I know that makes me sound like a dick, but for context: I was a teen in the 1990s, and so Norm MacDonald is sorta fixed in my head as a half-funny smirk standing off center in a scene framed around David Spade abusing Chris Farley. It isn’t that I wrote him off—upon reflection, I just realized I never even evaluated what the dude was doing; the director, camera man, SNL staff, and guys I sat with at lunch wrote Norm off, and I took their word for it.
All that aside, this is a really, really fascinating interview. Neat stuff about craft in here—which I’m always down for—but also a really nuanced view of art as a product of human interaction and actualization.
I was gonna write a book about how to be a stand-up without being funny, but I thought it would be too cynical. I really think I could write it though.
A manual for how to perform an impression of a stand-up comedian?
That’s exactly right. It was mostly about crowd control. If you’re not very good you have to deal with the audience a lot, so it was a lot about how to do that. Like, you can pick on one person in the audience, and then the rest of the audience gets on your side because they’re afraid of being picked on. It’s all the psychology of mobs. You can learn it. I’ll go to a club and suddenly the guy who was the bouncer last time I was there is a stand-up, because he’s been there, watching how it works. Even jokes, you can do them mathematically without having any inspiration.
How’s that work?
You just take a premise and instead of following it to its logical conclusion you follow it to its illogical conclusion by having a faulty premise to begin with.
It’s surprising that you ultimately decided against writing a book that would’ve suggested that your vocation, the field of your life’s work, can be an empty, soulless shell of an occupation.
Yeah, I also thought it would be too pompous. It’s nobody’s fault there aren’t more funny comedians. If I were an awful comedian, I’d probably still be drawn to doing it. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, Jay Leno was there and at the time he was the king of all stand-ups. And one night, I had to follow him. I was thinking, My god, this is going to be the worst. But Jay told me it’s fine to follow a good comedian. You just don’t want to follow a bad comedian. Or a filthy comic. They pull the audience down. It’s hard to go on after a filthy comic with, “What about Raisin Bran? Doesn’t everyone know how big a scoop is?”
Are you following the Kathy Griffin stuff at all?
What she did was grotesque. Disgusting. It shows how isolated everyone is. I was golfing last week and I told the guy I was golfing with, “It’s getting pretty crazy. I heard someone say they’re trying to ‘humanize’ Trump. Well, he is human.” And this guy goes, “Well, barely.” Jesus Christ. But Kathy Griffin went about as far as you can go. It’s like she had no sense of the history of that kind of image.
It’s hard to understand how someone didn’t say to her or the photographer, “Maybe let’s dial this down from an eleven to about a seven.”
The photographer, her manager, her agent, the person who made the severed head—no one said, eeeh. And I hate the immediate apology. Why are you apologizing? You apologize and then everyone just accepts that the apology is genuine.
What’s wrong with apologizing?
If it had gone over good she wouldn’t be apologizing for it. She’s only apologizing for the result and what it might mean for her career. It’s like when a guy like Anthony Weiner says, “I’m sorry. I made a terrible decision.” A decision? You had a pros-and-cons list about texting with that 15-year-old? The action wasn’t the result of a real decision.
Do go and read the whole thing. It is worth your time today.