Norm Macdonald, whose laconic delivery of sharp and incisive observations made him one among 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 decided to stay his health struggles private, far away from family, friends, and fans.
“He was most pleased with 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 all of sudden, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm is going to be missed terribly.” Macdonald was scheduled to be within the NY Comedy Festival lineup in November.
He was an SNL cast member from 1993-98, making his greatest impact because the anchor of the show’s “Weekend Update” segments for 3 seasons. Remembered for his droll style — and for his refusal to travel easily on O.J. Simpson despite reported pressure from NBC execs — Macdonald would prove one among the foremost impactful “Update” anchors, pivoting faraway 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, Macdonald started his entertainment industry career within the comedy clubs of Canada, developing the deadpan style that might 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 person who anchored “Weekend Update” from 1986-91. Macdonald was hired to write down for Roseanne Barr’s sitcom Roseanne for the 1992-93 season before landing the coveted gig at NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
Among his hottest SNL bits was a gum-chomping impression of Burt Reynolds, complete with charming smile, bolo, 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, Tarantino, Mr. Bean, and Rod Serling, among others. Macdonald’s departure from the show was controversial in itself, and therefore 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 lover of the previous football great. Macdonald would later tell The NY Times that he believed his dismissal was the results of doing “experimental stuff, nonsequiturs” on “Update,” saying, “Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill nightly for quarter-hour. Every joke, huge laughs, then I’d do 10 minutes every 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 to stop .” After the not-guilty verdict was rendered, he said, “Well, it’s finally official: Murder is legal within 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-ice-hockey player who is caught cheating on his taxes and sentenced to function as a replacement York City caseworker. Laurie Metcalf co-starred. He also did a one-season talker for Netflix, Norm Macdonald features a Show, in 2018. Other credits include the title character during 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 a part of the writing team for the 1992 variety special liberal to Laugh: A Comedy and Music Special for Amnesty International. Showbiz & Media Figures We’ve Lost In 2021 – Photo Gallery He also had a recurring role on Netflix’s Girl Boss and, from 2010-18 on ABC’s the center, during 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 therefore the Larry Sanders Show, and he lent his voice to animated projects including Tyson Mysteries, The Orville, Dr. Dolittle, FairlyOddParents, the videogame Skylanders Academy et al..
Macdonald also appeared on the 2015 Canadian sketch comedy series Sunnyside and was a judge on Last Comic Standing that very same year. He appeared during a number of films including Dirty Work, Grown Ups, Funny People, Screwed, Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo, the Dr. Dolittle film trilogy, The Ridiculous Six, Jack and Jill, The Animal, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Billy Madison — several of which featured fellow SNL veterans. He also released comedy albums Me Doing Standup (2011) and Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery (2017) — both taken from TV specials — and Ridiculous (1996), a sketch-comedy disc that also featured Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, and other SNL vets.
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 during 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 foremost Convoluted Joke Ever” — Macdonald reduces the chat 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 actually do.”
In his 2016 memoir supported a real Story, Macdonald reflected on his continued love for stand-up comedy, and the way fortunate he felt for an ongoing career that a lot of viewed as dominated by his four-year run on SNL. “I think tons of individuals feel pitying you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything but somebody,” he wrote. “They assume you want to be bitter. But it’s impossible on your behalf to be bitter. I’ve been lucky.”