Norm Macdonald dying at 61 feels like the setup to a Norm Macdonald joke. It functionally was one: “I didn’t even know he was sick!” many have written, repurposing the punchline from a joke where Macdonald pretends to have just found out about Hitler and plots to kill him, only to learn he’s already dead. That he’d been sick with cancer brought inevitable references to Macdonald’s bit about how we talk about the disease. “My Uncle Bert is waging a courageous battle,” he said. “He’s lying in a hospital bed with a thing in his arm watching Matlock.” Macdonald lamented that the battle metaphor positions the sick person as the loser: “I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer also dies at the same. So that to me is not a loss, that’s a draw.” References to Macdonald’s “draw” with cancer were being posted within minutes of the news of his death.
It was all so on the nose it felt risky to believe any of it: Macdonald was a legendary stand-up and consummate bullshit artist in a variety of genres. His remarkably literary “memoir” was despite its title, Based on a True Story, and its promise to be “the truth, every word of it, to the best of my memory,” at least half lies. I was waiting for news of his death to be just one more. Death is final, after all, and Macdonald took great care to not be definitive about much of anything.
Sure, he had opinions: “The perfect joke is one where the setup and the punchline are identical” was one he liked to trot out. He loved golf and David Letterman and Alice Munro and hated Bret Easton Ellis and really hated Margaret Atwood. He took a dim view of political humor (except when it was about the Clintons being murderers), admired Bob Dylan and Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson and Cormac McCarthy, found Noam Chomsky too difficult and George Lakoff too easy, and disliked jokes about Christianity and the Bible. He was cagey about his politics though a rightward tilt was discernible and what few firm positions he took publicly sometimes seemed more personality-driven than principled. Basically, he defended his friends: Chappelle against claims he was “crazy” or “difficult,” Roseanne—whom he credited with teaching him how to write—when she lost her show for a racist tweet, Louis C.K. for the reputational damage he suffered for exposing himself to female comics, Chris Farley for harassing women. Claims are now surfacing on Twitter that he himself harassed female comics and waitstaff. This is news to me, and grievously disappointing.
Save for Roseanne and sometimes Sarah Silverman, his cultural reference points—his public world, really—seemed resolutely male. If women appeared in his stories it tended to be as battleaxes and “ladies,” figures alien to that old-timey frontiersman persona he sometimes affected. I was therefore surprised when, after I reviewed his book, Macdonald struck up a correspondence. We communicated intermittently; he’d pop up to talk about writing or memory or anxiety or literature. My main criticism of his book had been that it was too coy—so allergic to any unhedged self-disclosure that by the end the “Norm” character had been significantly displaced by the character of an extremely frustrated ghostwriter. Based on a True Story was hilarious and ambitious but also tonally jarring. I still don’t know what to make of a story wherein a man named “Old Jack” invites 8-year-old Norm to come look at his pet squirrel and ends with “he closed the door and the inside of the shed went black. Then I heard the bolt. I forget what happened next.” Is this … a joke? Or exactly what it seems? Impossible to say: The book produced the perfect opposite of whatever illusion of intimacy a memoir is supposed to confer. If there were revelations there, and I think there were (some of them painful), they were buried in mountains of funny bullshit. I’d hoped Norm would relax into a less frantic mode for the next one.
That was my mistake. I’d failed to appreciate how firm Macdonald’s anti-confessional commitments were, and not just in standup. It takes an almost unthinkably unusual personality to keep a struggle with leukemia secret from friends for nine years. That chosen loneliness was undertaken for basically artistic reasons: “He kept it quiet because he didn’t want it to affect his comedy,” his brother Neil said when the death was announced. It’s clear in interviews that this cost him something: “I’ve heard people go onstage and talk about cancer or some shit, and I go, ‘Isn’t this what happens to everybody?’ he said to Vulture’s David Marchese in 2018. “They seem to think they’re singular in their story when their story is the most common story that could possibly be, which is suffering and pain.” He wanted to tell funny cancer jokes, so the cancer needed to have happened to an “Uncle Bert.” If there’s such a thing as authentic bullshittery, bullshit you’d sincerely die to defend, maybe that was Macdonald’s thing. This clip from Larry King Live features the affable acerbity everyone notes when they try to describe his comedy, but it also captures his deep aversion to being known and his light contempt for the way we crave revelation.
King: “Something people don’t know about you?”
Macdonald: “I’m a deeply closeted gay guy.”
“I’m not coming out though.”
“Wait a minute. What are you revealing here today?”
“I’m not revealing anything. I’m saying I’m deeply closeted.”
“That means you’re gay.”
“I wouldn’t say that. Why would I say that? I’m deeply closeted.”
“No but I—That means you’re very very gay but you don’t want to come out. You’re SO closeted—”
“That I refuse to say I’m gay.”
“But that—doesn’t that mean you’re gay?”
“Hey hey hey. Easy buddy.”
It’s a typically deft way of smashing the interview’s frame and creating distance—in a delightfully unfriendly way. Nor did he necessarily confine that mode to public contexts; Joe Rogan once described being seated next to Macdonald on a plane and listening to him talk the whole flight about how he quit smoking, only to run into him in the airport buying cigarettes. (Macdonald apparently then claimed that talking so much about cigarettes made him crave them again, and only Macdonald will ever know whether the bit about quitting was true.) This was not someone who craved approval—or even, as baffled spectators of his Bob Saget roast could attest—a comprehending audience.
But Norm’s caustic and sometimes destructive side always seemed to be in tension with a desire for intimacy and connection he couldn’t quite indulge without irony. For example: One of many shaggy stories he told on Twitter of all places—the one place not made for rambling—concerned the time he met Bob Dylan. Dylan supposedly invited him to his home before Macdonald was well-known and as the story unfolds, Norm seems to take enormous pleasure in how deeply he connected with someone he clearly regards as a genius:
When Bob Dylan speaks, his words seem chosen long ago, his sentences are spare, and he looks right at you, and his countenance is stone. He spoke to me for many hours over two days. There was no alcohol or drugs consumed. He was interested only in writing.
It goes on for several hundred words in which Dylan discusses “verbification,” asks Norm which is his favorite book of the Bible, explains to him what the real version of that book (Job) says, invites him to stay the night, and teaches him that a lot of fiction is stenography.
I told him that I understood, but I did not, and I lied to Bob Dylan. A week later, I understood, and phoned him and explained and he laughed. I don’t want to say what Bob Dylan said to me but one thing that he gave me permission to tell my friends was, “Don’t be fooled by typists.”
That last bit has the cadence and soft deflation of a Macdonald punchline without quite being funny. It still feels reverent, like a confession. It feels sincere. Finally! A disclosure! The pleasure fans took in this story was compounded by the fact that he deleted it almost immediately. If you blinked, you missed it. It made it seem genuine. Unfortunately—or fortunately—Norm had told a completely different story seven years ago, on Reddit, about meeting Bob Dylan while in L.A. for an audition:
I kept walking and walking because I showed up three hours early, and so anyways, a car came by and then stopped, and Bob Dylan asked me for a light (because I was smoking a cigarette). I lit his cigarette, and said “here you go buddy” pretending I didn’t know who he was like an idiot, I thought it would be cool, I didn’t say anything of interest to him, and then I had to go back to this ridiculous Joan Rivers audition.
Are either of these “jokes”? Not really. But when you put them together, the Twitter essay and the Reddit answer, their total incompatibility becomes hysterical. In one, Dylan doesn’t just recognize Norm; he plucks him out of comparative obscurity, mentors and tutors him, talks to him for hours, and changes his life. In the second, they barely interact. That’s deep play. Lonely play. It’s comedy not actually pitched to an audience. Who knows if either version is true—the deep communion or the casual anti-communion with Dylan where nothing of value was said. It’s the kind of game a bullshit artist plays all by himself, enjoying the fact that no one else need ever get the joke.