Many of you are likely familiar with Jim Downey, the longtime writer for Saturday Night Live who came in with Bill Murray in 1976 and didn’t permanently leave the show until 2013. During his decades with SNL, he experienced firsthand a number of Norm Macdonald stories, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s focus on one Norm tale that’s so good I stumbled on it in two places today.
The story comes from Downey, who wrote “Weekend Update” with Macdonald during Macdonald’s stint at SNL. It concerns a homeless-newspaper bit that Downey and Macdonald were toying with during one summer between seasons.
Here’s the account in written form, from Splitsider:
One summer, when SNL was on hiatus, Norm and I read a story about a newspaper published by and for the homeless. We were improvising around that idea, doing the tough newspaper editor handing out assignments to his homeless reporters: “Edwards! I want a thousand words on going to the bathroom in your pants! You! Davis! How about a human interest feature on urine-stained mattresses! Bernstein! Can you give me a long ‘think piece’ on people whose brains are being monitored by the CIA?!”
I had forgotten all about this conversation, but the first SNL episode back that fall, Norm says to me, “Hey, Downey. Remember that homeless idea we had? About the newspaper by and for the homeless? Well, I was out in L.A., you know? And I was doing this benefit for the homeless . . . ”
And I’m thinking, Oh no . . .
And he says, “Yeah, I did that bit for the audience . . . at this benefit, you know? And they hated it!”
It was very Andy Kaufman-esque of him, according to Dennis Miller, when Downey recounted the same story to Macdonald’s predecessor in this interview (if you want to hear the audio version of it):
“He is the most fearless performer,” Downey said. “And he likes it when people laugh. He enjoys that. But it’s sort of one in half a dozen aspects” that he cares about.
It’s that comedic philosophy that would prompt Macdonald to deliver a homeless-newspaper bit at a homeless benefit, and that fearlessness is exactly why it’s hard not to love and respect Norm Macdonald.