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Norm Macdonald, meet Joe Donovan

Home » Resonance » Norm Macdonald, meet Joe Donovan

Saturday Night Live, not its original name, launched like a thunderbolt in 1975, at least to the younger generation. Attending Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, I would stay up to watch Carson on an old black-and-white TV with a huge “Frankenstein (on) switch” that connected to the box by a tangle of wires, and sometimes “5 All Night.”

The cheapest show you could imagine, 5 All Night ran from 1:00 to 5:00 a.m., featuring a library of older black-and-white movies and announcer George Fennel (“who never made an on-camera appearance”). There are only so many Charlie Chan movies you want to see in a week. Back in the day, 5 All Night may have contributed to a rise in marijuana sales in southern New England.

Then came Saturday Night Live on NBC. It wasn’t standard network fare, almost the opposite. An inside joke for young people, it was too hip for TV, which is parodied mercilessly. Since then, generations of brilliant comics have come and gone under the direction of founder Lorne Michaels, a Canadian. These include fellow Canadians Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, and Catherine O’Hara.

And Norm Macdonald, who died recently at age 61 from cancer, a disease he had hidden from most of the world for nine years. A native of Ottawa, Macdonald started playing clubs in Canada in his teens. His career took off. A star on SNL from 1993 to 1998, he was fired, at least in part, for his relentless insistence on the guilt of OJ Simpson.

His outrage at Simpson made sense because Macdonald was always funny and serious at the same time. He had an instinct for truth that he didn’t try to suppress. If sometimes he pissed people off and lost high profile gigs because of it, that was the price he would pay. In fact, he hardly noticed. The best scientists have the same quality. They focus on what’s important.

Macdonald was known as a comedian’s comedian. Usually deadpan, he didn’t go for the big laugh, although he often got it. Sometimes he intentionally told jokes that weren’t funny, like the poker player who will throw a hand to confuse his competitors. In fact, Macdonald was an excellent poker player — and sometime gambling addict. One story is that he once threw winnings of $60,000 into the ocean because he knew if he kept it he would probably keep playing and lose a lot more. Sometimes he took a long time to tell a joke that was especially lame, a trait that infuriated talk show hosts like his friend Conan O’Brian, who would laugh hysterically in spite of himself.

The thing about Macdonald and people like him is that they are both intelligent and creative – talented in their own quirky ways. No matter what field they work in, they keep this sense of balance. It is who they are. This does not mean they have balanced lives. Often far from it. Macdonald was a gambler who stayed up at night guzzling coffee and watching sports on TV. Even if he hadn’t placed a bet, he had to watch. But their intelligence and creative approach to life (call it talent) gives them a fundamental honesty. You see this in all fields. They are not always right – no one is – but their BS detector is always on.

I’ve been watching too many Norm clips on video these days, especially when I need a laugh. He reminds me of Joe Donovan. We met at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in the fall of 1968. Joe was artistic and musical and a gifted writer. He did everything his own way, usually well but he didn’t always please the teachers – the curse of creativity.

But most of all he was funny. He came up with stuff no-one else would and he would chide me for being clever but conventional. Being insulted by Joe was a sort of honor, as opposed to being complimented by a lesser mind.

Joe was gay, which didn’t make his life any easier. He lived in New York City as an adult and was HIV positive for decades, one of those outliers with a natural immunity. Then in mid-life he got cancer and checked out.

I’m watching Norm clips and laughing at all sorts of nonsense. The tributes to Norm are pouring in. He was successful but didn’t have an easy life either. Stand up, life on the road, is a grind. Making a career from comedy is hard no matter how talented you are. He appeared in some mediocre films. He got fired from SNL. He pissed people off and took it in stride.

Joe Donovan wasn’t as well known but in my mind he was just as smart and just as funny. People like that brighten our world by helping us to laugh at ourselves, to see stuff we would otherwise miss. Norm was a genius, as other comics keep saying. He made jokes and told the truth at the same time.

If you know people like this, keep them in your life. Their path is not necessarily an easy one, but they give the rest of us perspective. We usually need it.

You might also enjoy David’s last post, “Meditating with Eddie Murphy“.

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