Norm MacDonald Was Masterful At Using Awkwardness And Silence For Comedy

As with most things, the rules of conversational decorum spring from a mix of puritanical hokum and repetition that first wore a path in the grass before inspiring the construction of tracks that we’re all supposed to use when going back and forth with each other. What better way to avoid confusion and awkwardness? But why would we want to avoid those things? How boring. How uptight.

When I interviewed Norm Macdonald in 2017 for this very website, he said, “The only interesting guys are guys that think differently than every other single person.” Norm McDonald had little interest in staying on the tracks. The late comic, who passed away yesterday after a draw with cancer, made his own rules and mined the awkward spaces most comics run away from. Because silence is thought to be a killer when you’re trying to make someone laugh, but not for Norm. He was fearless, not as a high-minded socio-comedic strategy. More for kicks.

There are so many great Norm clips circulating right now as people remember the masterful and pure way he structured and delivered jokes, but I want to pull a few specific ones from the pile which specifically point to the fearlessness I’m honoring.

First up is Norm’s appearance on Comedy Central’s Bob Saget roast. Delivered slow and low, Norm shows off a set of balls that’d put Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend to shame. It doesn’t matter if the individual jokes fall flat or feel hacky, earning only scattered applause and laughter — that’s the point. But you notice that it feels like the laughter is growing as it goes. Because fully assembled, this is an unforgettable bit of anti-comedy which roasts the weirdly resilient roast format. And, most importantly, everyone, Norm included, is having a grand time.

To really appreciate the way Norm used awkwardness as a weapon, we have to view him in slightly more uncomfortable situations. Because Norm, to his total credit, clearly didn’t love playing the game and he didn’t always play nice when he was asked to. As an example, here’s this gathering of YouTube comedy personalities from 2013.

It’s a pre-show where Norm is barely masking the stranger-in-a-strange-land feelings he’s having while there to celebrate viral comics he’s never heard of. Co-hosts Jenny Slate and Kassem G valiantly try to straddle the line between keeping order and giving this sweatpanted legend space to do his work. Norm? Like Superman drawing power from Earth’s sun, Norm is getting absolutely nourished by everyone’s lack of comfort, including The Lonely Island, who he introduces as “Samberg and the other two fellas.” It’s a near half-hour of awkwardness with Norm relishing the chance to be a volatile elder freaking out the kids for what he might say next.

Going back in time to 2000, there’s this absolute trainwreck with Norm on The View. Why is Norm on The View? An amazing question. This is more notable for the reaction of the hosts to Norm than anything he says, even though he insinuates, repeatedly, that Bill Clinton killed someone and that George W. Bush is pretty great.

[Side note: Norm occasionally kicked up controversy when things got political. It may be why he often strived to keep politics out of his act and flatly stated to us that he “hated politics” while praising the importance of comics who could make everyone laugh. But then he kept bringing it back to politics in the interview… which is pretty damn relatable because who doesn’t hate that shit while also failing to not be drawn back into it?]

Norm’s statement on The View, which was in response to a direct question about the election and not plucked out of thin air, turned Barbara Walters instantly apoplectic with Star Jones turning similarly dismissive of Norm and Joy Behar insulting him to his face to try and make him stop. This all happens over like three minutes, but Norm doesn’t really waver or intensify, so much as he just coasts, watching the car wreck as the hosts of The View go atomic. And I mean, it was so freaking easy to do it. It’s as though he set off firecrackers in the show’s throw pillow storage room.

Doesn’t it seem like fun to pull the thread on someone’s buttoned-up show plan, introducing mayhem and realness in a way that creates the rarest thing in entertainment — a fully unscripted, unanticipated moment? Unsurprisingly, some people, like Barbra Walters, hate it. But others love it. Look at how much fun Conan had with Norm over the years.

In his hybrid novel/memoir, Based On A True Story, Norm opens the final three pages by saying that the “events surrounding [his] departure” from Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update desk may be what he’s most remembered for. And that’s fair, but while it’s a case study in admirable antagonism how he kept taking a sledgehammer to the throbbing nerve of his NBC exec nemesis over his OJ trial coverage, the more interesting aspect of Norm’s Update term is in his relationship to silence and bombing.

I had a whole song worked up about how there was no panic or rush to the next thing. No effort to make people feel comfortable by cracking self-effacing jokes when Norm bombed, but Seth Meyers summed it up perfectly last night on Late Night:

“He just didn’t care if he was bombing. If he thought the jokes were good, he had exactly as much fun telling them to a dead audience than to one who appreciated them. For so many of us, we came up watching Norm and we thought that you were on the inside with him when you were watching him tell these jokes that you thought were great and no one in the room thought was good and you just felt this connection to him and that ability to just stare into an audience unblinkingly telling the jokes that you believed in.”

Goddamn was it thrilling to feel like a cool kid who “got” Norm and his brand of smart-by-way-of-being-silly comedy.

To be your own compass when it comes to telling jokes or being otherwise creative for an audience is difficult and a little dangerous, producing approximately one genius for every 5,000 flameouts who get high on their own supply. But Norm was an absolute genius who understood the scourge of self-seriousness and boilerplate entertainment and the fun he could have by steering things off the tracks to a more interesting place while challenging everyone else to keep up and similarly toss out the rule book. Though, sadly, few ever did. Here’s hoping his memory is an inspiration to others to go freak people out a little.