New Haven Advocate

Beyond the Norm
Returning to stand-up bigtime, Norm MacDonald storms Mohegan Sun


Dick Cavett once said of Groucho Marx that "everything he says is funny, because he says it in that voice." The same might be said for the very different but equally distinctive voice of Norm MacDonald, the Saturday Night Live alumnus. Combined with his brilliantly sarcastic worldview, his frankness about his own limited abilities as an all-around entertainer, and his admirable ability to never self-censor or tame his outrageous sense of humor, MacDonald's edgy nasal twang—too snarky to be jittery yet too soft-spoken to be angry—is his fortune. That was the voice that answered the phone for a brief interview last week.

Finding the best forum for that voice has lately been a bit of a struggle. MacDonald had a bit of sitcom success in the late '90s, and still gets offers, but now feels "sitcoms are kind of dead. I'm not particularly adept at them. And I don't think adults even watch them anymore. Somehow Seinfeld killed the sitcom. You'd think it would have saved it, but that's not what happened."

Despite starring in a couple of movies ( Dirty Work , Screwed ), he doesn't consider himself much of an actor, and even had to dissuade Milos Forman from continuing to give him bit parts after featuring him in The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man in the Moon . "He just liked me, took a fondness to me. He'd say, 'Anyone can act.'"

As for more casual forms of TV, MacDonald says, "It was always my dream to have a talk show—I can talk, I just can't act. But not anymore because there are so many of them. They're not interesting any more."

Finally, "One thing I would fucking never do in a million fucking years is a motherfucking reality show."

For years, he'd avoided doing a lot of traveling, since, as he says, "I have a boy, and I wanted to spend time with him. But he's 13 now, so I can go out again. I love New York so much, but I don't know anybody who'll let me stay at their place."

So now Norm MacDonald's returned to his stand-up roots, teaming up with Victoria Jackson for an extensive tour that brings him to the Mohegan Sun Cabaret Sept. 14-17.

"Cabaret?" he sputters when told where he's playing. "I have to wear a little hat and a cane, like Joel Grey?"

When reminded that he played New Haven's short-lived Joker's Wild club in the late '80s, years before Saturday Night Live made him a star, he interjects, "New Haven? That's a dangerous place, isn't it? Yeah, that's a dangerous place!"

That early stand-up period was documented in a few TV appearances. The most telling one was on MTV's old Half Hour Comedy Hour, in which two other stand-ups tried to rope him into an improv bit, and MacDonald flat-out refused to get involved, ad-libbing, "I don't do that... pretending." When reminded of the incident, MacDonald suggests that his attitude hasn't changed. More recently, his friend Drew Carey got him to participate in a Whose Line is It Anyway routine, but "those guys are great at that. I just stayed on the side and did nothing. Everybody thinks every comic is like Robin Williams. I have to stop and think up stuff."

When he first appeared on The Tonight Show, MacDonald's creepy and off-kilter act (including a routine in which a man obeys Satan's command to slaughter his family and stuff them in a duffle bag, only to be chagrined when the devil turns out to be a friend: "Bob! Really had me goin' there, Bob!") seemed to mesmerize that night's other guest.

"David Lynch, right? I'd just got to L.A. and shit. In between, during the commercials and everything, David Lynch says, 'You're really funny, where are you playing next?' And I think, this is cool—he's a movie director! We exchange phone numbers. This guy came to see me like six times, and I thought he was going to, like, ask me to be in a movie or something. But it just turned out he liked comedy."

When he joined Saturday Night Live as a writer, MacDonald didn't expect he'd perform on the show. Eventually he became a key player, anchoring what he announced as "the fake news" and impersonating everyone from Bob Dole to Quentin Tarantino. His best impressions, he says, "would be of guys I really love: Burt Reynolds, David Letterman." Even Larry King? "I love Larry King. I love old guys. I didn't want to mock any of those guys. I mean, Letterman! He's funnier than me."

His current act may include impressions, some old routines, anecdotes, whatever MacDonald is prepared to unleash that night. It's so unformatted, in fact, that he can't even tell you how long his set is. "I don't have any sense of time. I can do an hour and a half, or 20 minutes. People call out for old stuff, but then sometimes they'll scream out the punchline, and then I can't do it."

Even adding in the years he was writing for SNL before he appeared on it, MacDonald didn't intersect with his current tourmate Victoria "I Am Not a Bimbo" Jackson. They should make an interesting pair. "She plays the ukulele, she writes songs that are very funny, satirical, so you know she's not really, like, dumb. She is such a sweet girl, and she does anesthetically clean material, so then I don't know what to do. It works out because she's born again and I'm a Christian as well, just not born again. I do obscene, but not profane. I don't make fun of anybody's religion."

Unless, maybe, if you're a family-slaughtering Satanist.