Norm Macdonald on the late-night campaign trail
Norm Macdonald has been openly lobbying for the last open hosting spot in late-night television’s great changing of the guard of 2014. He’s hoping to take the place of the soon-to-retire Craig Ferguson on “The Late Late Show” on CBS. It’s unclear whether he’s in the running for the slot after David Letterman (and soon, Stephen Colbert), going up against NBC’s newly minted Jimmy Fallon-Seth Meyers lineup. But that hasn’t stopped Macdonald from making his case.
This weekend he comes for an audition, of sorts, with an Aspen crowd, with a two-night run of stand-up shows at Belly Up. Fans have been pushing for Macdonald on Twitter with a #latelatenormnorm campaign over the past few months, totaling tens of thousands of posts. He staged a clever mock audition for the job on “Conan” in May, doing a monologue, chitchat with a sidekick and interview with a guest — Fred Willard — in under one minute.
CBS hasn’t taken the bait so far, Macdonald said when asked if he was making any headway for the gig.
“If stone silence is headway, then I’m making headway,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything. They’re a mulish lot over there.”
Macdonald, the 1990s “Saturday Night Live” stand-out and genius of sarcastic deadpan delivery, talks about the late-night hosting gig like it’s a long shot. But, as his legion of boosters testify, over the past two decades he’s proved himself a dependably hilarious late-night-show guest, and he served as arguably the best “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live.” There’s no comparable grassroots campaign out there for anyone else.
Since the spring of 2013, he’s been honing his interview skills on the “Norm Macdonald Live” podcast, where he holds dependably funny B.S. sessions with comics like Bob Saget, Todd Glass and Carl Reiner.
“I’ve been trying to learn how to talk to people,” he said.
He’s changed his approach to stand-up, too, to work on his conversational chops — incorporating crowd interaction into his routines on the road.
“About a year ago, I was getting bored with not talking to people in the audience, so I just started,” he said. “I used to be scared of doing that.”
Macdonald said he doesn’t fall prey to hecklers or obnoxious comedy-club types, as you might think, when he engages the crowd.
“Hecklers don’t yell at you, because you’re talking to the audience,” he explained. “Whereas if you totally ignore them, those guys are going to heckle you.”
In the years since Macdonald was fired from “Saturday Night Live,” in 1998, he’s hit the road for stand-up shows between acting gigs in movies like “Dirty Work” and in a string of short-lived situation comedies and TV shows — “Norm,” “A Minute with Stan Hooper” and “Sports Show with Norm Macdonald.”
He’s blunt about why he keeps coming back to stand-up.
“It’s the only one I’m good at,” he said before quoting the late Mitch Hedberg’s bit about stand-ups acting, comparing it to asking a bridge-builder to tend a farm.
“I like the podcast because you can just talk,” Macdonald added. “And I’m pretty good at being a guest on shows, but stand-up is the only one that I’m good at. The other ones I just stumbled into from stand-up.”
His classic impressions of Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole on “Saturday Night Live” aside, he admits he’s not an actor.
“Stand-up is not good training for an actor,” he said. “If you do Second City or Groundlings or something, it trains you to be an actor. But stand-up would only train you to do, like, a soliloquy. It’s weird. You’re not talking to any human beings; you’re just talking to yourself for an hour.”
He argues that after the success of “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne,” for which he was a writer, people got the idea that stand-up comics were natural actors. But for every hit like “Seinfeld” and “Louie,” it seems there are a half-dozen stand-up-driven shows that didn’t catch on like “Norm.”
The “Late Late Show” gig, whether or not he has a legitimate shot at it, he argues, is in his wheelhouse.
“It’s not that many skills involved,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to tell a joke; I can do that. You’ve got to be able to listen to people talk, and I’ve been working on that.”
If nothing else, you could expect him to do something at least a little different with the late-night format. His standup tends to be pretty dark, with its comedic possibilities turned up by Macdonald’s matter-of-fact delivery and what he calls his “weird voice,” a style that defined his “Weekend Update” years.
On “Weekend Update,” Macdonald memorably used non sequiturs and random references — mentions of the likes of David Hasselhoff and Frank Stallone — to pepper the segment. That free-association-as-comedy style has been widely influential, most readily seen in shows like “Family Guy.” His treatment of “Weekend Update” news-of-the-day items, from the O.J. Simpson trial to Michael Jackson’s scandals and the Clinton impeachment, tended to ignore the actual news and offer blunt commentary. The surrealist approach to the faux news desk, he said, was simply a result of the glut of talk shows in the ’90s.
“It was because on ‘Update,’ it had already been done 100 times and by the time I did it, there were like 20 talk shows, and all these monologues, so every joke had been done all week long, until on Saturday it would have been stupid to do,” he explained. “How are you going to do a joke about what happened on Monday? … So I said, ‘Let’s just do weird jokes.’ Even our political jokes weren’t really political. They were weird.”
His shows this weekend are made up of all new material, he said. His incorporation of crowd work, and the storytelling style of his 2011 special, “Me Doing Standup,” indicate he’s evolving, somewhat, out of the traditional set-ups and jokes that helped him break out in stand-up.
Over the past three years, Macdonald also has been writing a memoir. You might think his biting wit and keen eye for the bizarre would make Macdonald a natural for the form. His rendition of how he was fired from “Saturday Night Live” would certainly move some books. But telling the story of his life is a task that’s lost its allure since he began.
“What a f—ing mistake that was,” he said. “I’m up all night going, ‘Good God, how are you supposed to do this?’ You have to put all these parts together and have it make sense.”
Macdonald then sighed and, in his familiar deadpan, added, “But the good thing is that it pays so little and it uses almost all my time. So I’ve got a beautiful thing.”
Macdonald has played Aspen twice before, during HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
“Every time I was there was for a festival,” he said. “I don’t like festivals much, but I like Aspen.”
The Canadian comic recalled spending a day skating at the Silver Circle his last time through town, and he aims to find an indoor rink while he’s here for Independence Day weekend.
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