The Dallas Morning News

'SNL' comic's wisdom
is good as Gould's

PASADENA, Calif. -- Our para-Norm-al experience begins when Saturday Night Live's Norm Macdonald offers to do his impression of Ed Sullivan as a schoolteacher.

"All right, kids," he says, "today we have a really big quiz." Fleeting pause. "I can't do the voice. That's the problem."

The overall impression is that Norm is a little nuts. Which is fine, because it appears to be a victimless misdemeanor. In this particular instance, he's standing in a hotel lobby lounge amid a small circle of reporters. SNL creator Lorne Michaels and the show's other regulars are scattered through the room on this mid-July evening. But Mr. Macdonald clearly is Exhibit A. He's wearing a powder blue shirt, a dark suit coat and has the drained, Dracula-toned skin color of a guy who gets out only at night. Saturday's 23rd season premiere of SNL, hosted by Sylvester Stallone, will mark Mr. Macdonald 's fifth year with the show and his fourth as "Weekend Update" anchor. Of this he's reasonably certain.

"Yes, I'm absolutely sure," he says. "I don't think Lorne is making any changes. Maybe he is. Maybe I won't be doing it. I gotta go. No, I'm not doin' it. I mean, I am doin' it."

He answers most questions with the calm assurance of an elliptical Elliott Gould. Ah, Elliott Gould. His discourses on the short-lived 1984 CBS sitcom E/R remain legendary, if not lucid. Mr. Gould headed the cast as Dr. Howard Sheinfeld. And future ER star George Clooney played a supporting character named Ace.

"I'm learning all the time," Mr. Gould said, attempting to put E/R in perspective during a 1984 interview. "I feel that I've learned enough about the big picture to be able to bring myself to smaller pictures that want to be a part of a program of smaller pictures in relation to my bigger picture. That sounds a little weird, but it's the truth."

Mr. Gould also contended it would "be interesting to have a show that can go in and out of ruts, but so long as we're not lying or having to cover it up, that to allow the ruts of life to exist in our show, so long as we're in control of the ruts and the ruts aren't in control of us, that gives me more room to be irreverent and to get more pizza pie into the place."

Mr. Macdonald obviously has his work cut out for him. But his unexpected soliloquy on chicken is a gamer.

"I'm the only one in my family with an interesting job," he begins. "My third brother has an uninteresting job. He works at a chicken place. You like chicken? I went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken the last time I was in Toronto. I was ordering some chicken and I got, like, a bucket of beaks or something like that. Then I get my chicken and I go to the girl, `Can I have some macaroni salad with that?' And then the girl goes, `Where have you been?' Isn't that odd? I didn't know they discontinued macaroni salad. I'm like the unhippest guy. My friends are, like, giggling at me."

They weren't laughing at the University of Iowa in June. Mr. Macdonald 's prototypically "dirty" nightclub act, complete with farm animal jokes, virtually emptied the house. The university's athletic director then apologized for booking Mr. Macdonald , calling his act "anything but comedy."

Mr. Macdonald says it was all a "big mistake."

"Somehow, my stupid manager, he didn't tell people I was going to be dirty. I'd see a couple of people leaving, and then, like, whole rows leaving. The weird thing is they didn't get angry. They just quietly left. Once in awhile I'd hear, `Get your coat, Margaret. I'll go around and get the car.' I just kept going on with my act, and there were maybe 100 people left at the end. I say if you can get 100 out of 3,000 to like you, that's good, right?"

Another comedy caper comes to mind.

"I remember one time I was doin' this gig. This was a long time ago. This was like six months ago. I was really bombing. Then I heard something, and I looked down and it was, like, the guy who booked the gig. And he goes, 'This will be your last joke.' And then another guy threw a firecracker."

Besides his acclaimed anchoring of "Weekend Update," Mr. Macdonald has scored with two memorable impressions on the rejuvenated SNL. His muttering Bob Dole became an instant classic. And his dead-on David Letterman put him in the eerie position of doing Dave on Dave's show while they sat side by side.

"That was scary, `cause he's the funniest guy." Mr. Macdonald says. "I felt really weird doin' him. But he was OK about it. He phoned me after I did it and said it was cool. I'm not gonna do it anymore. I don't like doin' things a hundred million times."

What might he do this season? Mr. Macdonald affixes a conspiratorial smile and says, "Maybe a little guy named Slim Pickens. That's right, Slim Pickens. I've been tryin' to get him on the show for a long time. But he's dead. I think I'll just do him as a character and not even say it's Slim Pickens."

Anything else? Well, Mr. Macdonald admires Chevy Chase for reasons the SNL charter cast member might not find terrifically flattering.

"He was my favorite because he never did anything," Mr. Macdonald explains. "He had this weird talent for being untalented. So he always cracked me up. I love guys who don't do anything, 'cause I don't have any talent. When I was a kid, Dean Martin was my favorite guy, because he just hung out and had a good time."

Mr. Chase and SNL alumni Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Damon Wayans, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and Adam Sandler went on to become movie stars. But the current SNL cast seems content to stay the course and stick with the show. Good deal, huh?

"Yeah, yeah, I guess," Mr. Macdonald says. "Yeah, yeah, what?"

But he intends to be with SNL "for another 35 years or something. 'Til I get my pension. I'm only 32, so when I'm 65 I can retire with a hefty pension."

Whatever his tenure with the show, it's been quite a ride for a guy who "took improv classes, and I really stunk. I never knew what the hell they were doing. They would hand me invisible things and want me to do something with them. I remember one time I thought it was a grapefruit or something. And it turned out later that it was supposed to be a child. I sliced the child in half and put a cherry on him."

Your serve, Mr. Gould.

"There are several different levels that should be working all the time," he said in reference to E/R. "And you should see things that you expect to see and that are not original. And then, something should happen that whether you like it or not, should be someplace that something happens that's a little exceptional in terms of the immediacy of the life or death situation. I like it. I like the way I said that. Didn't that sound good? Buy me three of those."

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