How Norm Macdonald saved ‘SNL’ in one of its ‘dark times’

How Norm Macdonald saved ‘SNL’ in one of its ‘dark times’

Here’s what I learned from Norm Macdonald: “Germans love David Hasselhoff.”

That, for me, was the classic off-kilter Macdonald remark during his remarkable, too-short run on “Saturday Night Live” where, from 1993 to 1998, he was one the brightest stars on a show already nearing its 20th season — and going through one of its sporadic “dark times.” (Translation: It was rarely funny . . . save for Norm and a few others including Will Ferrell, Kevin Nealon, Tim Meadows and Cheri Oteri).

Macdonald, who died Tuesday at the age of 61, was reportedly battling cancer for the past decade but never wanted to go public with his diagnosis, for fear people would laugh with him because of his personal situation — and not because of his jokes, which more often than not, hit the comic bullseye. You waited for Norm to fire off another gem in his trademark biting, dry, snarky style — with a glint in his eye that said, “Pay attention. Master at work.”

“He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him,” Macdonald’s producing partner and friend, Lori Jo Hoekstra, told Rolling Stone. “Norm was a pure comic.”

He sure was, and if you need validation of his cutting-edge comedy style, go back and watch him behind the “Weekend Update” anchor desk on “SNL,” where he ruled that roost for several years.

Or segue to one of his on-target celebrity impressions, whether as an angry Bob Dole or a flippant, bored, gum-chewing Burt Reynolds, harassing Alex Trebek (Ferrell) on those classic “Jeopardy!” takeoffs — including changing the name on his podium to read “Turd Ferguson,” just to make a flustered, too-polite Alex repeat the name on national television.

Classic stuff. And it never gets old, which is just one indication of Norm’s comedic television legacy.

He kept a lower profile after leaving “SNL” on bad terms; a network sitcom, “The Norm Show,” ran for three seasons on ABC but failed to capture Macdonald’s acerbic style — like Don Rickles, he wasn’t meant to be a sitcom star — but he was always a welcome late-night guest.

However, that format didn’t work for him during his 10-episode Netflix series, “Norm Macdonald Has a Show,” which ran one season in 2018. To be fair, it hasn’t worked for anyone else on Netflix, either. Just ask Chelsea Handler.

The great advantage of the digital age is that, with a keystroke, you can watch Norm Macdonald in the many genres in which he left his mark — but, if you ask me, his death leaves a major void in the world of “smart” comedy, the kind of humor that makes you think — and laugh — at the same time.

Norm Macdonald didn’t just perform in this style — he owned it.

Kevin Nealon and Norm MacDonald during weekend update.
Kevin Nealon (left) and Norm Macdonald during “Weekend Update.”
NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal

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