targeted O.J. Simpson, and there was rampant speculation that this was the reason for his dismissal. SNL would go on to mention this theory directly, in the Robert Smigel cartoon “Conspiracy Theory Rock,” which contained the lyrics, “Why did they take Norm Macdonald away? Because he made too many jokes about O.J.” Of course, at the end of the song, we learn that the real reason is because Lorne and Marion Barry went to the same high school.
The controversy surrounding Macdonald’s firing did not make things easy for Colin Quinn, who replaced him as the anchor of Weekend Update. Macdonald was beloved by fans for his distinct personality, and ultra-dry sardonic wit. It was going to be hard for Quinn to win over the audience, a fact he was not shy about discussing. At the beginning of his first Update, Quinn addressed the situation directly, while giving a hilarious monologue about the entire episode:
You know how you go to your favorite bar, and your local bartender isn’t there? You ask, “Where’s Jeff?” “Jeff no longer works here. I’m Steve.” And you’re thinking, “Hey, who’s this idiot? I like Jeff.” But you still want your drink? And even though Steve doesn’t mix your drink the same way you’re used to, like Jeff, you still like the same bar. You don’t want to have to go to a different bar, and even Steve might feel kinda bad because Jeff trained him. Jeff showed him how to work the cash register, where the tonic was on the soda gun, who tips, who doesn’t… Well, I’m Steve. What can I get you?
Quinn never developed the following that Macdonald did during his time on Update. It was a shame because he had an affable personality, and he went on plenty of great rants about Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, but he could never really get a foothold on the audience. He was out of the Update chair after two and a half seasons, replaced by Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey.
Norm’s firing was one of the more seismic events in SNL history. It was the rare time the decision to fire a cast member was taken out of Lorne Michaels’ hands. That it happened in the middle of a season only exacerbated how big of a deal it was. If Ohlmeyer had just told Lorne to let Macdonald go after the season, it probably would have flown under the radar. Instead, it became the defining moment of Ohlmeyer’s career. He would eventually leave NBC and become the ombudsman for ESPN, but he will always be known as The Man Who Fired Norm Macdonald.