Norm Macdonald always had a way of making mundane, everyday things — the habits of a moth, Germans’ inexplicable love of David Hasselhoff, crime in New York City — absolutely hilarious. Unlike other comics, he wasn’t prone to exaggeration or absurdity; he simply presented the world as he saw it, pragmatically, in his nasal, sandpapery voice. His fundamental stance: Everyone around him had gone mad while he remained sane.
Looking back at his stand-up routines, “Weekend Update” segments, and talk-show appearances offers a potent reminder that Macdonald could knock a room dead with a one-liner like nobody else. Over his three decades in comedy, he gave us almost too many tear-inducing jokes to count. So when compiling some of our favorite Norm moments, we stuck to impressions, memorable sketches, and longer bits that let the magic of Norm build. As David Letterman put it simply: “Norm was the best.” This list proves it beyond a doubt.
Norm as Letterman
Macdonald was always open about how much he worshipped David Letterman — he made tons of appearances on both of the late-night icon’s talk shows, and you can see him tearing up at the end of his final set on the Late Night stage, after telling Dave he loves him. (“I wanted to say something,” he later told Howard Stern of his impromptu parting line, “but … it wasn’t that.”) His impersonation of his idol on SNL, though, was somehow both affectionate and merciless — nicer than his vicious Quentin Tarantino takedown, but still sharp enough to turn some of Letterman’s verbal quirks and repeated non sequiturs (“Ehh….got any gum?”) into a spot-on impression. This cold open (featuring host Alec Baldwin as Robert De Niro) is a classic example of taking a celebrity’s characteristics and blowing them up into a caricature. That explosive laugh that turns into a cough gets us every single time.
Cobras vs. Panthers
All Macdonald wanted to do was lead his street gang to victory in this 1996 Saturday Night Live bit, and it would have happened if it weren’t for all those pesky West Side Story dance numbers. The sketch is a showcase for Macdonald’s deadpan, voice-of-reason shtick — the perfect foil for the usual SNL absurdity. First, Macdonald’s Cobra leader actually seems to marvel at how well rehearsed his gang is, more than getting angry that they can’t control themselves from bursting into song and dance. But when a rival set, the Panthers show up, and Chris Kattan clumsily pirouettes out from behind some trash cans, he realizes the Cobras might not be so prepared for battle. “Oh, no, no. That’s not good,” Macdonald says, with a hint of his trademark chuckle, until he finally does what he’d probably do in real life: walks away.
SNL‘s recurring Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch “was never about impressions,” Norm Macdonald once explained. “Celebrity Jeopardy! was about hope. It was about the hope of one man, Alex Trebek, the hope that never died. The audacious hope that never let the facts of the past interfere. It was a rhythm piece, as each disaster was signaled by the sound of a buzzer, and each new category signified more, new, hope.” The Sisyphian task faced by Will Ferrell’s Trebek was only as funny as it was because Macdonald and Darrell Hammond so perfectly captured a larger-than-life aspect of, respectively, Burt Reynolds and Sean Connery, the worst torturers in Trebek’s personal hell. And this 1999 appearance is Macdonald’s masterpiece as Reynolds… or should we say Turd Ferguson? The random name-change Reynolds scrawls on his contestant board to start the game becomes a running gag, and Macdonalds’ puckish, gum-smacking performance, as Reynolds gleefully taunts the stoic Trebek, for one night seems to change the calculus of hope Macdonald described as the heart of these sketches. Because when Burt Reynolds Turd Ferguson is being this much of an ass, can you blame Trebek for screaming at him like he does at the end?
Sometimes, Macdonald got his material in unexpected places. At least that’s what he tells Conan O’Brien in a now-famous 2009 appearance on Conan’s late-night show. As Macdonald explains it, the driver who brought him to the studio told him a joke that very evening. “A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office,” he begins. The podiatrist asks, “What’s the problem?” Over the next nearly three minutes, Macdonald-as-moth waxes fatalistic about the malaise of working life, the travails of fatherhood — seeing his own cowardice reflected in the face of his son — and experiencing thoughts of suicide. When he finally reaches the punchline, the audience erupts in cheers. “So Norm,” O’Brien says when he’s finished. “We’re pretty much out of time.”
Norm as Bob Dole
From Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon to Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton, SNL has long been a showcase for amazing political impressions. And when Bob Dole stepped down from the Senate to challenge Clinton for the presidency in 1996, Macdonald stepped up to the plate for one of the most dead-on and hilarious impersonations in the show’s history. Clutching a pen in his right hand (as Dole did to conceal the effects of a World War II injury), constantly employing the third person, and mimicking the Kansas native’s deadpan catchphrases, Macdonald practically was Dole for a generation of SNL viewers. One famous fan? Bob himself. “Norm was a great talent, and I loved laughing with him on SNL,” the 98-year-old former Senator tweeted. “Bob Dole will miss Norm Macdonald.”
Roasting Bob Saget
Norm Macdonald’s appearance at the Roast of Bob Saget was unlike anything ever seen before. Watch this legendary clip with additional footage. pic.twitter.com/nb6JECXn4H
— comedycentral (@ComedyCentral) September 14, 2021
Like Letterman, Macdonald rarely seemed happier than when a joke bombed. Often he’d dabble in esoteric wordplay that flew over people’s heads, grinning while they sat there not getting it. But for his legendary appearance at the Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget, confusing people was the joke. Holding a stack of notecards, Macdonald doled out a mix of hacky punchlines that would’ve felt stale way back in the Sixties (i.e. Saget probably thinks the English Channel is a TV station) and ones that were barely jokes at all (telling close pal Gilbert Gottfried, “Your neck reminds me of a typewriter: Underwood”). At first, the routine baffled oth the audience and the other celebs onstage, but around the time Norm clumsily heckles comic Greg Giraldo, everyone seems to realize he’s very deliberately bombing to illustrate what a dumb idea celebrity roasts are in the first place. Or maybe just to have a good time, everybody else be damned. Soon, the laughter rises to a roar, right up until the last, quintessentially Norm moment.
Flirting With Courtney Thorne-Smith on Conan
Though it’s generally known as the Late Night With Conan O’Brien appearance where Norm Macdonald roasted Courtney Thorne-Smith, a re-watch of the famous clip reveals it’s anything but. In 1997, Thorne-Smith was invited onto O’Brien’s show, where she appeared alongside Macdonald. During the break before her segment, apparently, Macdonald and O’Brien both admitted to having a crush on the Melrose Place star, who was then leaving the hit show to pursue a career in film. Conan dives in with the usual questions — what’s next for your character, tell us about the new film — as Norm tries to figure out not-so-subtle ways to insert himself into the conversation. First, there’s the story about how he used to live on a street called Melrose Place and how “fat tourists” would gather outside to take pictures. (This story does not have a punchline.) Then he learns Carrot Top is Thorne-Smith’s co-star in the upcoming movie, Chairman of the Board, and he’s off to the races. Thorne-Smith laughs and covers her face with her hands as Norm asks why she agreed to do a movie with the red-haired prop comic, cracks about premature ejaculation and “box-office poison,” and offers, “I bet ‘board’ is spelled B-O-R-E-D!” Is it sophisticated flirting? No. But it gets huge laughs, all at Carrot Top’s expense, not Courtney’s. As a gentlemanly Macdonald assures O’Brien at the end, “She’s a beautiful lady. And a talented, nice talk-show guest.”