He had the most beautiful eyes.
Sparkling blue, like the sea on a sunny day. Yes, they actually sparkled.
Of all the accolades and anecdotes you are hearing about Norm Macdonald right now, you probably won’t hear a lot of people telling you that one.
Because in comedy, funny is the most important thing. So instead you will be told what a great stand up comic he was. How brilliant and talented.
All that is true. He was.
He was also a good looking guy. Smart, curious, and interested in everyone and everything.
I got to know Norm Macdonald many decades ago, at a comedy club in Toronto, Canada. I had just started out. He had already been at it for about four years. In stand-up terms that meant he was miles ahead. But Norm was miles ahead of most of us. And that is saying something because there were a lot of funny people around in those days.
It amazes me when I look back on it now. The quality and brilliance of the talent pool in Canada at that time, in that place. But truly great comics, those who shine brighter than anyone around them, are rare. And Norm was one of those.
Norm had a slant to his comedic thinking that was just a bit more crooked than the rest of us. He was able to see the funny we overlooked, often teased from the simplest of premises. Slightly skewed, slightly dark, strangely off-centre. Sort of the way a dog tilts its head when it hears a sound it’s trying to figure out.
That doesn’t mean it was easy for him. Not by a long shot. I watched Norm bomb almost as many times as I watched him kill. Maybe more.
In a club, he was usually solid and hysterical. Clubs were set up for comedy, with good lighting and sound, a stage, and an audience who came expecting to be entertained by an act of some sort and understood the parameters of the performance.
But at a one-nighter – a bar with bad sound, stuck in a corner with no riser, surrounded by people who were there to socialise and drink way too much – Norm usually struggled. He needed to be listened to. In a loud, unruly room, he didn’t command attention. He was tall, slightly built, unassuming in demeanour. It was not his style to try and dominate the crowd.
Back then he didn’t do dick jokes and it was unusual to hear him swear onstage. He would only throw stuff like that out if backed into a corner – and when he did, it was with subtle sarcasm, a disguised retort.
He had his routine, and added to it when inspired, but for the most part he stuck to script. He was easily shook by aggression. Hostility and drunken threats made him uneasy. It seemed to confuse him. As if he could honestly not understand why anyone would make him the target of such vitriol.
He would flash that constant wide grin of his and try to diffuse things, but an unreceptive crowd often mistook his nervousness for weakness and incompetence. And a lot of comics, myself included, felt protective of him in those moments.
All the same, I did see him turn some of those potentially ugly shows to his advantage. Usually when least expected.
In those instances he would just plow into it, chest deep. Like a guy who can’t swim very well suddenly diving head first into the deep end. And when he did you found yourself fearing for him, unsure if he was being daring, naive or just plain stupid. It was tough to tell, because he always had this slight air of innocence about him. Like he didn’t quite understand what was happening.
Even when he did.
That’s the thing.
You could never tell with Norm.
That’s why he got away with so much. That was part of his charm. Sometimes he was genuine and sometimes he was playing the part. You were never quite sure which was which.
To this day I still find myself wondering if he might have been a bit neuro-divergent. Even in his life offstage, he often showed signs of being – shall we say – eccentric. There are endless stories of Norm claiming not to know how to do the simplest of things, while simultaneously tossing out quick, sharp and hysterical observations. Was he serious or just pretending?
If you called him on it he would laugh, but continue until you relented. It was puzzling. The entire time you could sense this razor-like intellect lurking just under the surface, and yet he was impossible to pin down.
And that is why I mention his eyes. Windows to the soul and all that. That was the trick.
You had to make eye contact.
Then and only then could you spot the fleeting truth.
As affable as he was, Norm was still an intensely private person. He didn’t like to talk about himself on a deeply personal level. It often took people awhile to figure that out because he came across as vulnerable and open. In reality he was always in control of what he revealed. Most of the time he would just skate gracefully along the surface. There was definitely an element of subterfuge to him and he was carefully selective about his inner life.
Almost everyone who knew him, loved him. But he was no saint. He was a real person, and so there were elements of his personality – as is true of all of us – that were less than attractive. He lost friends over his gambling addiction. And he could be manipulative, well aware that his charm could be wielded to his advantage. Whether it was to get a lift when he didn’t feel like taking a bus or to avoid dealing with a situation that might be uncomfortable, he would play the savant card and usually get away with it. He was a master of evasion.
His quick wit could be cruel too. Sometimes deliberately. He could toss out some pretty stinging remarks at people, which usually connected with laser-point accuracy. Once or twice he felt bad enough to apologise. The rest of the time he would shrug and pass it off as a failed attempt to be funny.
In spite of his darker impulses, I adored him. He was always warm and supportive whenever we worked together. He was kind and thoughtful. With fans too. He remembered everyone, and he never became unapproachable, even in his fame. Although I hadn’t seen him in about 25 years, I have no doubt what-so-ever that if I had run into him before his death, I would have been greeted with a huge grin, a hug and addressed by my full name.
He was unique in a thousand odd, hysterical, even maddening ways. He was just Norm. And that afforded him a lot of leeway.
Norm was the only one of my peers to really achieve the level of stardom we all aspired to. And, as I have said, there was a lot of funny around back then. Many of his contemporaries attained a high degree of success, fame, stature and respect. They did good, no question.
But Norm soared.
And it was wonderful to see.
I recall his very first Letterman appearance. A group of us gathered around the TV to watch. We were all nervous for him, hoping it went the way we knew it could. Letterman was the pinnacle of comedy achievement. Not just in terms of entertainment currency, but because Letterman himself had been a stand up. We smiled when Norm pulled it off. He killed.
As the years went on I watched him climb the ranks of comedic stardom without envy, which admittedly – for a comic – is unusual. But I don’t think many of us were surprised or resentful of his success. Instead I think we enjoyed it. Maybe even felt we shared in it. As if it was a validation of our connection, our own aspirations.
I watched as Norm got bolder and more confident in his own talent. Took more chances and risks. Pushed the boundaries. Always in search of the joke no one else would say.
It confounded him that so many people in the U.S. just wanted to ‘use’ stand up as a springboard to do something else. The jokes themselves were never their ultimate goal. They wanted to do movies, to act, to have their own TV show. Norm just wanted to do stand up. He loved it. He needed the laughter. He loved the gag. That was the pay-off for him. And even when his career expanded, and he too moved into acting and films, he never stopped doing stand up. I don’t think that was ever a consideration for him. He did stand up even as he was quietly fighting for his life.
Norm’s very last appearance on Letterman is probably one of my all time favourite TV moments. The guy who never revealed his internal life, lay it bare for all to see that night. (https://youtu.be/mFjEvl43zYY)
Later, he would say that he hadn’t planned it. He had intended to say something else. But the moment over came him. Letterman was his idol. The guy who inspired him to become a comic. He fought to control his emotions, but could not. It was deeply moving. Even more so for those of us who knew him. He was genuinely overwhelmed.
It was the only time I ever saw Norm drop his defences completely.
Norm battled cancer throughout his life. To the best of my knowledge he had the disease three times, but it could have been more. This last time it turns out he had lived with it for nine years, all the while keeping his diagnosis secret to all but a tiny, select few.
He did not want cancer to define him. He did not want to give it the power to change how people interacted with him or laughed at his jokes.
And so it was a shock to all of us, when the news first broke. When the realisation set in. I just stopped in my tracks. Shocked and saddened.
And a bit lost.
I hadn’t seen him in a very long time. But in stand up that is not unusual. All the same, I don’t mean to create the impression we were close. We weren’t. To be honest, I don’t think Norm was truly close to a lot of people. He had tons of friends. But really intimate friendships? I am sure he was selective of those.
But we knew each other once, in another time and place. Our lives intersected. And he left an impression. I adored him then just as I do now. That much is true.
Since the news my head has been filled with thoughts and memories of him and yes, I too have been bingeing on YouTube videos.
Just mourning his loss.
It was – and will always remain – a tragedy that Norm Macdonald left us so soon.
My heart and sympathy goes out to his entire family, his son and ex-wife, his producing partner, his many friends – everyone who loved him. Sad funeral, with lots of crying. It’s no cliché to say he will be missed. I’ll just hear him in my head now instead.
God, he was funny.
It is a testament to his brilliance that he was able to keep us all laughing right to the end.
But that is of course, exactly what he intended.
He was one of those very rare, truly funny, funny people.
And he had the most beautiful eyes.