Norm MacDonald Talks About His New 'Sports Show' and Being a Reluctant Sitcom Star
by Joel Keller, posted Apr 19th 2011 11:00AM
While I was on the phone talking to Norm MacDonald last week, I heard what sounded like paper crumpling. When I asked him if I was talking to him during his lunch, he said, "No, no, no, no. That noise? No, no, that's just a potato chip bag being opened."
Anyone who's seen Norm over the years -- from his memorable stint as the anchor of 'Weekend Update' on 'SNL,' his late-'90s sitcom 'Norm,' silly movies like 'Dirty Work' or his stand-up act -- knows how funny he would make that exchange.
Norm just doesn't give a crap, whether it's about being interviewed by reporters or talk show hosts, starring in a sitcom, or any of the other trappings of show business. He just cares about comedy, done his way. It's been a pretty successful formula, given how long he's hung around.
Norm's approach to comedy can be seen in his new Comedy Central series, 'Sports Show With Norm MacDonald,' which premiered last Tuesday. It's essentially 'Weekend Update' with a sports theme: Norm tells jokes about the week's sports "headlines," mixed with taped segments and commentary. And, like with 'Weekend Update,' it's sometimes even funnier when a joke doesn't land than when it does. Norm wouldn't have it any other way.
Joel Keller: Where did the whole idea of doing a sports version of 'Weekend Update' come about?
Norm MacDonald: Well, just because I liked doing 'Weekend Update,' but I don't know anything about politics, and I know lots about sports. So I thought I could do it with sports, you know?
In reading about the show, I noticed that you wanted to do the show live.
Oh yeah, I wanted to do this show live. Yeah, absolutely. We did it last night live to tape. We have a lot of mistakes in it. But that's why I want to do it live. I like mistakes.
What was one of the mistakes?
Well, you know, I just stumbled over words and stuff like that. But just like real people do, regular people, you know. Like live like deal.
Where do you find the comedy in sports?
Compared to politics, I think sports is funnier, because it's inconsequential. And politics can be real important and all that. The more pointless something is, the funnier it is, you know? And the more grave or important things are... You know, some comedians can get this disease where they get serious all the time. And sports keeps you away from that because it's just silly, fun stuff that doesn't matter one way or the other.
What comedians have you seen get too serious?
If you're watching a comedian on television and he's making a political point, I would say he's gotten too serious.
Has Jon Stewart become a guy that you'd claim has gotten too serious?
No, no. I'd say Jon Stewart has remained funny the entire time. Jon always makes it funny first. And he's just, he's talking about serious things, but in a funny way. Other comedians will talk about serious things in a serious way, and then you don't know what's going on.
|Sports Show with Norm Macdonald||Tuesdays, 10:30/9:30c|
|Sports Recap - Week of 4/11/11|
When something like the Brett Favre / Jenn Sterger story comes up, do you think of it differently as sports fan than you do as a comedian?
As a sports fan, because I like Favre, you know, I love Favre a lot, so I obviously feel real bad for his family and everything. Since the genie's out of the bottle, you know, they're gonna make news out of it, and you gotta make jokes out of it, because it is not newsworthy is what makes it funny, I guess. The real ridiculous thing is that these athletes, what makes these athletes so special is forgotten, and what makes these athletes so ordinary is what's remembered, you know?
You mean stuff like the fact that they hit on women and send pictures of themselves, that kind of thing?
Yeah, yeah. It's just ordinary behavior. Adultery is very, very ordinary, you know. But playing in 297 games is very extraordinary. So it's funny that they want to talk about the ordinary, dull stuff. I think that's what we got with Tiger [Woods]. Because people have stopped talking about it, because you run out of things to say. There's so many things to say about intercourse. [Laughs]
Have you always liked the format you did on 'Weekend Update,' where you tell a joke and not really care if you got a laugh or not? Or was it a style you developed over time?
No, it was something I decided to do immediately. Because when I was a little boy, Johnny Carson used to do jokes, and after the joke, he would do a little dance or something that was really funny, like he'd go "Oh, is it hot in here or something?" And that was always funny, and I always wondered, what if someone, when a joke bombed, didn't apologize? Because the opposite of a funny thing is usually a funny thing too. I got that idea when I was actually a little boy.
And had you been doing it in your stand-up comedy up until that point?
Not as much in my comedy act, because well, I mean, you know, I don't pause as much in my comedy act. I'm not as combative with an audience in my comedy act because they pay to come and all that. The other was just a little experiment.
In the stand-up special, you definitely talk about sex a lot. Is that a topic that you find kind of humor in, the way people treat it, the way people deal with it?
Yeah, I find it funny that people are obsessed, or are really interested in it that much. It's something that I don't find that interesting. I just find it to be sort of a repetitious, dull, sort of act, you know? People say, "Oh, a guy got a big car so he could have sex." It's like so crazy. I don't really feel like I've ever been pushed to do things, or wanted to do things in life, and work hard to be successful so that I could get a girl. That seems like a heavy price to pay. So it's more people's obsession with sex that makes me laugh, because I just don't share it myself.
You talk about death a lot in the special, as well. What's your fascination there?
Death, I feel the opposite about. I feel that it's sort of obsesses everyone. And whenever I try to talk to anybody about it, they don't want to talk about it. And then I talk about it on stage so that I have a chance to talk about it, but then everybody's always leaving the room. That really interests me because I find that funny that people don't want to talk about death, but they want to talk about sex, which is not interesting, or not important, or not much to it. Compared to some really amazing subject.
One of the things that always strikes me about you, and you've said it in interviews, is that being in the entertainment business is something you're very uncomfortable with. When you started doing stand-up, did you think you'd have to do interviews?
Yeah, I never suspected that would happen. Because I live in Canada, and we just had you know, clubs in Canada. We didn't have any television shows or anything. We just had stand-up clubs for doing them. And then when I came to the states, I was doing stand-up, and stand-up's like not show business. It's sort of show business, but you just go from town to town and you do your little stand-up, and you don't have to get your picture taken or anything like that. People don't recognize you or anything like that. So then with the other stuff, I don't know, you just stumble onto it. Because if you're good at stand-up, for some reason, they give you other things, and that's the way it goes.
So when you talked about a "Twitter fight" with Steve Martin on the Letterman show, was that a way for you to avoid talking about yourself and 'Sports Show'?
Yeah, I never like doing those shows. I never like to plug things. Because I just remember when I was a young kid, I watched Letterman, and his first guest would always be like Richard Lewis or Jay Leno, just comedian friends he had and they were real funny and stuff. And then Carson, I didn't see much of Carson, but when it was funny, it was when his first guest was Buddy Hackett or something like that, that didn't have anything to plug and they were just being funny, that was always funny. And then it became just plugging things. So I always went on when I had nothing to plug. This was my only time... whenever I go on with something to plug, I feel embarrassed to plug it, I guess. Just self-conscious, that's all.
The Twitter fight started with you, right?
Yeah, it was all a big misunderstanding.
You praised Letterman a lot in previous interviews. Do you find a weird kinship with him?
Yeah, no, I definitely do. Because he's kind of not in show business, even though of course he is one of the biggest guys in show business. But he's sort of like on the outside. He doesn't, I think, watch much show biz, and he has other interests. It's nice to talk to people with other interests. I live in Los Angeles, which is like a one-industry town, you know? But I have actually lived in 1 industry towns before. Like I lived in Tilsonburg which is tobacco, and Windsor was cars. But in one-industry towns usually, the people aren't interested in the industry. After they go to work, they go and drink. But here in Los Angeles, they're fascinated by their own industry, you know? So it's pretty... not much to talk about. Like people'll go "Yid you hear about, you know, the president of show business got divorced or something?" It's a lot of that.
|Sports Show with Norm Macdonald||Tuesdays, 10:30/9:30c|
|Michael Jordan's Hitler Mustache|
When you did do a sitcom, was it a weird feeling for you, because you had to go to do things like upfronts, and press tours, and parties?
Yeah, like we did the TCA's, when we'd have to sit down and stuff. I was trying to just do jokes all the time, which would sometimes make people... Sometimes like, you know, you're just trying to do jokes and be funny, and then people get mad at those kind of things. Or like say like when 'Politically Incorrect' used to be on, or 'Real Time,' I'll go on and try to do jokes, and sometimes people get mad. But I don't like to talk seriously about nonsense, you know? [Laughs] It's hard to talk seriously about a situation comedy.
Right. Because it's a comedy.
Yeah, it's a comedy. And it's not that good, you know.
When you look back on it, does the fact that the 'Norm' show lasted 3 seasons surprise you, or do you think it should have gone longer?
No, I don't think it should have gone longer.
Was that experience a good one for you? Did it show you what you did and didn't want to do? What did you take out of that experience?
No, I didn't want to do it in the first place. But I just did it so I could stay in town. There were some fun parts about it. Like I wanted to write, I wanted to cast the show for people I liked, so I really liked Laurie Metcalf, and this other great actor, Max Wright, and stuff. So I cast the people that I liked to write for a lot. And then... I didn't even want to be in it, but they wanted... You know, I would rather have written it. I wanted Jason Bateman at the time. That was way before 'Arrested Development.' But anyways, they want you to be in it if you have any sort of celebrity at all, you know?
That was during a big era when stand-ups were getting sitcoms all over the place.
Yeah, that was an unfortunate era that destroyed all sitcoms forever. [Laughs]
What do you think it did to the stand-up industry, for lack of a better word?
Well, probably a lot of like handsome, movie star types [got] into learning how to do stand-up, I suppose. It's like [when] the guys from Harvard used to be so smart and write for the Harvard Lampoon, and then they got jobs on 'Saturday Night Live,' and then later 'The Simpsons.' Then what started happening was, guys would apply to Harvard with the express reason to become a comedy writer. So then they weren't very good.
I never think of going to Harvard to major in comedy writing.
No, but that's what people started doing. Because before that, it was these brilliant guys studying Russian history that would just go down and scribble some brilliant thing for the Lampoon on their off-time.
'Sports Show with Norm MacDonald' airs Tuesdays at 9:30PM ET on Comedy Central.
Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and on Facebook.