Entertainment Weekly
MARCH 26, 1999 -- BY A.J. JACOBS

Hardcore Norm

Former 'Saturday Night Live' bad boy Norm Macdonald tries to play nice in the warm and fuzzy world of prime-time sitcoms. Can you say fat chance?

Norm Macdonald is not an animal. Contrary to his acid-tongued, ultra-aloof persona, this man, this human being, has feelings. Mention his former gig Saturday Night Live, for example, and he gets downright wistful: "I do miss it. That was f---ing fun."

Breaks your heart. But Macdonald, 36, has moved on. The ousted anchor of SNL's "Weekend Update" is now the star of his own ABC series, The Norm Show, debuting March 24. And he's plenty emotional about that challenge, too. "I've never been able to memorize stuff," he says, "and there's got to be 500 words a week here! You got to say them all in order. And pronounce them right. And listen to the other person to know [when you should talk]. It's f---ing hard!"

He takes a drag off his cigarette. "I mean, it's not like coal mining or anything.... Actually, I just say that to make me seem like a man of the people. It's worse than coal mining is the truth!"

Okay, so he isn't seriously sweating this challenge. Nor is comedy's lanky Bad Boy seriously interested in amending his gleefully acerbic image. Asked why he agreed to do Norm, he bluntly states: "Turns out with sitcoms, you can make the most money."

The show's rather bizarre conceit--Macdonald plays a tax-evading former hockey player sentenced to community service as a social worker--is a stretch, but it does offer ample opportunity for Macdonald's trademark nihilistic grousing and the occasional hooker-bashing one-liner. Costar Laurie Metcalf (the Roseanne vet plays Norm's coworker) figures Macdonald is saved by his wide-eyed delivery. "He's got a blend of irreverence and naivety that allows him to get away with calling someone a 'huge whore.' "

The Canadian-born son of teachers is a curious mix: shy yet shocking, distant yet warm, boyish yet perverse. A former stand-up and Roseanne writer, Macdonald hit his ironic stride with "Update," delivering hilariously snide zingers. "I was considering trying to do that my entire career," he says. "Till I was 65. Like Cronkite. I thought that would be funny."

NBC didn't. Last year, the net's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, axed Macdonald, who was replaced with Colin Quinn. Conspiracy theorists claim Macdonald doomed himself with relentless cracks about Ohlmeyer crony O.J. Simpson. Macdonald finds that thesis "weird" and takes Ohlmeyer's explanation at face value: The old-school exec just didn't find him funny. Doesn't that bother Macdonald? "They said [former SNLer] Charles Rocket wasn't funny. They said Brad Hall wasn't funny. They said Tim Kazurinsky wasn't funny. Now you can see them all at the Miss Hawaiian Tropic pageant!"

Macdonald isn't judging pageants yet, but he's no Adam Sandler either. Dirty Work, his first big movie, didn't work. Then there was an infamous stand-up gig at Connecticut's Quinnipiac College: The students refused to pay him, complaining that he was drunkenly incoherent; Macdonald countered that it was the kids who were impaired. "It was fun because it was so surreal," he says. "You're trying to be funny, but they hate you."

Since SNL, Macdonald has changed coasts (he lives alone in L.A., separated from his wife) and teamed up with Bruce Helford, exec producer of The Drew Carey Show and fellow Roseanne alumnus. Helford nixed some of Macdonald's original ideas (e.g., to play a bookie), but says Norm remains biting. (One of their first victories with standards and practices: A dentures-and-oral-sex joke stayed in the pilot.) "Norm's an edgy guy," says Helford. "It'll be an edgy show."

How about funny? "I think the show's good," says Macdonald. "Laurie's funny." He pauses, uncomfortable with Hollywood-style bluster. "I don't think anything I do is good until I see everything else out there. And everything else is bad. So relatively, this is good."

Some critics may beg to differ (EW, for instance, said he "doesn't seem ready for prime time"), but Macdonald shrugs off bad press: "As Hitler once said, all publicity is good publicity." And if viewers should concur with the critics, Macdonald's got family tradition to fall back on. "My dad, when I was a boy, told me that life would not always be easy. But no matter how troubling times get, you can always drink whiskey."

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