TV Guide
FEBRUARY 22, 1997

Saturday Night Live's Norm Macdonald saunters into the big time

Norm Macdonald is smiling -- even though he's just returned from the dentist's chair. "I lost a filling in a scone," says the Saturday Night Live star, "so Howard Stern gave me his dentist. He Novocained me up and I didn't even feel anything."

Leave it to Macdonald to dodge the bullet. He's done it before; he was one of the few cast members left standing in the wake of the critically thrashed 1994-5 season of the NBC show. Now, Macdonald, with his scathing news commentary on "Weekend Update" and politically incorrect impersonation of Bob Dole, has emerged as yet another SNL success story.

It's a long way from his first impromptu stand-up act a decade ago at Yuk Yuk's comedy club in Ottawa. Writing stints at "Roseanne" and "The Dennis Miller Show" led to a staff writing job on SNL in 1993. Macdonald credits executive producer Lorne Michaels with giving him his on-air breaks, first in 1993 reading editorials on "Weekend Update," and then replacing Kevin Nealon as anchor in 1994.

Macdonald, 34, began appearing in sketches the next year, followed by wicked impersonations of Burt Reynolds competing on "Jeopardy!," David Letterman harassing William Hurt (played by Kevin Spacey) on "Late Show," and, of course, Bob Dole campaigning for the presidency. While it may seem that Macdonald is making fun of the celebrities, he says, in all seriousness, "I can only do guys I've liked for a long time. They are my heroes."

Not that heroes have been spared the dark, caustic humor that's become his trademark. "He doesn't shy away from things; he does what he thinks is funny," says SNL featured player Colin Quinn. Macdonald worries that his biting approach gives the wrong impression: "People think I'm going to be arrogant or mean because some of the jokes are a little hard," he says. "I'm not intimidating at all; I'm intimidated by everyone."

He culls most of his material from newspapers, and rewrites until showtime. Even if a gag bombs in rehearsal, he will use it if he thinks it works. "I just like doing a joke that bluntly says something, rather than says something in a clever way," says the comic as he paces, yo-yo in hand, in his Manhattan office in Rockefeller Center.

For his dead-on impersonation of Dole, Macdonald stood ramrod straight, spoke in the third person, and clenched his right hand. His choice of a subject was an easy one: "I didn't think the people would be that stupid and reelect [Bill] Clinton," Macdonald says, "so I said, 'I'll be Bob Dole and get to play the president for four years.'" The Republican candidate's response? He faxed a note to his imitator, promising he'd win.

Yet when Clinton prevailed, Macdonald wasn't upset about dropping the act that garnered him so much publicity. "I was getting tired of doing Dole," the comic says. Still, he was awed when the former senator appeared on the show soon after the election. "That was very cool," Macdonald says. "We were dressed exactly alike [in blue suits and red ties]. He has two Purple Hearts, so he gave me one of his to put on. It was very moving."

He was similarly touched when Letterman -- one of Macdonald's idols, along with Howard Stern -- gave his approval to the "Late Show" routine. "But I was very worried about it," says Macdonald. "A sketch can't be too reverent...[still], I tried to make it as reverent as I could be."

One thing he's just as reverent about: sports. Macdonald, who grew up playing hockey and running track in Quebec City, has been known to watch three football games on three TVs at the same time. He even tossed a pigskin around SNL's halls "until we had to stop because people were getting injured so much."

During breaks from the show, the comic visits his 4-year-old son, Dylan, who lives in Los Angeles with Macdonald's wife, Connie. "I miss out on a lot of stuff," says Macdonald, showing off wallet snapshots of the boy. "This is a good job because you get so many weeks off; I spend it all with my son."

When the comedian isn't working on SNL, he can be seen on other shows (he played a bully on "The Drew Carey Show" and a lawyer on "NewsRadio") and in the movies (he appears as a network reporter in "The People vs. Larry Flynt"). He also recently sealed a deal to pitch beer on TV.

Macdonald's barbed style has made him a favorite on the talk-show circuit. He has sparred with Meat Loaf on Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect," played along with Letterman on a week-long "Late Show" bit, and chatted up Stern. Says "Late Night"'s Conan O'Brien: "When Norm's on, I feel guilty getting a check. I feel like, That wasn't really work: Norm came out and made me laugh and then I said, 'Good night, everybody.'"

For now, Macdonald says he has no urge to leave SNL for his own talk show or sitcom, nor does he want to pursue a movie career like former cast members Chris Farley and Mike Myers. Instead, he says, "I would love to stay at SNL forever. But you can't stay in the same place. People think you're a loser.

"Whatever I'll do will be worse than what I'm doing now, so I'm trying to really enjoy myself here. Because I know this is the funniest stuff I'll ever do."

© 1997 TV Guide. All rights reserved.

Thank you Carolyn Parker for transcribing this article!