He was demoted at Saturday Night Live, and his first big movie bombed. Norm Macdonald has built a successful career out of being wrong for the part. Can he turn wrong into right on his new sitcom?
Norm Macdonald is crazy. A particularly functional, inspired, and funny kind of crazy, but one that makes him capable of the sort of strange grin or bizarre utterance that might make you move a couple of seats away from him on the bus. He's a man's man. He likes booze and gambling and jokes about prison sex. In a world full of eager-to-please comedians, Macdonald remains the dark knight. He turns the mind-fuck into performance art.
As an actor and a comic, Macdonald is best known as Saturday Night Live's sardonic anchorman. There he was allowed to offend and, more often, unsettle a nation, while all the time wearing a tie. It was a job that showcased Macdonald's schizophrenic genius - his warped worldview and his childish pleasure in the absurd. He has always been well in touch with his inner brat. "You know those kids who seem much older than their years?" the thirty-six-year-old Quebec-born comedian once asked me. "I was the opposite of that. When I was three, people would always go, 'You seem like you're one, or zero.'" Still, whether he was giving us dada Weekend Updates or inhabiting Burt Reynolds, Macdonald brought a sense of barely contained anarchy and danger to the Saturday Night proceedings.
Then, in January 1998, Macdonald was ousted from his anchor chair at the urging of NBC's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer. Depending on whom you asked, it was either one too many cutting jokes about the executive's pal O.J. Simpson or the fact that Ohlmeyer just didn't find Macdonald all that funny. Whatever the truth, Ohlmeyer later made news by forbidding NBC to air ads for 1998's Dirty Work -- Macdonald's first big feature film. Eventually, NBC relented, but the film still fizzled at the box office. And somehow, due to the perverse alchemy that is show business, that's when Macdonald's career really seemed to take off.
"I got demoted at SNL, and then I got sort of hot," Macdonald explains. "Then the movie didn't happen, and then I got really hot."
Which explains The Norm Show: a sitcom custom-built for Norm, in party by Norm, and thus a proposition that initially seemed like a hard sell to the masses.
It's early Fall 1998, and Macdonald is sitting in Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge at Los Angeles International Airport, about to board a plane back to Vancouver, where he's shooting a new movie. He and his trusty assistant, Lori Jo, flew in this morning so that he could take a meeting with ABC about the planned midseason sitcom he's supposed to be developing for Warner Bros.
Macdonald - dressed a bit like a senior citizen in a multicolored workout suit that he also wore to the meeting - seems only vaguely interested in talking about his show. His absent-mindedly turns to the TV in the corner and checks out a recent bombing being aired on CNN. "What's going on?" he barks. "A war or something?" No one in the room bothers to answer.
Asked about his meeting, he says simply, "It went all right. I just sat there." His eyes drift back to the bombing.
Didn't he have to at least try to sell it?
"They wanted me to, but I didn't," Macdonald claims. "So I just kinda sat there and made stupid jokes."
To hear him tell it, a sitcom is only on the agenda as something profitable to do now that Dirty Work has put him in what he terms "movie jail." (The Vancouver project just got started a few months ago.)
"As soon as the contract ended with SNL, I was going to do all these movies," Macdonald recalls. "Then, when [Dirty Work] came out, I thought, 'Maybe I'll never be able to do a movie again.' I trust Bruce - that he can do a sitcom. And I get to stay in Los Angeles for a while, make some money, and then get back to making movies."
Bruce is Bruce
producer Brooks Arthur - who manned the boards for Adam Sandler's albums - sends the pair into the studio to take a pass at the bit.
"I'm nervous," Macdonald says as he positions himself at the microphone.
"I'm not that nervous - and I'm the one getting fucked in the ass," Ferrell tells him.
The pair play Bill and Fred, two bland, middle-aged married guys who have just finished watching a football game when Norm's character, Bill, offhandedly suggests a little sodomy.
NORM: You don't have a vagina, do you?
WILL: No, sorry.
NORM: That's all right. Hey, guess this was a stupid idea. I feel like an idiot.
WILL: Hey, listen. Don't feel bad. Live and learn, I always say. Hey, wait a minute. Do you?...
NORM: Do I what?
WILL: Do you have a vagina?
It's classic Macdonald - Beckett meets buggery, with a little absurdist heteroanxiety thrown into the mix. At one time, Macdonald had planned on doing the sketch with his late friend Chris Farley, but now it's Ferrell - a gifted improviser - screaming in faux tortured pain, exclaiming things like, "Oh, God, mother of all things holy, please let this nightmare stop!"
After a few run-throughs, Macdonald suggests that Ferrell make his character sound more like Harry Caray, the late sportscasting great and one of Ferrell's arsenal of SNL characters.
Arthur laughs at the next take but recommends calling to get a legal check on this change. Macdonald won't hear of it. Still, later he engages in a very rare act of self-censorship. He decides that Ferrell's line "Please, I'm begging you to stop. Your huge twenty-inch cock has turned my ass into a fountain of blood" needs to be altered. Instead of "huge twenty inch cock," Macdonald inserts the phrase "unrelenting sexual pounding."
Why the switch?
"The other way was so dirty," he says.
By mid-December, the buzz regarding The Norm Show isn't particularly good. "I hear Norm wants out," one industry insider tells me. "The network doesn't like it." The fact that every aspect of the show's schedule keeps getting pushed back - including a last-minute one-night delay in filming the pilot - cannot be encouraging. The only good omen is that Laurie Metcalf's project fell through, so she's playing the part written for her after all.
Most anxieties fade, though, when the pilot is finally shot, two nights before Christmas. From its first moment, The Norm Show turns out to be unusually sharp and smart - a great fit for its somewhat reluctant leading man. Wisely, Helford has opted to let Norm be Norm in the role of of Norm Henderson, a former professional hockey player sentenced to five years of public service for gambling and tax evasion. Metcalf plays his more sincere co-worker in the welfare office. There are lines in the script that scream Norm - "You're a huge whore," in particular (though off-screen, Macdonald might prefer his beloved phrase "crack whore"). Then there's another moving moment when Norm tells a prostitute client, "All right, fine. I'll go to jail, but let me tell you something, young lady: You're going to have to give me a few pointers on how to please a man."
In near record time, this formerly troubled show gets a prime slot, following The Drew Carey Show, and a ten-episode order from ABC. The buzz is suddenly all good.
A few weeks later, The Norm Show is in full production on the second floor of the same generic office building that houses Drew Carey, on the Warner Bros. Lot. A tired-looking Macdonald stands in the doorway of a room, listening to the assembled writers with a hard-to-read, there-and-yet-not-quite-there look on his unshaven face. This may have something to do with the fact that he's wearing two hats these days - a writer's and a star's. To hear Macdonald tell it, only one hat fits him comfortably.
The writing he likes. Acting is less thrilling for him, though he has a different name for the art of the thespian: "Memorizing," he calls it, with the slightest sense of contempt. "I don't presume to call it act
like it's very important for a character to be likable," Macdonald explains with audible disgust. "I don't understand, because I always think, if you are funny, you are likable. Apparently you have to be funny and you have to be likable - Bruce convinced me of that."
In other words, Norm had to figure out who Norm was. "I've learned that Norm is a person who is naturally skeptical, so I always have to be very careful," Helford says.
Given Macdonald's track record for repeatedly failing upward, I ask him what he thinks about the possibility of success, if it means spending the next half decade or more in a format he derides and in a city that he despises.
For Macdonald, who is separated from his wife, the only reason he's looking forward to being based on the West Coast is that he'll be closer to his six-year-old son, Dylan. "Los Angeles is all show-business people," he says. "It's cool seeing celebrities from the old days, but there are less and less of them. I only like guys that were famous before I got into show business - everyone else is like, so what? It's a one-industry town - which is always boring. And show-business people are even worse, because they think they're interesting." Then, half returning to the original question, he says he thinks it'll be great if the show succeeds. Because then he could quit the business.
Still, more than ever, Macdonald is facing the fact that he is show people now. As he and Helford exit the dining room on the way back to the writers room, they run straight into the embodiment of TV success today: the entire cast of Friends - minus Courteney Cox and plus actor Michael Rappaport - sitting at an outside table, having lunch. "You guys really are friends!" Macdonald proclaims. "Good to see you."
"I didn't recognize you," Jennifer Aniston tells Helford, with whom she's worked before.
It's explained that Macdonald is doing his own sitcom now.
"Oh, how great," Aniston offers sweetly. Of course, it will be on a competing network. "Oh, that's all right," Lisa Kudrow says comfortingly.
"Are you still on Saturday Night Live?" Aniston asks Macdonald.
"No," he responds.
"I thought you still were," she explains apologetically.
"No, its' been like three or four years," Macdonald says, before correcting himself. "No, it's been like eight months."
The Friends folks are then misinformed that The Norm Show is about this guy Norm who has five pals who hang out at a coffee shop.
"Hey, I'm worried here," says David Schwimmer.
As Helford tells Schwimmer the actual setup of the show, Norm mentions that he recently caught Kudrow on a talk show and passes on a memory from an old Letterman appearance while at SNL: "When I went out and shook his hand, he whispered in my ear, 'Your show is shit' - all angry."
"You won some award, right?" he then asks her. "You got the Golden Globe?"
"No, no," Kudrow says. Actually, she won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress in The Opposite of Sex. "What about the Golden Globes?" Macdonald insists.
"No, nothing," Kudrow confesses.
"Well, the New York Film Critics are more prestigious," Macdonald says diplomatically. Everyone commiserates about the Golden Globe politics, and for one shining moment, the idea of Norm Macdonald as a prime-time sitcom star seems - that's right - just crazy enough to work.