20 Questions: Norm Macdonald
SNL's smart aleck on why he admires Bob Dole, why comedy
is better than manual labor and how he discouraged his stalker
He says he doesn't do well at auditions. So it must have been tough for Norm Macdonald to deliver a "Weekend Update" routine to "Saturday Night Live" impresario Lorne Michaels and "three or four other people who didn't laugh. They just sat there."
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Macdonald did all right that time. He recalls, "For some reason, they let me have the job. That was excellent." Excellent enough to propel him to star status among the current "SNL" ensemble.
Macdonald insists he came late to show business. At 24, he doffed his work clothes, grabbed a microphone and began performing stand-up comedy at bars and clubs across Canada. He eventually headed south of the border to perform at comedy clubs in Los Angeles and to write for "Roseanne." ("She likes stand-ups and hates Hollywood writers.") His friend Adam Sandler put in a good word for him at "SNL," and Macdonald was hired as a writer shortly before the first show of the 1993 season. A year later he settled into the "Weekend Update" anchor's chair.
Warren Kalbacker met with Macdonald at his "Saturday Night Live" office in Rockefeller Center. Kalbacker reports: "Macdonald indicated he had an all-night writing session ahead of him but seemed in no hurry to tackle the coming Saturday's show. He showed me his new set of irons with graphite shafts and recounted a recent round of golf with fellow cast member Tim Meadows. He even quizzed me about New York-area courses. Looking for some advance "Weekend Update" tidbits, I peeked over his shoulder at the screen on his office PC. There was a golf course locator program on display."
We notice you introduce "Weekend Update" with the qualifier "fake news." Has the public's knowledge of current events descended to a level where you wonder if viewers confuse reality and satire?
It would be bad if more Americans got their news from me than from any other source. It was my idea to say "fake news" -- as if you need to say that. When you do a parody, you're supposed to pretend it's real, so I thought it would be funny to say it's not real. Later I found out that when I did some harder jokes, the censors would say, "Oh well, if he says it's fake news. ... " It turned out to be a disclaimer.
Chevy Chase and Dennis Miller parlayed "Weekend Update" into, among other things, failed talk shows. Do you view the segment as a stepping stone?
I don't want to be a talk show host, that's for sure. I would find it hard to interview people because I find almost everyone uninteresting. Maybe I could do some bad movies. My favorite genre is road movies. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby weren't that talented as comedians. They were just kidding around, having fun. Same with Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise. They don't make movies anymore in which guys just have a good time. I'd look for anything with talentless people, because I think I could do that.
How does the "Weekend Update" chair rank on the comfort scale. Occasionally you seem antsy up there.
It's nice, though they took my wheels away from me. Everyone else had wheels. It was so much fun to be on those wheels. I would spin around and keep moving. But then I'd wind up only half in the shot. One week they took away the wheels and I've never been able to get them back. I should, but the wheel guy has control.
You told Bob Dole when he appeared one Saturday night, "I don't write much of the stuff around here." Were you backpedaling on your political satire?
He said he'd seen some of the things I did about him on the show. I told him I didn't write alot of that stuff. And I didn't. I disagreed with a lot of the things that slammed Dole. I like Bob Dole. He reminds me a lot of my dad. I like guys who aren't suited for their jobs. He's like that. He's not a politician. Politicians have to bullshit people and be disingenuous and be able to turn emotions on in a second. Clinton is the best ever. And Dole can't do that at all. He's self-effacing and really funny. I asked after the election how he was taking it. He said it didn't bother him at all, and that the night he lost he slept like a baby -- woke up every two hours crying. I'm thinking of doing something with him, because he has some kind of odd peripheral show business career going on.
Dole suggested shortly after the election that you and he get together for beers because you'd both have plenty of spare time. Have you two hoisted brews together?
He's less available than you'd think, but he keeps asking me to come to Washington to talk with him. It seems like such a crazy thing to do. I'd have to show up and ask, "Is Bob around? It's me, that guy from the TV." If Dole had been elected, I could have slept in the Lincoln bedroom. I'm trying to think of a joke about Dole himself sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom. Maybe something about Lincoln being on vacation. I just can't put it together.
What should we make of the framed photo of Richard Nixon hanging on your office wall?
The picture is not meant ironically, that's for sure. I always thought Nixon would have been the best host for this show. He'd have been cool. We like to fight the liberal bias, though we want "Update" to be completely apolitical. It's said that the media is liberal. I don't have any sense of that. But I know comedy has this incredible liberal bias, so I don't do any jokes comparing Newt Gingrich to Hitler. I have no political point of view, and I don't write the political jokes. I don't like politics at all. I find it boring. I never read political news. Everybody is so obsessed with politics, with Clinton and Whitewater. Meanwhile, we could have heard about cloning years ago. People are really interested in Hard Copy stuff, in cloning and Michael Jackson. JonBenet Ramsey is big. I wanted to do a sketch about the girl who was runner-up to JonBenet and now gets to step in as America's Little Royal Miss. But we have to stay clear of that.
You appeared, ever so briefly, in "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Was that a plug for free expression?
Milos Forman asked me to be in the movie. He said he likes "Update." He really liked the O.J. jokes. I said I wouldn't be any good. He said, "Come on. I'll get a role for you." I had this little part and he gave me a credit at the start of the movie. It was crazy. I have dinner with him sometimes. He's really funny. What's cool about him is that he has incredibly passionate ideas and opinions. These European guys are passionate about ideas. It's exciting when you hear a guy talk like that. You think, I should have some opinions of my own. Forman gets really passionate over freedom, which is cool, because I'm not passionate about anything. I don't know freedom. It means nothing to me. I was hardly in the movie, I just watched him direct. He had a complete vision for the movie and was in complete control. And his accent is great.
During the 1994-95 season, critics slammed the show. How did it feel to be kept on the job when most cast members were cleaning out their desks?
It was my first year so I would have to have been really bad to be fired. I don't think it was a purge, because a lot of people were leaving anyway. Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon had been doing "SNL" for years, stretching the limit of time you can do the show. The show was in a shambles because the critics were ripping it apart. It helped to have Lorne Michaels there, saying he had seen it happen before -- the "Saturday Night Dead" headlines. It's just the nature of a show that's constantly changing. The cast has to change and the writers have to change. Everybody tells me the show was bad then and it's good again now. To me that's insane. Back then there was Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and David Spade, and they're the funniest guys I've ever met. So when somebody says that the show is much funnier now, it's not true.
Didn't we hear you say before we started to tape that "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels is a sweet guy? Want to take this opportunity to brownnose your boss?
A lot of people think Lorne is a tough guy, but he's really a sweet guy. He has a hard time with confrontation, with firing people, which is odd for a man of power. All Lorne cares about is being funny. He'll fight the censors if he likes an idea. There are some things he thinks are tasteless. I did this joke in which I showed that picture of the girl running away from napalm in Vietnam. I said, "In gossip news, Woody Allen's dating again." Lorne told me not to do it and I told him he was wrong, that people would like it. Then I did it in dress rehearsal and there was this insane audience reaction that went on for two minutes: hate. I was completely wrong.
When Kevin Spacey hosted "SNL" earlier this year, subtitles flashed on the screen describing him has a psycho who had once stuck a gun in your mouth during rehearsals. We've seen Spacey play his share of weird characters. Give us insight into the offscreen Kevin Spacey.
The subtitles were based on truth. He did stick a gun in my mouth, and then pulled the trigger, out popped a little flag that said BANG! So it was blown all out of proportion. I'd like to start a show business feud with Kevin Spacey. It would be good for me. He's a dirty dog. What if he thinks this is serious? He'll hate me. Serious actors are often horrible hosts, and nobody knew Spacey was a gifted mimic. He can do impressions of anybody. It's great when you get a host who understands.
Talk shows are a comic's stock in trade. Tell us a tale from the late shift.
I feel loose on Conan O'Brien's show. He lets me do whatever I want. We have fun. I was on once and Conan asked where I lived in the city. I gave the exact address because I thought it would be funny. That was stupid. This guy showed up on my street. He was a stalker. I didn't know what to do, so I gave him tickets to the show. Then he came and sat close to the front. He was not laughing. He just had this odd look on his face. I realized this guy was crazy and that I had done the worst possible thing. I was doing "Update" and I kept thinking, "Maybe he'll shoot." I was the most scared I've ever been. I didn't get killed, that was the good part. I think in the end, my stalker understood that he had been deluding himself and I wasn't as big a star as he had thought. He's stalking Matt LeBlanc now.
"Saturday Night Live" premiered on television when you were 12 years old. Did you manage to stay awake for the entire show?
My older brother and I always watched late TV, and we had our favorites. My friends loved Belushi or Aykroyd, but I loved Chevy Chase. The funniest thing to me about Chevy was that he'd do an impression of Gerald Ford that was no impression. It was just Chevy. That was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. Do an impression of someone and don't even try! My favorite show was Dean Martin's. It was huge. He'd have a drink and a smoke in one hand. He was in a sketch with Ruth Buzzi -- they're supposed to be married and Buzzi is in the housewife getup. Then Martin, still wearing his tux from the monolog, with his drink and butt going, just plays straight to the camera. Buzzi's completely in character and he's just reading his lines. Then their neighbor shows up -- it's Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin always made me laugh. He didn't care.
You have more than a little experience with manual labor. Do Canadians actually don those plaid flannel shirts when they have heavy lifting to do?
Everybody wore those in Canada. From the ages of 14 to 24, I would move from town to town in Canada, doing jobs that didn't pay much but were cool. I worked in a logging camp and in an oil field. I stumbled into comedy. In Ottawa, our nation's capital, me and my buddies used to go to this comedy club. I didn't understand why the audience was laughing because the guys onstage didn't seem that funny. So I said to myself, "This is great, I can do this." It's much easier than picking tobacco in Tillsonburg, Ontario, where you're bent over, your back hurts and they make you sleep on a bunk in a big barn. With stand-up, other than the hour a night when you do comedy, you're a drifter, almost like a serial killer, and you go from province to province and stay in bad hotels. I bombed most of the time. I was very unpolished, and I still am. I don't know why, but to me the funniest thing is trying to make people laugh and having them hate you. If you're a bad singer, they feel sorry for you. But if you're trying to make them laugh and you fail, they hate you so bad. Whenever I would bomb, I'd get happy. Comedy is about unexpected things. So if you're trying to make a guy laugh and he doesn't, that's funny, right?
Does a round of golf relieve the pressure of doing sketch comedy?
I'm really bad. I keep buying new clubs because I think that will help. I'm always right near 100. If you get a par and then a bogey, you've figured out golf. You'll be good the rest of your life. Two years ago, I was in a celebrity golf tournament. I'm standing there with these two guys, waiting for the fourth, and one guy says to me, "They haven't told us who our celebrity is." Like he thinks the fourth guy is going to be the fucking celebrity. It was really horrifying to identify myself. I was trying to give them my bio as we played, but they were obviously disappointed. Plus I stink as a golfer, so I wasn't helping their score. In the foursome ahead of us was Scott Baio, and they kept saying, "There's that guy Chachi." so then I made up a story that I knew Baio. I told them we'd all get together afterward. God, it was so humiliating.
You and Adam Sandler are good friends. Tell us, is he really that way?
Yeah. What is frustrating for Adam and those who know him is that because he does juvenile stuff, people think he's stupid. There are people in the comedy community who look down on him. They spend all their time acting hip and dressing in black and doing alternative comedy, whatever that is. Sandler, though, is the real thing. He knows what's funny and he knows what's hack. He does what's funny, but because it's silly, people put him in the same category as Pauly Shore. Which is insane. Sandler does smart juvenile stuff.
What do you tell your four-year-old son you do for a living?
I just tell him I do jokes, but I hope he doesn't think you can actually do that for a living. I tell him I'm on TV. He hasn't watched the show since Sandler left. He got upset. He liked Captain Jim and Pedro and Canteen Boy and Cajun Man. He liked all Sandler's stuff. He's boycotting the show and telling all his friends not to watch it.
A couple of phone calls and a good word from a friend reportedly landed you a writer's job at "SNL." Can you pass on some advice to aspiring comedians?
There is this myth that if you go out and kill in the elevator -- never take no for an answer -- that you'll get a job. That never happens in real life. Lorne told me that no is a good answer and that an aspiring comedian should take that as an answer. I got lucky because I didn't have to audition. I can't perform without an audience. I need people laughing. I don't have the confidence that these actors have. I have no training. I did take improvisation classes for a while in Los Angeles. In one class a guy handed me something invisible. The way he was holding it I thought it was a grapefruit, so I cut it in half. And it turned out it was his baby that I sliced in half and put a maraschino cherry on. That was so humiliating.
Your David Letterman turn was dead-on, despite the fact that the gap in your front teeth is on the bottom. Do you think Letterman regards your impression as the sincerest form of flattery?
I talked with him afterward. He hadn't seen it, but he said, "Look, I trust you and I like you and I trust that it was all right." The problem was that Dole was gone. I had to do somebody. I don't consider what I did scathing. It's a straight impression. I am not Fred Travelina. I can't figure out voices. I can do Letterman because I've watched almost every show and I love him. We all do impressions of Letterman in some way, because he's invaded our consciousness so much that we're all doing ironic detachment. It shows how great he is. He's changed how people speak. I have problems with the Letterman thing. I don't like doing impressions more than once unless there's a reason. And Letterman is the funniest guy there is right now. We can't parody the guy because he's too hip. He's already doing a self-parody. He knows there's nothing you can do against him. Our show is not as funny as Letterman's show. I'm not as funny as he is. So I am very reverent with David Letterman.
You're an avowed Howard Stern fan. In the spirit of the shock jock, would you care to comment on the size of your penis or share your opinion on lesbians?
One thing about my penis is that it's the same size when it's soft as when it's not soft. I thought everyone was like that, but some guys told me, no, there penises are tiny when they're not erect. Mine, when it's flaccid, is average. It's six inches. When people hear that, they think when my penis is erect, maybe it's 14 inches. But it's exactly the same length when it's erect. It's just a different rigidity. I don't know why. As for lesbians, I don't like seeing women together. Isn't that odd? Every guy I know loves watching lesbians. I have to identify with someone in the scene. I have to see a guy. Two girls make it seem redundant. Maybe there's something wrong with me.
You work in New York. Your wife lives in Los Angeles. Is separation by 3,000 miles and three time zones conductive to a healthy relationship?
It's good because you don't have to live with the same person all the time, every day, constantly. Who wants that?