The New York Post
JUNE 11, 1998 -- BY SU AVASTHI

TV tiff boosts Macdonald
on silver screen

It's fresh-faced underdog vs. the corporate hotshot - and the underdog appears to be winning.

NBC-TV honcho Don Ohlmeyer's high-profile attempts to squelch the star-turn movie debut of former "Saturday Night Live" player Norm Macdonald seem to have backfired.

In fact, with the acid-tongued comic's big-screen comedy "Dirty Work" opening tomorrow, Tinseltown insiders are wondering whether the executive's bizarre battle with Macdonald may have been the best thing ever for the Canadian comic's career.

The headline-grabbing media feud began when the Peacock network's West Coast president demoted Macdonald from his longtime "Saturday Night Live" gig as acerbic anchor on the show's satiric "Weekend Update" segment.

The TV bigwig - who reportedly told Macdonald he'd been removed because he wasn't funny - again made news when he attempted to ban ads for "Dirty Work" on NBC. Such a step was virtually unheard of in Hollywood.

The brouhaha instantly turned Macdonald into a sort of media martyr.

For instance, comedy heavyweights (and former NBC employees) David Letterman and Howard Stern rushed to his defense, both featuring the embattled funnyman on their shows.

And in other media, the exchange repeatedly portrayed Macdonald as the wronged little guy caught in the midst of some bizarre vendetta by a corporate bully.

That has done wonders for his visibility, said experts.

Don Ohlmeyer "certainly did him a favor by getting millions of dollars of publicity, and he's handled it in such a charming, be-dimpled way that you really want to root for him," said Barbara Lippert, an image columnist at New York magazine.

"Whenever we see brutal control and repression at the top, we'll root for the underdog."

Macdonald's dismissal from the "Weekend Update" slot immediately led to an increased cult following, fostered by a number of Internet sites that track all the sins committed by "those weasels at NBC."

"Why do all this?" asked Noel Gross, editor of the Fake News site, which has gotten more than 40,000 hits since Macdonald got the boot. "Well, as most were back in January, I was shocked to hear him tell the world he'd been fired as the "Weekend Update' anchor. The next morning, I established a Web page to keep folks up-to-date."

Meanwhile, the man at the center of the storm told Post Plus that he hasn't welcomed all the free press he's gotten courtesy of Ohlmeyer.

"He hurt my career my impugning my comedy talents publicly," said a serious Macdonald yesterday. "I can't say, "No, no, I'm funny! Seriously, I am!

"The only thing that's helped is other people reacting to this in the comedy community," he added.

Ohlmeyer's strategy "was not something that I ever sought out ... in fact, it's my theory that Don Ohlmeyer wants to be famous."

An NBC spokeswoman told Post Plus that Ohlmeyer had no comment.

Ironically, "Dirty Work" - Macdonald's first star vehicle - is about a guy who keeps getting fired. Eventually he opens a revenge business and hires himself out to people who want to get even.

Directed by Bob Saget, former host of "America's Funniest Home Videos" and co-star of the sitcom "Full House," the MGM movie also stars Chevy Chase and Don Rickles.

"This situation has helped in the sense that he's getting so much media attention, and in general we're predisposed to root for the underdog," said CNN showbiz expert Martin Grove. "What this will do is heighten awareness. But I don't think that alone can sell tickets."

© 1998 New York Post. All rights reserved.