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Norm MacDonald Talks Stand-Up, Teases FX "Reality" Show

Mar. 13, 2009
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Whether he's irking his "Saturday Night Live" bosses with his frequent, deadpanned assertions of O.J. Simpson's guilt, antagonizing the lovable Conan O'Brien and his guests, or horrifying the women of "The View" with his assertion that Bill Clinton "killed a guy," Norm MacDonald's comedy stems from his masochistic ability to be the most hated guy in the room. More recently, MacDonald provided the most memorable moments of Comedy Central's roast of Bob Saget, attempting a high-concept stand-up routine "with no jokes and no delivery, only context" that elicited mostly silence and polite laughter from his fellow comedians before finding second life on YouTube, as many of his television appearances have. In advance of his 7 p.m. performance at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino Tuesday, MacDonald spoke to the Shepherd Express about why comedy is better when nobody laughs, his lost ABC sitcom "Norm," and the upcoming FX show where he kills a guy.

Do you have a high tolerance for failure? So many of the bits that you've done on TV meet with silence.

I don't mind it at all. I don't do comedy for audiences; I just do it for myself. I wouldn't even know how to please somebody, I only know how to please myself. I mean, I certainly don't want audiences to not like me, that's not my goal. I always just think, if it makes me laugh, then it will make everybody laugh. Often I'm wrong. [Laughs] I mean, I've tried before, when I was working on "Saturday Night Live." People were writing these really hackneyed sketches and getting these big laughs. So I thought I would try it, but mine didn't get any laughs. So I think you really have to like the stuff; you can't just aim it at the audience and say, "this is something I think they'll get."

So for a while you actually tried pandering?

When I first started, absolutely. When I first began in comedy, I would get people to clap, rather than actually laugh. You just say something that has no comedy in it at all but people agree with it. Like, if the point of your joke is, like, "Buchanan is a Nazi"-I could say that, and I guarantee that I could get people to clap, simply by saying that. But it's not even true!

So I was getting people to clap, but I reached a point where I never wanted to get people to clap, because it was, like you said, pandering. But there's a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they're clapping, they're saying, "we agree with what you're saying-proceed!" But when they're laughing, they're genuinely surprised. And when they're not laughing, they're really surprised. And sometimes I think, in my little head, that that's the best comedy of all.

What kind of relationship do you have with most of your audiences now? Obviously they're primed to like you at this point, right?

Usually I do well, because I know so much about stand-up, though often I don't. I try to constantly understand stand-up comedy, you know, because that's all I really like in life. I'm still trying to figure it out, all the time, so my act's always different-it's not always completely different, obviously, but probably if you take two of my stand-up acts, they probably have about 40% of the same material. I have a lot of hours of stand-up. So I can cover a lot of stuff.

So you've never been tempted just to coast on perfected material?

No. I guess it would be easier, but it would drive me insane. You only have one life, it turns out. So if you want to say the same thing every night of your life, if that's what you want to choose to do with your life, that seems completely insane to me. Like, I don't even know how singers do that shit. Plus is becomes so rote that unless you're the greatest actor in the world, you can't pretend like it's just coming off the top of your head. I'm probably the worst actor in the world, so I need something new all the time. I need stuff that makes me laugh, and old stuff doesn't make me laugh. And also I'm embarrassed. Like, you know when you tell a person a story that you've already told them before? That's embarrassing, right? So I would be embarrassed by it, but mostly I would be driven insane by the repetition.

It seems like that's not the trend in comedy right now. So many comedians just tour behind the same material they've already popularized.

Well, that's probably the most successful way to be a stand-up is to do the same thing, perfect it, get it really strong, polish it down to 45 minutes. You could probably have the strongest act in the country, if they were really good jokes. But I have a better set than that guy on my best night. On my best night, I'll have the best night that there ever was, except for Richard Pryor.

I'm amazed by how little Web presence you have. You don't have a Web site, and you're barely on Myspace…

No, I don't. And I don't record my stand-up either. I recorded my stand-up once and they played it forever, you know? Like I did an HBO half hour, and they just played it forever. I don't like my old stand-up. I think stand-up is supposed to be in a club, or maybe appear for five minutes on Johnny Carson-or I should say Jay Leno or David Letterman. That's when it's the best, except for one guy, Richard Prior. He made a theatrical film of it. Which I'm considering doing. HBO and all these networks want me to do stand-up specials, but I just don't like stand-up specials. So I'm trying to get a great director to do a theatrical version of my stand up, because I do want to record it. I do want it properly presented at one point.

As a comedian, isn't saying "I don't like stand-up specials" akin to saying, "I don't like money?" Those specials are how most comedians make their living and find an audience, right?

Well, other comedians do it the right way if they're looking for money. Listen, I'll do any fucking other thing, other than stand-up, for money. Like, I'll do the worst movie, the worst TV show; I don't give a fucking shit about that stuff. But stand-up, I've got to go with merit on that one. I mean, I don't like being immodest, but in this one particular area I don't want anybody else's hands touching it. I mean, I'm a whore like everybody else, because I take money from things I'm no good at, but the stand-up itself, I want merit more than success. I consider it the best form of

What else do you have in the pipeline?

Oh yeah, speaking of things that I'm not actually good at, I'm doing a television show on the channel FX, which will actually be funny, or it might be. I wrote it. Have you ever seen "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia?" I like that show, and I think that's FX's only comedy, so they wanted a companion. I really like FX a lot; they don't give you very many notes or anything. So they're finally going to let me do something I want to do. It's called "The Norm MacDonald Reality Show." The premise is my career has fizzled into oblivion, so they give me a reality show, which I reluctantly take. So I have to date the Barbie twins and do all this weird, retarded stuff. Now I don't know how to drive in real life-my actual life-so in the show they teach me to get a license, but maybe they get Lee Ermey to teach me; you know, some twist. Anyway, so during the driving lesson, I accidentally kill the teacher. And then all hell breaks lose. I start to become famous again, and the show becomes a hit, and the trial starts. I get my fame that I didn't want in the first place. But there's a lot of funny stuff in it. I guess I'm telling it like it's not funny.

Speaking of TV shows, is there any chance of "Norm" coming out on DVD?

They never… [laughs]. They seem hell bent on never releasing it! I have no idea, I have no control over it, but it would be nice.

It seems like it's one of the only shows not on DVD…

I know… Like, "Lateline" came out! That show had like, six episodes. I was like, 'what?' I used to go through the DVD stores and they had every show except for mine that ever existed. There would be shows from the fucking DuMont network, but not mine.


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