The end of civilization

Norm Macdonald used to be the urbane wit
of SNL's "Weekend Update." Boy, is that over.

NORM MACDONALD IS SICK. Mangy-mutt sick. He's been throwing up all day. Coughing. Headache. Diarrhea. He has some sort of flu, and the two-part, six-hour flight to New Orleans hasn't helped. Right now he looks prototypically unwell -- pale, bleary-eyed, unshaven. He should be in bed, but instead he is chain-smoking and pacing around a dingy, brightly lit room full of things he's not much interested in: a cheese-and-fruit platter, a cooler of Budweiser, an overeager local talk-show host wearing checkered high-tops and asking dumb questions. The worst part is, he has to go on in fifteen minutes, and he's got nothing to say.

Macdonald, the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member best known for anchoring "Weekend Update" for three and a half years and being famously fired from the job last January, is about to do his stand-up act for a sold-out crowd at Tulane University. Despite appearances -- despite the throwing up, and the diarrhea, and the checkered-shoed talk-show host -- this is, in fact, a pretty good time in the life of Norm Macdonald. Tonight's show is part of a ten-college swing he's making to promote "Dirty Work," the new movie he wrote and stars in. He's been all over the tube, selling it -- "Leno," "Letterman," "Conan," MTV. He's in the middle of recording a comedy album due out in late summer, and he's just finished voice-overs for "Doctor Dolittle," Eddie Murphy's $70 million remake, in which Norm plays the animal lead, Lucky the Dog. In a few months, he starts filming a new movie written for him and directed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the acclaimed writing team behind "Ed Wood" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

Considering the tragic trajectory of so many former "SNL" cast members, particularly former "Update" anchors -- remember Brad Hall? Kevin Nealon? Joe Piscopo? -- and considering how unceremoniously he was canned midseason, Norm Macdonald seems right now to be in about as good a position as he can be. This is Norm Macdonald's time, Norm Macdonald's golden moment.

"Man, I feel like shit," he says to the floor, leaning forward on a yellow plastic chair. He stands up, walks around. Coughs. Lights another cigarette. With five minutes to go, Macdonald is obviously ill at ease. "I hate it, I hate it, I hate it," he says. "I always think I'll plan things out, but then I get up there and just end up saying stuff I thought of that day."

The warm-up act, an Adam Sandler manque who has split his time between telling jokes and screaming into the microphone, steps off the stage amid prodigious applause. Given Norm's poor health and the fact that he has nothing in particular prepared -- "Okay, what the fuck am I going to talk about?" he asks aloud on his way to the stage -- it's easy to worry about his chances with the eighteen hundred people he's about to try to make laugh. But such fears are quickly obliterated. His first few words bring an eruption of laughter, as if the fresh-faced mass of Tulane students had been holding their breath for weeks -- an explosion of relief and joy. These words, which are simple and confirm his prediction about the last-minute provenance of his material, say a lot about how the mind of Norm Macdonald works, about the people who love Norm Macdonald, and about the particular place in the world of comedy that Norm Macdonald seems destined to occupy. Those words are: "I've got, like, diarrhea."

NORM MACDONALD ISN'T WHO YOU THINK HE IS. Watching him as the host of "Weekend Update," casual observers have fairly assumed that Macdonald, making clever and acerbic remarks about the news of the day, was politically astute, socially conscious, well read, opinionated -- erudite even. But the thing is, in real life, Norm Macdonald asserts he knows almost nothing about current events and has no political views whatsoever. "I've never had an opinion about anything," he tells the Tulane audience. "I don't know where the fuck people come up with these opinions about everything."

Accordingly, his stand-up act is a lot less sophisticated than his "Update" material, which he cowrote with Jim Downey, Frank Sebastiano, and Ross Abrash. For his live act, his blue suit and red tie make way for jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers; jokes about Yeltsin, Clinton, and GATT give way to material about drugs, scrotums, and anal sex. Lots of jokes about anal sex.

His core audience, young white men, devours it. Because Macdonald does not claim to know much about anything and because he dresses the part and swears a lot and delivers his jokes in a laid-back and desultory way, the young men, college age and younger, connect with him fundamentally. He may be thirty-five years old, but he is one of them, a sort of ageless wunderslacker. He puts them at ease, confirms and makes virtuous their basic impulses toward sloth and philistinism in much the same way Adam Sandler, the reigning king of the demographic, does. (Sandler is now commanding $12.5 million a picture. "In terms of career," says Macdonald, "I follow his lead.") But while Sandler concentrates on skits and songs and silly voices and sticks to a more or less politically correct agenda, Macdonald's act is just the microphone and his material, which is raunchy and puerile and often shockingly blunt.

About sex between two men: "Gay guys don't rape each other because, well, they never say no."

About the WNBA: "It's weird, because they, uh, well, they suck. What's the need for this thing? You never hear a guy say 'Why don't we get to have Bake-Offs?"

He's been called irresponsible, misogynistic, and homophobic, which would be a problem if all of it didn't have so much to do with his success. He is articulating the things that far too many of these guys are thinking. His audience is exhilarated when Macdonald hits these targets without sentiment, eschewing the usual halfhearted gestures toward social responsibility. See, in Macdonald's act, there is no "But seriously ..."

He brings up drugs: "I don't do drugs anymore, because, well, I don't know, th publicly. Any prudent employee of Ohlmeyer's should have realized that O.J. jokes, especially ruthless and relentless ones on "Weekend Update," week after week after week, including one that called anyone who considered O. J. innocent "very, very, very stupid," might possibly endanger one's job security. But that did little to impede Macdonald. So, after talking about doing it for almost three years, Ohlmeyer finally made a call and took Macdonald off "Update." Ohlmeyer, who has always denied that the move had anything to do with O. J., was asked by Macdonald for an explanation. Ohlmeyer said simply: "You're not funny."

Months after his dismissal, Macdonald is not noticeably bitter, but he clearly hasn't gotten over the shock. "It's weird. It's really weird," he says. The truth is, he loved doing "Weekend Update" and, unlike many of his predecessors at "SNL," did not consider it a mere springboard to movies or a talk show. And though he knew Ohlmeyer was not happy with him, there was no precedent for an executive's reaching over the head of "SNL" executive producer/supreme ruler Lorne Michaels to micromanage a ten-minute segment of a late-night comedy show.

"It's really hard to -- and I know this doesn't sound good for me -- it's really hard to get fired from 'SNL,' " he says.

Macdonald's dismissal was almost universally denounced. Ohlmeyer became the posterboy for rock-headed and hubristic TV executives, while Macdonald became a show-business cause celebre.

Which was fine, except that Macdonald, who considered "Weekend Update" the apogee of his career, was suddenly unmoored. What now?

"Maybe I could do some bad movies."
-- Norm Macdonald, in August 1997 when asked
what he might do after Saturday Night Live

A YEAR AND A-HALF AGO, Macdonald hooked up with Robert Simonds, the young and startlingly successful producer of all of Adam Sandler's movies. Simonds offered Macdonald the same arrangement he gave Sandler: Write a funny script, and I'll get it made. Simonds is something of a comedian's wet dream, handing the stars the reins and trusting their vision. And because the budgets are low, almost always under $20 million, the movies fly under the radar of the studios, eliminating almost all meddling from above. So on his first film, Macdonald was able to conceive the plot, cowrite the script, and star. What could go wrong?

Well, let's break it down. First, "Dirty Work"'s target audience is young men twelve to thirty, according to Simonds and yet the cast is surprisingly old and notable for its almost spectacular lack of box-office cachet. The film's other big names: Jack Warden, Chevy Chase, Don Rickles, and Gary Coleman.

Second, Macdonald is known for being somewhere near or on the cutting edge of comedy, and yet the director of the first movie starring cutting-edge comedian Norm Macdonald is, well, Bob Saget.

Finally, while Macdonald seems to have made an effort to lure the youngsters -- they cleaned up a prison-rape sketch to get the PG-13 rating -- the film, filled with jokes about scrotums and anal sex (about a dozen of these) and innumerable references to whores, "dirty Saigon whores," and dead hookers, hardly seems appropriate for adolescents.

Scratch that. Of course it's appropriate for adolescents. Which leads to a more general dichotomy in Norm Macdonald: At his best, he is smart, iconoclastic, wonderfully blunt -- courageous even. But at his worst, he is a nearly middle-aged man still plagued by issues most people resolve during puberty, a talented man dragged down by his basest instincts, a smart guy, deep in his thirties, making pee-pee jokes.

THE NIGHT AFTER HIS SHOW AT TULANE, Macdonald is playing James Madison University, a preppy college in Virginia. The crowd is about 70 percent male, most wearing baseball hats, fraternity letters, or both. Backstage, Macdonald is feeling better, and he not only has an act worked out but is planning to do an entirely clean show.

As Macdonald delays his entrance, a chant of "We want Norm! We want Norm!" grows and recedes. A group is stomping its feet. Fifteen minutes late, the lights go out. Macdonald is introduced, and the place erupts. A row of guys stand up and pull off their jackets to reveal a message spelled on their shirts, one letter each: WE LOVE NORM! Behind them, a group hoists a twenty-foot banner saying, FUCK DON OHLMEYER. The crowd cheers wildly.

Macdonald starts his act, but the audience won't settle down. Every time he pauses for even a moment to let the laughter die down, someone in the audience pipes up.

"Yahoo for Norm! Norm's number one!" Big laughs.

"Don Ohlmeyer's a dead man!" More cheers.

He makes it through some jokes but has already been thrown off his plan, derailed from the clean-joke agenda. He does a bit about giving blow jobs to black men. One about the president getting blow jobs. But then it starts again.

"Get naked!" screams a girl in back.

"Crack whore!" yells a guy in front.

He has lost his rhythm. After more outbursts, he finally asks them to stop yelling "dirty things" at him. "We gotta get back on track" he says. They are not listening to him.

"Blow job!"

"Eat me!"

"Anal rape!"

He stares into the crowd. He stammers for a moment. He looks at his shoes. He has created this, fed them on the detritus of his mind and now, still hungry, they are devouring him. Who are these people?

These are his people. He squints into the light, and he suddenly looks his age.

"Has civilization completely broken down?" he asks.

They all cheer.

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