St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Macdonald's pointed
comedy too blunt?

Fans of "Saturday Night Live" remember Norm Macdonald not so much as the host of Weekend Update but as the host of The Fake News.

The distinction is important. For Macdonald, euphemism is the enemy, and his comedy relies on the skewering of pretense. As the news anchor on "SNL" from 1994 to 1997, Macdonald delivered deadpan commentary that relied not on word play or political sophistication but on a final punctuation of unadorned truthfulness.

By labeling Michael Jackson a pedophile and O.J. Simpson a murderer, Macdonald gave Weekend Update a new identity and a vitality it had been lacking since the departure of Dennis Miller. He also made some powerful enemies. Rumors persist that he was ousted from the anchor desk earlier this year on the direct orders of Don Ohlmeyer, NBC's West Coast president, who has been a close friend of Simpson for 20 years.

"Ohlmeyer made constant notes about my jokes," Macdonald says. "We'd get memos about it. They'd say, 'Oh come on, it's been a long time since those murders happened. Why don't you lay off?' I think it was the relentlessness that bothered him. But that's what I always like to do.

"Other comics say the same things as me, but they clever it up. It's the same with sex. Women like to use that 'making love' term, but it's not like you're going to do it any different. People will laugh at jokes about prison if you don't come out and say what you really mean, but if you use a term like anal rape, people are appalled."

Last week, it was learned that Ohlmeyer had ordered NBC to reject any commercials for Macdonald's new movie "Dirty Work," which opens nationwide yesterday. Ohlmeyer was reportedly upset with Macdonald for criticizing the network on the David Letterman and Howard Stern talk shows.

"If he had just come after me, this would not have happened," Ohlmeyer was quoted as saying. "But he started going after 'Saturday Night Live' and NBC, and that just wasn't acceptable."

In person, it's hard to believe that Macdonald could be so threatening to the power structure of a TV network. As a standup, his easy-going delivery and choirboy dimples belie his sometimes raunchy material. Often he masquerades as a kind of willful ignoramus. ("Did you ever try to read a book?" he asks. "Those things are huge! And you spend all your time wondering what the character looks like. Why bother when you can just turn on the television?")

Although Macdonald, 35, jokes about being a Canadian farm boy with an eighth-grade education, he knows that writing his own material is his ticket to a lengthy career. Although he has been a standup comedian for more than a decade, he got his big break as a writer for the "Dennis Miller" and "Roseanne" TV shows in the early '90s.

"Roseanne hated Hollywood writers," he says. "She hired me because she liked my standup. I thought I was the worst writer on the show because I didn't know anything about story structure, but Roseanne was convinced I was the best. Whenever she hated someone else's script, she'd say, 'Let Norm write it!' Of course, after I wrote the jokes, the Hollywood guys would clean it up, and I'd get all the credit."

Macdonald makes his screenwriting debut in "Dirty Work," in which he plays the proprietor of a revenge-for-hire business. The MGM comedy was directed by Bob Saget. It co-stars fellow iconoclasts Chevy Chase and Don Rickles, with an uncredited appearance by Macdonald's friend, the late Chris Farley.

" 'Dirty Work' was Farley's last film appearance before he died of a drug overdose in December. I went to his funeral the day after we previewed the film for the first time," Macdonald says with a genuine note of sadness in his voice.

"Maybe he'll get to see it in heaven."

© 1998 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. All rights reserved.