The Dallas Morning News

'SNL' segment sinks
without edgy anchor

First things first: Week in, week out, Norm Macdonald 's deadpan anchorman on "Weekend Update" was the funniest thing on Saturday Night Live. Moreover, during his four-season run, Mr. Macdonald and his wry newscasts have been the centerpiece of SNL's recent revival. The show is actually funny again, in large part because of the sure-fire laughs "Weekend Update" delivered.

But in the new corporate order at NBC, being really funny isn't enough to secure a comedian's position, and as of SNL's Jan. 10 broadcast, Mr. Macdonald was out of the mock-news business. NBC's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, either didn't get the jokes or didn't like them: He turned his imperial thumb down and, poof, Norm the newsman was no more.

The critical and popular outcry since then has been impressive in volume and intensity. Publications such as Time, The Washington Post and The New York Times have printed condemnations of Mr. Macdonald 's displacement while comedy peers from David Letterman to Jerry Seinfeld have expressed their displeasure. Even Mr. Macdonald 's "Weekend Update" predecessors have joined in the chorus of outrage -- both Chevy Chase (the mock-newscast's originator) and Dennis Miller (the funniest SNL anchorman prior to Mr. Macdonald ) have spoken out against the move.

It's easy to understand all the ire. As Mr. Chase graciously observed in TV Guide, Norm Macdonald is the best there's ever been at "Weekend Update." With Mr. Macdonald behind the desk, "Weekend Update" was edgy, unpredictable and, most of all, funny. There was his poker-faced delivery and signature phrases. All he had to do was say "Crack whore" (or one of its derivations, such as "assistant crack whore") and the audience was in stitches.

But more than that was his fearless ability to react to a moment. Topping these was Will Ferrell's "Weekend Update" commentary last season that had him vomiting all over the place. Mr. Macdonald was supposed to continue with the news. Instead, he looked out at the audience, looked into the camera, shrugged and, without saying a word, scooped up some "vomit" from the desk and ate it. "Not bad," he said. "I usually don't like Will Ferrell vomit, but this is very good." (Just so you know, it was creamed corn.) The place went crazy with shrieks and groans as Mr. Macdonald waved his hand and said, "Let's just end it there."

And then there was the time, also last season, when Mr. Macdonald, while delivering a news item, suddenly had some sort of catch in his throat (as if a bug had flown into his mouth). He gagged, cleared his throat and, chuckling, wondered aloud what had happened. Unfortunately, in his reflex response he used the word that shall never be used on network TV (unless you're Madonna). The following week was filled with rumor and conjecture over the impromptu moment, centered on the question: "Will Norm be fired?"

The answer that came back was, "No," and there was Norm the following Saturday behind the "Weekend Update" desk. Midway through the show, he again stumbled over a word, bringing whatever joke he was telling to a grinding halt. He paused, looking down, for one beat, two beats. Then he slowly looked up into the camera and said, "Oh drat."

So now the funniest guy to ever do "Weekend Update" has been fired from above by a corporate executive and replaced with, as some sort of bitter cherry on top, Colin Quinn. Think of it as the show-business equivalent of the old Coke/new Coke fiasco. Following his dismal debut, Mr. Quinn's second newscast last Saturday provided needless confirmation of the utter irrationality of the switch. The former MTV funny-man opened his newscast with a muttered, defensive response to his introduction "Weekend Update with Colin Quinn" -- "I don't see why that should be any problem."

The segment that followed was, in a word, sad. With Mr. Quinn in the chair, "Weekend Update" seems to be shifting from a mock newscast of short, punchy items into some sort of The Daily Show knock-off -- Mr. Quinn delivering extended riffs on timely subjects (much like what he used to do as a guest commentator on "Weekend Update"). There was, for instance, his bit on convicted killer Karla Faye Tucker, going on about what it must have been like to be a groupie on tour with the Allman Brothers at the age of 13, as Ms. Tucker has said she was. It went on, and on, generating not even a chuckle, which left Mr. Quinn blinking uncomfortably in the studio's silence with a please-don't-hate-me look on his face.

Mr. Macdonald , meanwhile, has become something of a folk hero. When he walked onstage during an opening bit with host Sarah Michelle Gellar, the audience went nuts, cheering wildly. And Mr. Macdonald stood there, smoking and smirking, soaking it up. Just as before, everybody loves the old Coke and hates the new one.

For Mr. Macdonald 's fans, there is this slim, cynical hope. Maybe, just as before, this irrational, inexplicable gambit will result in the triumphant return of old Coke, which is to say Classic Norm Macdonald . Maybe, just as before, after a period of public outrage (not to mention voluminous publicity), NBC will relent and give the public back what it never wanted taken away. And amid the media hype and public gratitude, the argument can begin over whether Don Ohlmeyer is a power-mad idiot or a cunning genius.

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