Comedian Norm Macdonald dies at 61

Norm MacDonald wearing a suit and tieNorm Macdonald

Norm Macdonald, whose laconic delivery of sharp and incisive observations made him one of Saturday Night Live‘s most influential and beloved cast members, died today after a nine-year private battle with cancer. He was 61.

Macdonald’s death was announced to Deadline by his management firm Brillstein Entertainment. The comedian’s longtime producing partner and friend Lori Jo Hoekstra, who was with him when he died, said Macdonald had been battling cancer for nearly a decade but was determined to keep his health struggles private, away from family, friends and fans.

“He was most proud of his comedy,” Hoekstra said. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic. He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”

Macdonald was scheduled to be in the New York Comedy Festival lineup in November.

He was an SNL cast member from 1993-98, making his greatest impact as the anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” segments for three seasons. Remembered for his droll style and for his refusal to go easy on O.J. Simpson despite reported pressure from NBC execs — Macdonald would prove one of the most impactful “Update” anchors, pivoting away from the slapstick approach of Chevy Chase and toward the more barbed political approach of his successor, Colin Quinn.

Born on October 17, 1959, in Quebec City, Macdonald started his show business career in the comedy clubs of Canada, developing the deadpan style that would become both his trademark and a highly influential touchstone for a generation of comics. After being a contestant on Star Search in 1990, he landed his first regular TV writing gig on The Dennis Miller Show, fronted by the man who anchored “Weekend Update” from 1986-91.

Macdonald was hired to write for Roseanne Barr’s sitcom Roseanne for the 1992-93 season before landing the coveted gig at NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

Among his most popular SNL bits was a gum-chomping impression of Burt Reynolds, complete with charming smile, bolo tie and wiseguy attitude, often at hilarious odds with Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek. If his Reynolds was his best, other impressions were nearly on par: Macdonald’s roster included Andy Rooney, Clint Eastwood, David Letterman, Larry King, Quentin Tarantino, Mr. Bean and Rod Serling, among others.

Macdonald’s departure from the show was controversial in itself, and the firing was often attributed to his continued lambasting of Simpson as a murderer despite what was said to be the displeasure of Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC’s West Coast division, a friend of the former football great. Macdonald would later tell The New York Times that he believed his dismissal was the result of doing “experimental stuff, non sequiturs” on “Update,” saying, “Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill every night for 15 minutes. Every joke, huge laughs, and then I’d do 10 minutes a week and sometimes not get laughs.”

Regardless of Ohlmeyer’s motives, Macdonald was canned, his Simpson coverage unrivaled at the time for its comic ferocity. While Leno routinely featured the silly “Dancing Itos” during the trial, Macdonald was relentless in his condemnations. The Simpson jury was still deliberating when he read his lead “Update” item: “They must now decide whether to free him or get all their heads cut off.” After the not-guilty verdict was rendered, he said, “Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California.”

After leaving SNL in 1998, Macdonald starred in his own comedy series, Norm, from 1999-2001, playing a goofball former pro hockey player who is caught cheating on his taxes and sentenced to serve as a New York City social worker. Laurie Metcalf co-starred. He also did a one-season talker for Netflix, Norm Macdonald Has a Show, in 2018. Other credits include the title character in A Minute with Stan Hooper, a Fox sitcom that lasted half a season in 2003 and co-starred Penelope Ann Miller and Fred Willard, and 2011’s Sports Show with Norm Macdonald for Comedy Central.

He earned a CableACE Award nomination as part of the writing team for the 1992 variety special Free to Laugh: A Comedy and Music Special for Amnesty International. 

He also had a recurring roles on Netflix’s Girl Boss and, from 2010-18 on ABC’s The Middle, in which he played the rudderless Rusty Heck, oddball brother to Neil Flynn’s Mike Heck. His guest TV credits include My Name Is Earl, Real Rob, NewsRadio, The Drew Carey Show and The Larry Sanders Show, and he lent his voice to animated projects including Mike Tyson Mysteries, The Orville, Dr. Dolittle, FairlyOddParents, the videogame Skylanders Academy and others.

Macdonald also appeared on the 2015 Canadian sketch comedy series Sunnyside and was a judge on Last Comic Standing that same year.

Comedy Central named him to its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.

His eccentric approach to comedy even extended to TV commercials: In 2016, he starred in a short-lived series of spots for KFC as Colonel Sanders, polarizing viewers with the absurdist ads. He also hosted the podcast Norm Macdonald Live, also on YouTube.

Over the years he made numerous appearances on various late-night shows, including Late Night with David Letterman and Conan, eventually assuming a revered “comedian’s comedian” stature as he routinely left Letterman, O’Brien and anyone within earshot in stitches. In one memorable 2014 appearance on Conan — which O’Brien’s Team Coco later posted on YouTube under the title “Norm Macdonald Tells the Most Convoluted Joke Ever” — Macdonald reduces the talk show host and his sidekick Andy Richter to tears of laughter and frustration with a rambling, shaggy-dog tale about Quebec, beluga whales, baby dolphins and an outrageous pun that prompts O’Brien to admit, “I love you, I really do.”

In his 2016 memoir Based On A True Story, Macdonald reflected on his continued love for stand-up comedy, and how fortunate he felt for an ongoing career that many viewed as dominated by his four-year run on SNL. “I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar,” he wrote. “They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter. I’ve been lucky.”

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