Norm Macdonald looked death in the face and laughed

The comedian, who has died aged 61, railed against the phrase ‘battling cancer’. Kevin E G Perry pays tribute to a man brave enough to be frank and funny even when facing the end

Thursday 16 September 2021 16:46
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Comedian Norm Macdonald dies of cancer aged 61

I was devastated by the news that the stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live host Norm Macdonald has died, at the age of 61. But when I read reports that said he’d been “battling cancer”, I had to laugh. “In the old days, a man could just get sick and die,” MacDonald said in his career-best 2011 special Me Doing Standup. “Now, they have to wage a battle.”

He went on to describe his Uncle Bert’s “courageous battle” with cancer – lying in a hospital bed with a drip in his arm watching Matlock. His point obviously wasn’t to mock Bert, but rather the inadequacy of the mealy mouthed words we use when we talk about – or try to avoid talking about – the inevitable end. “The reason I don’t like it is that in the old days they’d go: ‘Hey, that old man died,’” he went on. “Now they say: ‘He lost his battle’. That’s no way to end your life! What a loser that guy was, the last thing he did was lose! He was waging a brave battle, but then at the end I guess he got kind of cowardly. The bowel cancer, it got brave. You’ve got to give it to the bowel cancer!”

Macdonald ends the bit by claiming that he wouldn’t personally be able to have a “brave battle” with cancer because he’s “not brave”, imagining himself bargaining with the devil and offering up his grandson in an attempt to save his own skin. Only a year after that special aired, MacDonald received his cancer diagnosis, although he decided to keep the news from his family, friends and fans. “He was most proud of his comedy,” his producing partner and friend Lori Jo Hoekstra told Deadline after his death. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him.”

MacDonald didn’t let the diagnosis slow him down, either. While he’ll probably be most widely remembered for his time on SNL and his cult 1998 comedy Dirty Work, in the last decade of his life, he parlayed his hilarious, anything-goes podcast Norm Macdonald Live into a Netflix talk show, Norm Macdonald Has A Show, and another stand-up special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery. In 2016, he also published a book, Based On A True Story, which purported to be a memoir about his comedy career and childhood in Quebec but was in fact a staggeringly brilliant flight of dark imagination. The Wall Street Journal called it, “closer to a novel, a Russian tragicomedy, perhaps. Dostoyevsky by way of 30 Rockefeller Center.”

The book works so well because it’s essentially a collection of shaggy dog stories, and nobody could tell a shaggy dog story better than Macdonald. There’s a section in the book about a dying child whose final Make-a-Wish request is for Macdonald to help him kill a baby seal that will never leave me. The journey his jokes went on were frequently even funnier than their punchlines. The most famous example of his convoluted style would be his now-legendary Moth Joke, but a personal favourite is the one about Dirty Johnny and his Uncle Terry in Da Nang. In Macdonald’s hands the language of this filthy joke becomes poetry, as he paints a picture of the depraved Terry on the battlefield “standing in the mud and the blood and the glory”.

Many of Macdonald’s finest jokes revolve around death. (On why he doesn’t trust politicians: “Politicians are always like: ‘Our biggest problem today is unemployment’. I’m like: ‘What about getting old and sick and dying?’”) Does it change anything to know that he knew he was dying when he was telling them? I don’t think so. I suspect Macdonald would have pointed out that he knew and understood the fact of his mortality well before he received his cancer diagnosis. “My dad died, my grandfather died, my great-grandfather died,” he noted in Me Doing Standup. “And the guy before him… I don’t know? Probably died? I think he died… I come from a long line of death, that’s my point.”

It’s that 2011 special I’ve been listening to in the hours since news of Macdonald’s death became public. The fact that we’re all going to die one day is a hard subject to talk about. It makes people shifty, nervous, uncomfortable. To spend the opening 10 minutes of a stand-up special talking about it at length, as Macdonald does, takes real strength, regardless of what he said about not being brave. To make an honest reckoning with mortality as amusing as he does is nothing short of miraculous.

Macdonald opens that show by announcing “It’s good to be alive, isn’t it?” before adding: “the reason it’s so good is because it’s so bad to be dead. It’s not like life’s so f***ing great, but compared to being smothered in earth…” He then announces that every year he makes the same new year’s resolution: not to die. Norm Macdonald couldn’t keep that resolution this year, but that doesn’t mean he lost a battle. He just died, like he told us he would, while we were laughing.

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