Brad Locke: Macdonald was a comic's comic

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Sep. 19—Norm Macdonald died last week, and while celebrity deaths don't usually affect me much, this one has.

I've long said that Macdonald is the most underrated and underappreciated comedian of our time. I first became aware of him as a high schooler when he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live." His dry, smirking humor appealed to me, especially his Weekend Update segments.

Macdonald's move to the Update desk coincided with the O.J. Simpson saga, and never has a comic so deeply mined a source of humor as Norm did with O.J. It's what eventually got him fired from SNL, because NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer was good friends with the football star turned actor turned killer.

Macdonald informed my sense of humor as much as anyone else did. As much as writers like Lewis Grizzard, Pat McManus and James Thurber. Macdonald's dark and acerbic wit resonated with me in a way that other talented comedians did not, funny as they were.

If for some reason you wanted to somewhat understand why I am the way I am, then study Norm Macdonald. He had a subversive streak that undergirded everything he did as a comedian. Like his roast of Bob Saget, in which Macdonald parodied roasts themselves, much to the confusion of Saget and the audience. Macdonald didn't care if people got the joke; he got it, and that's all that mattered.

He defied convention. He could sling one-liners with the best of them, but he was funny simply by the way he told a joke. The punchline was almost irrelevant.

There's a famous clip of him on Conan O'Brien's late night show in which Macdonald tells a meandering, drawn-out joke about a moth that visits a podiatrist's office. I'll not ruin the punchline for you, but you really should get on YouTube and type in "Norm Macdonald moth joke." It's my favorite joke he ever told.

After the SNL firing and a failed feature film, Macdonald eventually carved out a superb second act. At the beginning of his comeback, I remember seeing him in commercials for SafeAuto, and it made me sad. This is what he had been reduced to, shilling for a cut-rate car insurance company?

But work is work, and he eventually reintegrated into the mainstream — as much as someone as odd as Macdonald could do. He continued to be a 24-karat gold talk show guest, and he did a couple of Netflix specials.

The great thing about Macdonald is he didn't seem to care how successful he was, or even if his jokes landed. He always did what he thought was funny, and more often than not, it was funny to others, too.

Certainly it wasn't funny to everybody — people like Ohlmeyer. But those people don't count, because they wouldn't know funny if it bit them in the nethers.

But people who really know and understand comedy? They got it. People like O'Brien and David Letterman — the gatekeepers of modern comedy — they got it.

O'Brien said this on Tuesday, the day Macdonald died: "I am absolutely devastated about Norm Macdonald. Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again. I'm so sad for all of us today."

So am I.

Brad Locke is senior sports writer for the Daily Journal. Contact him on Twitter @bradlocke or via email at brad.locke@journalinc.com.

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