"Probably people thought I was a very sardonic person. But none of it really matters because I understand it. People don’t like to be pigeon-holed but you can’t go around fucking trying to figure out a guy’s whole fucking life; you may as well just pigeon-hole him, so you go, 'Yeah, that’s the guy with the red hat. He always wears a red hat.' Because it’s an easier way to go through life."
– Norm Macdonald
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Norm.
Norm Macdonald: Oh, hi, Guy, how are you doing?
GM: Good, how are you?
NM: Good. I spoke to you a couple years ago. I don’t know if you remember. I was doing the River Rock.
GM: No, I don’t remember that… Of course I remember that, Norm! I’m surprised you remember that. You must do a lot of these.
NM: Oh… no.
GM: It was six years ago.
NM: Goodness gracious, it was longer than I thought.
GM: And it remains to date the longest phone interview I’ve ever done.
NM: It was a long one, I remember! (laughs)
GM: It was about 90 minutes. I was just re-reading it last night. It was pretty good… So now you’re coming back to a club, which is perfect for me; I don’t know if it’s perfect for you. But I love seeing comics in comedy clubs.
NM: Oh, me, too. Yeah, yeah. I much prefer it, yeah.
GM: Do you? Money being equal… Obviously if you get paid more in a bigger venue, you’d go there.
NM: No, but you don’t really get paid more unless you’re one of those few people that do arenas and so forth. But I found if you do a theatre, first of all you only do one or two shows compared to, like, five. I’d kind of rather do five, you know, in a way.
GM: Oh really? Why is that?
NM: I don’t know. Just I’m there, you know, and I’d rather do more shows. And then in the theatres you don’t make as much as you’d think because there’s like 30 people… There’s union guys, the guy that pulls the rope to open the curtain. There’s all these people. But mostly it’s because I’ve experienced, like you, comedy in a comedy club setting rather than in a theatre setting. I remember every time Brian Regan came – he’s one of my favourites ever, so I’d always take people to see him at The Improv, you know? He hasn’t played clubs for a long time; he just plays theatres. And then in theatres, you’re kind of disconnected and you end up talking to the guy next to you a lot. It’s completely different. And also it’s way too big for the likes of me. Unless you’re Robin Williams or someone that can fill a stage with movement and energy or something, it just looks like a small man on a big stage, you know? Completely different.
GM: You’re here the same weekend Russell Peters is playing the arena.
NM: Oh, yeah, Russell plays arenas. It’s amazing.
GM: You talk about 30 people at a theatre, I can’t imagine the cost of renting an arena and all the people that work there. Plus he’s on the sides of buses, so there’s advertising.
NM: I know. Yeah, it seems like no matter how much money people make, they end up getting a retinue – I don’t know if that’s the right word; what do you call it? – an entourage with them. Everything seems to become more expensive as they make money but my God I wouldn’t know what to do. I don’t even know how an arena… I’ve never seen a comedian in an arena. I remember Steve Martin, who was maybe one of the first arena comics, used to come out in front of like 50- or 75,000 people. He’d do a magic trick. He’d go, “I hold in my left hand a dime.”
GM: (laughs) Although I went to one arena show skeptical like you, but they have huge screens and everything is televised. So it’s like going to watch it on TV.
NM: Yeah, but I don’t like that, either, because even at big clubs they’ll put up screens and what happens is people will watch the screen, because you always watch the screen rather than the person. One time I saw Springsteen and I was like only eight rows back and I started watching the screen, you know? In comedy I find that if people watch the screens they don’t laugh. It’s like they’re watching television, you know? It’s a whole different thing.
GM: Yeah, so I’m thrilled you’re going to be playing in a club. It’s the new club in town.
NM: Oh, it’s a new one? Oh, cool.
GM: I was at the competing club on Saturday night.
NM: There’s always that big Yuk Yuk’s rivalry that’s been going on even since I was there. I remember when I was starting out, I felt like I was in Hoffa or something with all the fucking union talk all the time. Jesus Christ, we’re making fifteen dollars a set, who fucking cares about… (laughs) Like, I was always very grateful to Mark Breslin because he started comedy and if it weren’t for him I never would have found it, you know? Just all the way through my career I realized that the owners make the money. In everything. Like, Lebron James doesn’t make as much money as whoever owns the fucking team. What’s the competing club called?
GM: It’s called the Comedy MIX.
NM: I remember there was another club, but I can’t remember the name of it, in Vancouver.
NM: Punchlines, yeah.
GM: The last time we spoke you said you were rededicating yourself to stand-up. We tend to forget your roots in Canadian stand-up even though we all know you’re Canadian. You were a Yuk Yuk’s guy, right?
NM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been one of my tougher things. I never really stopped doing stand-up but like you say I rededicated myself strongly to it I guess six years ago or whatever. But it was always a little odd to me – although I understand it… I thought for a long time, well, people know I was a stand-up because I was a stand-up way more than anything else. But they don’t know that. They have weird expectations of you, you know, depending on what they know you from. But you think of yourself as a stand-up because that’s what you do and you are what you do, kind of.
GM: Do you have good memories of your time on the road in Canada starting out?
NM: Oh yeah, certainly. They were my best memories. It sounds like I’m doing PR for Mark, but it was great how Breslin would do it because he would send the feature, the middle and the emcee on the road together. So he’d send you on the road. You’ve only been doing it like six months and you get to go with two guys who were real good, so you weren’t lonely and you’d learn from them. It was awesome. And when I came to America, my God, the emcee’s driving their car for hours to get to a gig and then they can only do three minutes. They’re treated so badly. But we were all kind of treated equally. And even the money was very close to each other. So it was great camaraderie and there wasn’t a lot of competition because we weren’t really competing for much.
GM: Very socialist.
NM: Yeah, yeah.
GM: Congratulations, by the way, on being the new face of Safe Auto.
NM: Oh, good Lord. Where’d you see that? Was that in the newspaper already? (laughs) Yeah, no, that’s good. Listen, if you want good auto insurance and you want safe, you can’t do better than Safe Auto.
GM: (laughs) I see why they hired you… Your website is a wealth of information.
NM: (laughs) Did you actually look at it?
GM: Yeah, I was looking for something. There’s nothing. There’s a good picture.
NM: All I’ve done is just paid people money once in a while and then I never look at the computer and then I just stop paying them after a while. I’ve been told I have a weak web presence. (laughs)
GM: That’s accurate, I think. So then I went to Wikipedia and they lifted a lot from the interview I did with you six years ago.
NM: Oh yeah?
GM: So I’m just reading what I already know about you. Is there any misconception out there about you that you’ve heard? Last time we cleared up the fact that you’re not an American citizen.
NM: Yes, I’m not.
GM: And that was the common knowledge out there, that you had become an American. With a lot of people in the public eye there are misconceptions so I always like to clear them up. But you say you’re not on the computer a lot so you probably don’t even know what’s out there about you.
NM: I’ve heard things about myself that are not right. Not facts as much. But some people think I’m crazy (laughs) and then some people think I’m hard to work with and stuff like that. Or some people think I’m mean or something like that. But it all comes from certain specific things they’ve seen or something. Like I think looking back, Weekend Update I did in a certain specific way. Probably people thought I was a very sardonic person or something like that. But none of it really matters because I understand it. Like, people don’t like to be pigeon-holed but you can’t go around fucking trying to figure out a guy’s whole fucking life; you may as well just pigeon-hole him, so you go, “Yeah, that’s the guy with the red hat. He always wears a red hat.” Because it’s an easier way to go through life. But I guess I’m not that misconceived.
"I’m not political. But if I was going to be accused of being either, I would rather not be [conservative]. That one really bothers me a lot."
– Norm Macdonald
GM: There’s also a perception that you’re conservative politically.
NM: Yeah, that one bothers me a lot. I don’t like that one. I don’t like that misconception. Yeah, I don’t like that at all.
GM: Because you’re not political or because you’re not conservative?
NM: Because I’m not political. But if I was going to be accused of being either, I would rather not be that one. But no, that one really bothers me a lot.
GM: Well, haven’t you done spots on O’Reilly?
NM: I did an interview one time with Bill O’Reilly and then Dennis Miller had me guest host a number of times. But Dennis Miller gave me my first job, you know? And his show is political. It’s not when I’m guest hosting it because I don’t know anything about politics. I can’t even interview anyway, but I just talk to actors or comedians and when they force some political guest on I just ask them who the Ayotollah is or something, I don’t know. I have no viewpoints. So I’m sure, yeah, that’s where that started. But I’ve had people in Hollywood ask me about that: “How could you support…?” I don’t support anybody. I’m fucking not even American. I don’t know what you’re talking… I don’t know what anything’s about. Just because I’m so apolitical and I’m supposed to be a comedian, I hate political comedy so much that that one really bothers me a lot.
GM: And also when you said to vote for Dole.
NM: Ah, it was a joke.
GM: Yeah, it was clearly because you wanted to keep doing the impression.
NM: Yeah, of course. It’s so ridiculous.
GM: People are so literal. Especially these days with comedy. A comedian says something on stage and you see it making the news.
NM: I know, it’s silly. My goodness. It’s funny, like Tracy Morgan was accused of homophobia because of something he did in his act. But the interesting thing was no one had recorded it or anything and a guy went home and blogged what Tracy Morgan had said, or tweeted it or whatever. From memory! Then that became the truth of what he said. And then Tracy was forced to apologize. I don’t know what he said but it wasn’t on camera. And even sometimes when it is on camera it’s out of context because you don’t see the entire act. It’s all silly.
GM: If you were in that position, would you apologize?
NM: No, I would not apologize. I’d apologize if I said something wrong but I wouldn’t apologize for the sake of apologizing. And also I don’t even believe apologies should count anyway if you say something bad. Like there’s this crazy idea that if you immediately apologize… There are all these rules now so if you say something evil you can just apologize the next day in the vaguest of terms, you can say you “misspoke”, you “made an error in judgment”, an Orwellian phrase, and then it’s all forgotten. Most people, of course, if they said something terrible would immediately deny it – that’s the human thing to do – and then later apologize. But there are all these stupid rules they have now. Another big thing they do is they go to rehab for alcohol and then that absolves them from all their, you know, sexual misconduct and abuse of power and all that. They go, “Oh, I was a drunk. I was a different guy.” It’s sort of a silly time we live in. And with racism and stuff like that, it seems to me if someone says a racial epithet in public, he’s probably not racist. Because when I see the Ku Klux Klan guys and the Aryan Nation guys on TV, they don’t even say it. So the actual racists have code words. So whenever I hear it said really blatantly, I always think there must be quotation marks around that. Unless a man’s insane, even a racist wouldn’t go on stage and yell this racism. Guys in the Klan will never say the n-word in public. He talks about whites and protecting them and stuff like that.
GM: You’ve got a new talk show coming up, is that right?
NM: Well, they call it a talk show but it’s not really a talk show. It’s just like a 30-minute show every week. It’s called Trending Now. We just take whatever’s trending on the computer and do jokes.
GM: So you’re going to have to look at a computer.
NM: Ha! Well, I’m going to hire one of those computer experts.
GM: You’ll have your big entourage, I guess.
NM: Yeah. Hobos…
GM: When’s it airing?
NM: I don’t know. We’re doing a pilot; I don’t even know if it’s going to go on but I firmly suspect it will. We’re taping the pilot in the middle of July.
GM: I liked your sports show.
NM: Oh, thanks, man. I liked that a lot, too. It was funny, it didn’t work because – I mean, I’m making excuses, but I think that one was actually a good show. But I was trying to say this to Comedy Central and it turned out I was right. I was saying I don’t think any women will watch this because it says “sports” in the title. They had tested it and women liked it, you know? But when they test it, they forced the women to commit to the room to watch it. But on TV, if you’re not interested in sports or if you’re a woman, then you won’t watch anything that says sports in it. So we were getting really good numbers but I think if we didn’t have sports we would have doubled the number.
GM: You got really good numbers so what was the reason they gave you for cancelling it?
NM: Well, I don’t think they were quite as good as they could have been. Still, it was such a cheap show to make. I mean, Comedy Central is great, but they don’t wait too long. They’ve had a number of very talented – not me – but they’ve had a number of very talented comedians have shows on that network and they just go away. It’s very strange because everybody wants to do a show on Comedy Central because they can be dirty, I guess that’s why they want to do it, and it’s called the Comedy Network but— I mean, it’s called Comedy Network in Canada but it’s called Comedy Central—but for some reason… Like, I loved Sarah Silverman’s show and then they just killed it. It was bizarre.
GM: So this new one is going to be on TBS.
NM: TBS. Yeah, it’s very funny.
GM: Oh, good.
NM: No, that’s their thing.
GM: It’s what?
NM: That’s their catchphrase: “TBS: Very Funny”. Do you guys get TBS?
GM: We do, yeah. I think.
NM: It’s interesting what TBS did. I don’t know why nobody else thought of this, but they just got a whole bunch of good sitcoms. Took all the best syndicated ones and all these kids started watching. My kid watches TBS all the time. Because kids don’t give a fuck about networks. But me, I’m more like my grandmother: I just watch like three networks. My grandmother actually only watched one. She had three, but only one had The Edge of Night or whatever the fuck it was. So she would freak if you turned the television channel because she would think she would never find it again (laughs). So it always had to be on the one channel.
GM: Right, because there were twelve other channels it could be on.
NM: It was less than that. I’m older than you.
GM: No, you’re not. You’re a year younger, buddy.
NM: (laughs) Oh. You had a better system.
"I was so happy when they stopped internet poker because it freed up all this time for me. I didn’t even understand what Twitter was and some fucking guy put me on it and told me to do it. And then I just became addicted to it. So I’m trying to not do it as much, find a happy medium."
– Norm Macdonald
GM: You’re not on Twitter as much as you used to be.
NM: No, not as much. I was a little addicted to it for a while.
GM: So did you consciously say, “I’m going to step away”?
NM: Yeah, yeah, because you know these indulgences can become crazy that you can get, you know? I don’t go out. I never go out, you know? And I don’t drink or do drugs or anything so sometimes I’ll get fixated on something else to waste time with. Like, I was so happy when they stopped internet poker because it freed up all this time for me. I didn’t even understand what Twitter was and some fucking guy put me on it and told me to do it. And then I just became addicted to it. So I’m trying to not do it as much, find a happy medium.
GM: Well, I asked my 180 followers if they had any questions for you and I got one response.
GM: I got several that weren’t usable.
NM: That’s another thing about the fans. I love that they’re fans and they’re like, “Fuck you!” That was the other thing about… You know, I’d post like ten jokes a day on Twitter for a while and then I go, “Hey, by the way, I’m doing this date.” And they go, “Fuck you. I just want to hear jokes. Stop shilling for your…” And you’re like, “This is my fans?” and you get all depressed, you know? What is the cyberspace question?
GM: “Which Saturday Night Live cast member did you hate the most?”
NM: See, everybody’s negative.
GM: This guy’s bet is that it was Chris Kattan.
NM: (laughs) Well… hate the most means I hated more than one. No, it means I hated more than two. Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t really care. I didn’t hate anybody because I was doing Update and I was just completely separate from everybody else. And I came from a culture of stand-up where everybody was constantly making fun of everybody else, as a friendly thing. When I got on Saturday Night Live, I was working with people that came from a world of improvisational acting and stuff and they were very generous toward each other and helpful. And if something went wrong or bombed, they’d hug them or something. But as I say, that’s not the culture I came from. So me and Sandler and Rock and guys like that would just savage each other all the time. Because that’s just how we did it because we were men and this was our little terms of endearment. When I got mixed up with actors, I started doing that with them and they took it very personally because that’s not the way they operate. They’re more womanish, you know? So it wasn’t my fault! (laughs) But I didn’t hate any of them.
GM: They hated you.
NM: Yeah! I’m sure they hated me! (laughs)
"People are always shocked that comics aren’t complete fucking idiots, you know? So if you say anything that’s not entirely frivolous, they probably take it as a little deeper than it actually is. A normal person is much more in depth than me."
– Norm Macdonald
GM: You were on Marc Maron’s podcast not too long ago.
NM: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
GM: That created quite a stir. People were amazed that you were so sensitive.
NM: What? It created what?
GM: A lot of people were talking about it. They just said it was the most amazing interview…
NM: Oh, I thought you meant a bad thing.
GM: No, no. It was positive. They were surprised that you had this depth of emotion.
NM: Yeah, well he asked me stuff about other stuff. Yeah, I don’t know, I think he caught me unawares that day. He has a set-up kind of where you forget you’re on radio. You do it from his garage and stuff and you think you’re just talking to him so you just talk. People are always shocked that comics aren’t complete fucking idiots, you know? So if you say anything that’s not entirely frivolous, they probably take it as a little deeper than it actually is. A normal person is much more in depth than me. People do tell me and I listened to it again and thought, well, it seems like a normal conversation. I’m not being funny all the time but it didn’t seem there were any deep revelations or anything. It was just a conversation that I would often have with another person that I knew and was a friend of mine. Probably because I know Marc and stuff, you know.
GM: You don’t regret saying anything then, do you?
NM: I don’t really remember what I said. Why, did I say something bad?
GM: No, not at all. You said you kinda forgot it was being recorded so I wondered if you would have held back some?
NM: No. The only time I’ve ever heard anything was with Stern. Stern does this thing where he’s so insanely honest about everything and then when he asks you a question it kind of compels you into a… Like, you don’t have to say everything about everything. There’s this new thing in comedy that happened recently that’s to me a little flabbergasting but I’m sort of an old man. It’s this sort of new style of almost confessional comedy where the idea is you go on stage and you say how when you were young you blew a priest or some fucking thing. I’m old and my dad taught me you don’t have to say everything of whatever happened to you. A person has dignity and doesn’t have to expose everything to the world and leave nothing. There’s a difference between being provocative and being outright pornographic about something. And I don’t think that pornography can ever be art. But I have noticed this ultra-confessional new type of comedy that’s supposed to be very shocking but it doesn’t shock me. It’s just kind of unseemly.
GM: Maron is a big proponent of that style.
NM: Yeah, yeah, he does. (laughs) To me, it’s rather uninteresting when it becomes so indulgent. Like, if your subtext to everything is, “Look at me, I’m real smart” or “Look at me, I’m real honest”, if this is your only reason for saying anything, then I don’t want to hear it. It just seems to be wallowing, in my mind. You have to pick and choose and first and foremost make some comic point.
GM: In this atmosphere of confessional comedy, does your act get mixed in with it. Like when you’re talking about killing a woman and burying her. Do people think, “Oh God, these are his thoughts! He iscrazy!” And maybe you’re thinking, “No, these are jokes. This is what comedy is.”
NM: Yeah, well it is funny because I did a special for Comedy Central. I don’t really like doing specials but because I did the sports show, I did a comedy special for them. And it was funny because it was often described like, “And then Norm described how he would murder.” I wasn’t describing that! I was saying, you know, if I was in that position what I would do. It was obvious, ridiculous. That was a very difficult piece to write and I had to insert myself into it to make it work. It would not have worked had I used a third person omniscient voice. That just wouldn’t have worked. I had to be the person at the centre of that bit. So that’s the reason I chose to do it.
GM: I thought it was clear that it was a conditional; it was an ‘if’ thing.
NM: Yeah, there was an ‘if’ there!
GM: And in this culture of media reporting on everything a comedian says, that kind of gets lost.
NM: (laughs) I did a lot of interviews for that special and I got all these crazy questions. People forget it’s comedy. There was this one line that I really liked and a lot of people asked me about it in horror because I said, “Even in today’s enlightened society, there still remains a stigma to being a psycho-sexual sadist.” I like that line.
GM: It’s a great line.
NM: And people go, “Really? Was there ever a time…” I go, “No. That’s the point.” (laughs)
GM: That’s the joke!
NM: It’s hard to say that’s the joke. I’ve always found if the joke doesn’t work… Like, if you try a joke on a person and they’re like, “What? That doesn’t happen.” So if a joke doesn’t work, it’s just a lie, basically.
GM: But that’s not true across the board because it works with lots of people. It’s just the ultra-sensitive ones or ones who don’t get irony that don’t get it.
NM: Yeah, it’s critics. It’s—
GM: Hey, I’m one, too.
NM: Yeah, I know, but you’re a fan, too. I’ve found with critics and I’ve also found with comedy writers that some are incapable of laughing. I’ve worked with head writers on comedy shows and stuff and they won’t laugh. They look at it purely from craft. They don’t understand the magic of it. And to me, if you don’t laugh, you don’t know anything about comedy. I don’t know if they’re doing it out of power or why they’re doing it.
GM: Can I say, as somebody who’s not a big laugher, that it’s not out of power. I was like that as a kid.
NM: Okay, well maybe I shouldn’t say laugh. Because I don’t really laugh that much, either. But I smile. I appreciate. I like comedy. And I think some people have it right down to where they’re just critics of the exact craft and they try to figure it all out and they don’t enjoy it. Of all the different arts – I don’t want to say it’s an art, but it’s a certain type of vulgar art – that one requires a gut appreciation that goes beyond intellectual surgery, you know? Some things can’t be explained in comedy. Sometimes I try to figure it out. Like, I really laugh at Gilbert, and I really laugh at Brian Regan, and I really laugh at Bill Cosby. It’s not my job like it is for you but I find it a lot better if I don’t try to figure out how a guy did it. Like one time I asked Shandling. Just out of craft I couldn’t figure out how he did this one particular joke. He used to do this joke. He’d say, “So now I’m going out with Miss Georgia. Alright, it’s the former Miss Georgia… Okay, it’s George Foreman.” I couldn’t understand how he came up with the joke. You know what I mean? Like how the fuck did he… Did he start with George Foreman and work backwards? How the fuck do you do that? So I asked him. Like an idiot I fixated on this one joke that really made me laugh. And then I asked him and he didn’t remember. And I was like, “Why do I care where it came from?” It’s funny because it was so mysterious to me as another comic how that joke came into existence because it doesn’t fit a paradigm of usual jokes.
GM: It’s kind of like a reverse pun of some sort, isn’t it?
NM: Yeah. But I don’t know how he went from Miss Georgia to George Foreman. It had to have come from the name George Foreman somehow. Yeah, it had to have been a reverse-engineered pun.
GM: The former Miss Georgia/George Foreman. Anyway, I had Gilbert on my podcast.
NM: I love Gilbert. He’s great. That guy’s a funny motherfucker. That guy’s so funny, always trying to sell his stupid merch and shit.
GM: I drove him back to his hotel after and I asked if he still enjoys getting out on the road or if it’s a grind. He said it’s a grind. “I feel like Willy Loman.”
NM: (laughs) And it’s almost unbelievable that he has children.
GM: Have you asked him about his children?
NM: He talks like a regular father and stuff. But it’s so bizarre. You know, the last time I was in his apartment, you know he never spends money so in his apartment he had a little TV that had rabbit ears (laughs) – and this was only like fifteen years ago – and then lawn chairs. He had six lawn chairs. You had to sit in a fucking lawn chair. (laughs) So I don’t know, his wife must be a functioning human being.
GM: I asked him about his kids and he didn’t seem that close to them, but maybe that was part of the schtick. So I’m glad to hear that he talks like a regular father in real life.
NM: Well, I mean a little bit. But he’s certainly the strangest comic ever, I think, if you don’t know him at all because he seriously takes nothing seriously. At all. And that’s why it was too bad about the Aflac thing and everything because Gilbert sees the whole world as ridiculous. He’s sort of this existential guy. He’s very interesting. You know, art has a sort of criminal nature to it in the first place and his is almost like psychopathic. But harmless. I mean, he’s the most harmless person in the world but just the way his mind works is the joke comes before everything else. Almost like Groucho Marx or something, where everything is secondary to the joke.
GM: He’s another great example of the media going overboard with comedians’ words. As he said, everyone was talking about his “comments”, framing that way instead of saying his “jokes”. Because comedians make jokes.
NM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GM: He didn’t make comments about the tsunami; he made jokes.
NM: Yes. Yeah, that’s a good point. Is that what he said?
NM: Yeah, that’s a very good point. He did not make a comment. Yeah, you’re right.
GM: Maybe had he made a large point about it as a comment, then maybe he would deserve to be fired.
NM: Yeah, I would agree with that. Since he’s never made a comment about anything in his life (laughs), everything with Gilbert is an act. His entire life. It’s almost like a piece of performance art, his life. Whereas Janeane Garofalo is the exact opposite, you know: everything’s a comment. It’s a good point, that he never makes a comment; he just makes jokes. And the world is his set-up.