Norm Macdonald, comedian and 'SNL' actor and writer, dies at 61

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A man in a blue suit and tie performs standup comedy
Norm Macdonald, performing at a charity gala in Beverly Hills in 2017, died Tuesday of cancer. (Greg Doherty / Getty Images)

Norm Macdonald, the actor and comic best known as a writer, performer and three-season "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live," has died of cancer. He was 61.

Macdonald's death Tuesday morning was confirmed by his manager, Marc Gurvitz. Macdonald had battled cancer privately for nine years.

Longtime producing partner Lori Jo Hoekstra told Deadline that her friend was "most proud" of his comedy and kept his diagnosis private because he didn't want it to change the way people saw him.

"Norm was a pure comic," she said. "He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly."

"To so many people in comedy, me included, there was nobody funnier than Norm MacDonald," "Family Guy" star Seth MacFarlane tweeted, one of several tributes from peers and admirers. "You always hoped he would hang around after the work was done, just so you could hear his stories and get a laugh. So hilarious and so generous with his personality. I’m gonna miss him."

"Norm, I didn’t just like you. I loved you," tweeted fellow "SNL" alum Rob Schneider, sharing several photos of them together. "You didn’t just make me laugh. You made me cry with laughter. I’m still crying today. But when I think of you, my tears will run down my face with all the memories of all the laughter and all the joys that you brought to all of us. Rest."

Macdonald wrote about his "SNL" experience in "Based on a True Story," his 2016 memoir.

"I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on 'SNL' and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar. They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter," he wrote. "I've been lucky."

Macdonald was born in 1959 in Quebec City, Canada, northeast of Montreal, and grew up watching Chevy Chase perform.

“I didn’t know there were comedy clubs,” Macdonald recalled in a December 1995 chat with The Times. “I didn’t think there were working comedians who did comedy. They just appeared on television, and as far as I knew there were only about six of them.”

But during a 1987 visit to a comedy club with friends, while he was working as a garbage collector, Macdonald on a whim found himself onstage winging it. The audience's reaction to his impromptu shtick — “I thought it was the greatest thing,” he said in ’95 — was positive enough to get him started in stand-up.

By the late ’80s, he was perfecting his deadpan delivery style and had gained a reputation as a comedy standout. He married Connie Vaillancourt Macdonald in 1988 (they had one son and would divorce 11 years later) and competed on "Star Search" in 1990.

"He’s so acerbic," Nicole Odekirk, then-general manager of the Irvine Improv, told The Times in June 1995. "He’s very similar to David Spade in his delivery. He’s very intellectual. His pacing is a little off, and when you’re not expecting a joke, it’ll be right there."

After writing for "The Dennis Miller Show," a short-lived syndicated offering from another "SNL" performer, Macdonald broke into big-time showbiz in 1992 as a writer on "Roseanne."

He left the hit sitcom the next year for a writing job on "Saturday Night Live," where he would stay from 1993 to 1999. He was in front of the camera for five of those years, including three as the anchor of "Weekend Update" after he replaced Kevin Nealon in mid-1994.

A man in a suit talks to a man in a Batman costume.
Norm Macdonald, left, on "Weekend Update" in May 1995 with actor Michael McKean dressed as Batman. (Al Levine / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Macdonald won over critics and pumped some life into what was then a 20-year-old show with his cruelly funny impressions of a cantankerous then-Sen. Bob Dole and his oft-disturbing takes on current events during "Weekend Update." He also was famous for taking potshots at O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of two murders in late 1995.

“If you don’t believe in the joke, why do it in the first place?” Macdonald asked The Times in 1995, speaking in the understated manner in which he delivered some of his best punchlines. “Don’t let the audience be the judge of what’s funny. You either think it’s funny or you don’t. That’s the problem with comedy — it’s so subjective that you really can’t take other people’s opinions seriously.”

Macdonald left "Saturday Night Live" soon after being replaced by Colin Quinn on "Weekend Update." While gossip circulated for years about his departure and NBC network head Don Ohlmeyer's opinions about his comedy — Ohlmeyer, who died in 2017, was a Simpson friend and supporter — the comic would say in later years that he believed he was replaced for being too insubordinate.

After "SNL," Macdonald starred in the sitcom "The Norm Show" — later renamed "Norm" — for three seasons starting in 1999. He went hard into voice acting with roles on "Family Guy," "Skylanders Academy" and "The Orville." Movie credits included 1995's "Billy Madison" with Adam Sandler and 1998's "Dirty Work" with Chase, Artie Lange and the late Don Rickles.

A man in a hat and sweatshirt waves at the camera.
Norm Macdonald attends a celebrity charity poker event in Las Vegas in June 2019. (Gabe Ginsberg / Getty Images)

The actor emerged in more recent years on social media as a sports fanatic, live-tweeting golf tournaments in exquisite detail and amassing 1.1 million followers on Twitter. ("I know nothing about golf but I am somehow comforted when @normmacdonald compulsively live tweets it," actor and podcast host Marc Maron tweeted in 2012.)

Macdonald confirmed in his memoir that he had "lost it all" more than once while gambling. "But," he wrote, "that's because I always took the long shot and it never came in."

Also in his memoir, the comic lamented that he would be remembered, always, for what he did on "Saturday Night Live."

"It can be difficult to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever," Macdonald wrote. "It's like the fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck. ...

"But looking back now, I can see that my life since 'SNL' has been a full sprint, trying with all my might to outrun the wolves of irrelevancy snapping at my heels. It has all been in vain, of course, as they caught and devoured me years ago."

"The thing about Norm, is sometimes his comedy was quite obtuse," actor Jennifer Tilly tweeted Tuesday. "But he never explained a joke. He delighted in the fact that sometimes only one or two people knew why it was funny."

Macdonald is survived by his son, Dylan Macdonald.

Former Times staff writer Anthony Duignan-Cabrera contributed to this report.

For the record:
11:47 a.m. Sept. 15, 2021: An earlier version of this story referred to Chevy Chase as Canadian. The actor and comedian was born in New York.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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