The Toronto Star
MARCH 21, 1999 -- BY ROB SALEM

Anything but Norm-al

Canadian comedian Norm Macdonald is getting a second shot at stardom, despite his checkered past

PASADENA, Calif. -- You've gotta hand it to Norm Macdonald - he cleans up real good.

A year and a half ago, many wouldn't have bet Monopoly money on Macdonald having any kind of mainstream career. By the end of 1997, the 35-year-old Canadian comedian had bad-mouthed his way out of a very lucrative gig reading the "fake news" on NBC's Saturday Night Live - his repeated pot-shots at O.J. Simpson having incurred the wrath of then-network honcho (and O.J. pal) Don Ohlmeyer.

Shortly thereafter, his first starring feature film, Dirty Work, which he also co-wrote, tanked almost as badly as it deserved.

And then there was the little matter of a Connecticut college gig that went bad - because the audience was drunk, or Norm was drunk, or both, depending on who's telling the tale.

But Hollywood's a pretty forgiving town. It doesn't matter how badly or publicly you've misbehaved - indeed, the more notorious, the better - as long as you're still able to form complete sentences, they're going to give you another chance. (And, if you're Charlie Sheen or Robert Downey, Jr., a third, a fourth and a fifth.)

Not that Macdonald doesn't deserve a second shot at TV stardom: He debuts this week in his own, new sitcom, The Norm Show, replacing Whose Line Is It Anyway? in the Wednesday night post-Drew Carey slot (9:30 on ABC and CTV) for the remainder of the season. (Staying true to his Canadian roots, the Quebec-born Macdonald has chosen "Too Bad," a 1980 hit for Vancouver's Doug And The Slugs, as the show's theme song.)

In fact, the dryly hilarious Norm Show is pretty much a culmination of everything Macdonald has done to this point.

While the sitcom form might at first seem constrictive for a man whose self-professed favourite phrase is "crack whore," keep in mind that, just a decade ago, Macdonald was labouring as a writer and story editor on the famously fractious set of Roseanne.

And he's brought with him some of his fellow Roseanne survivors - producers Bruce Helford, Bruce Rasmussen and Rob Ulin (the two Bruces having since moved on to Drew Carey, which no doubt had a lot to do with winning this coveted spot on the schedule), along with co-star Laurie Metcalf.

"When I worked on Roseanne," Macdonald recalls, "Mr. Bruce Helford was my head writer, and he taught me how to write for sitcoms. And I always enjoyed writing for Laurie on the show. I thought she was the funniest one - I mean, Rosanne's hilarious, but I liked writing for Laurie.

"I seem to write better for thinner women."

Clearly, even if this is a somewhat kinder, gentler Macdonald, he hasn't lost his bad-boy edge. The Norm Show casts him as a disgraced pro hockey player - busted from the league for gambling and tax evasion - serving out a public-service sentence as the most unlikely of social workers.

The fictitious Norm's worst tendencies are somewhat mitigated by his straight-arrow colleague, Laurie, a role that was written with Metcalf in mind.

"I found out later that it was written for me," says Metcalf. "I couldn't imagine that. I was so flattered."

"The character's name is Laurie," Macdonald interjects.

"Yeah, the character's name is Laurie," she acknowledges. "She's a little peppier than (Roseanne's) Jackie, I guess. And she's a little more by-the-book and takes pride in the job she does. Which is pretty much different from the last one I played."

And what's it like playing opposite Macdonald?

"Well," she begins, "I know that he won't agree with me on this, but he teaches me what to do in a scene. I take all my cues off him. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, he's just playing himself,' but it's not really true. He doesn't have a lot of the actor tricks that some of us do. But he's got all the timing, and a great delivery, a really unique delivery, and he wrote a lot of it - so of course, you know, it's in his own voice.

"All I have to do in the scene is just look at him, and he's always in the present moment, and it relaxes me and calms me down, because I can't . . . I don't like cameras, you know. Tape night is a horrible experience for me."

Macdonald jumps back in. "I love cameras. I make love to the camera. Which apparently is some sort of felony."

But seriously. "You know, I always really loved Roseanne," he confesses. "And Roseanne was a much more powerful presence than I am on a sitcom. I don't know that I could ever be that . . . I mean, I'm more dependent on the ensemble than Roseanne ever was, so I don't know . . . .

"She told me once, you know, about acting. She said, 'Don't take acting classes.' She said, 'When you're happy in a scene, smile. And then when you're angry, frown.' "

He is similarly philosophical about his own checkered past.

"I hope to continue to fail upward all the way," he laughs. "I mean, I never had anything against Don Ohlmeyer because I always felt, you know, he owned the cameras, and he had the call to make. You know, the people that think I'm not funny are correct. And the people who think I am funny are correct. It's just unfortunate when your boss is one of the people who thinks you aren't funny.

"I don't want to be maudlin or anything, but my dad, when I was a young boy, told me that, you know, life would not always be easy. And God knows, he had some hard times. And he always said that in times of trouble, you should drink a lot of whisky."

Macdonald will also be returning to the big screen soon; he'll be playing Michael "Kramer" Richards - back in his Fridays days - in Man On The Moon, the upcoming Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey.

© 1999 The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved.