Remembering Norm Macdonald in Aspen

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

This might be the smallest footnote of all the footnotes in the grand, weird, hilarious and uncompromising career of Norm Macdonald, who died last week at 61, but it’s worth noting around here: he told the best Aspen joke I’ve ever heard.

Just about every stand-up who comes through here feels obliged to ridicule the ridiculous resort a little bit. Usually they offer a lame and lazy few lines about the oxygen tank backstage or the billionaires up the block, rote and forgettable bits of local material.

The best of outsider’s Aspen jokes came from Macdonald during a 2014 set at Belly Up. In his signature deadpan, Macdonald — sparking a lighter and mouthing a cigarette he never quite lit throughout the night — went through the litany of common sense deterrents to human life in Aspen, from the thin air to the common black bear home invasions (the visit came during a particularly wild bear season), drawing it out in extended storytelling style and eventually buttoned it up by noting how cheap one would assume it would be to live in a place where you can’t breathe and wildlife might rip your front door off and such. The absurdity of Aspen’s existence, and the fact that its homes are ludicrously expensive despite it all, delighted Macdonald.

The joke (murderously funny in his telling, of course, but never when I try to explain it) spoke to something at the core of Macdonald’s work: he paid attention more than all the other comics, even when scoring a local laugh.

Macdonald played Aspen occasionally across three decades, going back to the old HBO Comedy Fest days (“I don’t like festivals much, but I like Aspen,” he told me). While other comics would ski and après-ski during their visits, Macdonald the nonconformist and consummate Canadian instead was known to drop in and skate at local rinks when he was in town.

His last show here was among his final gigs before the pandemic hit – a sold-out, envelope-pushing headline spot in February 2020 at the Wheeler Opera House for the Aspen Laugh Festival.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

I once asked him about his string of (short-lived) post-“Saturday Night Live” TV shows and (scant) film projects and asked why he kept going as a road comic rather than following his former castmates and friends on the road to Hollywood. His answer was blunt: “It’s the only one I’m good at. … 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.”

Seeing the YouTube clips bounce around in the days following news of his death – he’d reportedly been sick with cancer for nine years but kept his illness private from even his closest friends – it’s evident that he was indeed one of the great contemporary talk show guests, showing up for classic moments beside Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.

His brief stint as a host also hints at what could have been. In 2018 Netflix premiered the first and only 10 episodes of “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” a sort of anti-talk show deconstruction of the form that opened with David Spade, Macdonald and sidekick Adam Eget talking for 20 minutes about how Macdonald didn’t know how to do a talk show (he had campaigned publicly to replace Craig Ferguson as host of “Late Late Show” before the job went to James Corden).

On the second episode, when guest Drew Barrymore doesn’t get Macdonald’s Dracula joke, Macdonald says with a wide smile: “I love when people don’t get it,” which is the closest thing you’ll hear to a Norm Macdonald mission statement. He never cared if he got the laugh, and that’s what’s made him timeless (and made for some frustrating stretches as an audience member).

His stand-up could turn dark, with its comedic possibilities turned up by Macdonald’s matter-of-fact delivery and what he called his “weird voice” – a mix of North Country accent and adopted old-timeyness – in a style that defined his “Weekend Update” years and in more recent stand-up sets somehow carried bits as grim-seeming as one about his grandfather’s suicide.

Norm Macdonald at the Aspen Laugh Festival in the Wheeler Opera House in February 2020. (Hal Williams/Courtesy photo)

On “Weekend Update” in the ’90s, Macdonald memorably blew past the era’s standards of good taste with his O.J. Simpson jokes and he used non-sequiturs and random references — David Hasselhoff, for instance, and Frank Stallone — to pepper the segment, which he made a surreal weekly performance. That free-association-as-comedy style has been widely influential, most readily seen in shows like “Family Guy” since then.

He wasn’t philosophical about stand-up or comedy and he easily cut through the bullshit when asked about the craft: “It’s weird,” he said. “You’re just talking to yourself for an hour.”