Interview Date: 04/19/2011
Run Date: 04/26/2011
Everybody knows that Norm MacDonald first came to pop-culture prominence on “SNL” as the anchor of “Weekend Update,” but after being unceremoniously yanked from his position, things got a little less steady for Norm career-wise. His diehard fan base may have remained strong over the years, thanks to fond memories of “The Norm Show” and “Dirty Work,” but he’d been flying pretty far under the radar until late 2010. Since then, however, Norm’s been everywhere: Shout Factory released “The Norm Show: The Complete Series,” Comedy Central gave him a new stand-up special (“Norm MacDonald: Me Doing Stand-Up”), and, even better, the network has seen fit to assign him a full-time gig, hosting “Sports Show with Norm MacDonald.” Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with MacDonald about all of these things, along with a few other topics, including his underselling comedy album (Ridiculous), his short-lived, mostly-forgotten Fox series (“A Minute with Stan Hooper”), and almost encountering O.J. Simpson on a golf course.
Bullz-Eye: Well, I’ve seen the first few minutes of (the April 19th) episode, so I’ve already seen your defense of Kobe Bryant, such as it is.
Norm MacDonald: (Laughs) Yes, well, I wouldn’t say “defense.”
(Writer’s note: MacDonald’s explanation for Bryant’s off-color comment from the sidelines was that he was actually referencing Thai NBA referee Pheoh-Kaeng Phei-Ghat.)
BE: Now, I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this, but there seems to be a slight, possibly complete coincidental similarity between “Sports Show” and “Weekend Update.”
NM: Yeah, yeah, that’s intentional. I liked “Weekend Update” a lot, and I just stole that but did it with sports and thought it would be entertaining. I dunno how I think of these things. They just come to me.
BE: When I first heard that you were doing a sports show, my immediate thought was that it would be 50% hockey and 50% poker.
NM: That’d do me just fine.
BE: I figured.
NM: I’ve already talked hockey on the show. I’ve got to talk about hockey. But I got some poker in there the other night, too.
BE: So what is your sports background? Besides those two, anyway.
NM: I don’t know if you can really call poker a sport. But hockey, definitely.
BE: But are you a sports guy? Do you follow sports as a rule?
NM: Yeah, I like sports. People have offered me political shows and stuff like…interview shows and all that. But news bores me like crazy. I can’t understand it. I’m an idiot. Ever since I was a kid, I just watched sports. So then when I had a chance to do something just about sports without having to have an opinion about some politician, I was, like, so happy.
BE: So was that lack of interest in politics ever a hindrance on “SNL,” or did you just kind of go with the jokes they threw at you?
NM: I just kind of went with whatever the headlines of the stories were. But none of the stories really interested me, because it’s all just gossip, and you like this guy but you don’t like this guy. But with sports, there’s proof. Either this guy sucks or this guy’s really good. That’s what I like about it.
BE: Not that you don’t have a history of poking fun at sports figures, but when you’re making a joke, do you ever consider how your target will feel about it? Or can you just not let that bother you?
NM: No, I care about it. I won’t make any slam on a private citizen or anything. And if it’s a public citizen…I dunno, I want to make sure I’m on the right side, or what I feel is the right side, of what I believe. Like, Plaxico Burress, I think he should not be in jail for shooting himself, you know? If I do a joke, that’ll be the spine of it: that he shouldn’t be in jail for that.
BE: Have you ever heard back from any targets of your jokes?
NM: I heard O.J. Simpson was on a golf course with me once.
BE: Really? Did you get a feel for what he thought of your jokes?
NM: Oh, no, I was running away. I was running for my life! He might’ve just had a sidelong glance at me, but…I’m very cowardly.
BE: Clips for “Sports Show” are already going viral. That’s got to be pretty exciting for you, no?
NM: What are?
BE: The clips from your show.
NM: Oh, they are? That’s good! (Hesitates) You mean on the computers, right?
BE: On a related note, the kids like the Twitter, and it’s fair to say – in fact, you’ve said it yourself – that you’re a Twitter sensation.
NM: Yeah, I’m an internet sensation. And I do love Twitter. Ever since somebody showed it to me two months ago. We’re using it on (the April 19th) episode, actually, putting out a Twitter telling people to come up with the worst possible names for sports movies. And then we’ll show them (tonight). We’ll make posters.
BE: Actually, I was going to ask you about the interactivity with the show. Is that something you’re hoping to do on a regular basis?
NM: Yeah, I’m going to try to get the people who follow me to virtually write the show themselves, and then watch it.
BE: That takes a lot of pressure off you as a writer.
NM: Yeah. They write it, and then they laugh at it.
BE: So you’ve got this show, but didn’t you have another show in development at some point prior to this?
NM: Yeah, I had a couple of shows. I was going to do a pretend reality show, but…I dunno, everything’s harder than this. This is just, like, doing jokes. Not, like, acting in a movie and telling a girl that I love her and all that.
BE: The special “Back to Norm” was supposed to be a series, right?
NM: Yeah, it was supposed to be a series, but it was kind of flawed, because it relied on me doing a number of different characters. Turns out I can only do five. So we didn’t think it had legs.
BE: I wanted to ask you about your album, Ridiculous.
NM: (Surprised) Oh, really? You’ve got that?
BE: I do, actually.
BE: It seems to veer between an attempt to capture the feel of an old-school comedy record and to get some of that Adam Sandler money.
NM: Yeah, that would’ve been good! But here’s the problem. Like, Sandler made a lot of money from his albums, so then the guy who made the albums said, “Norm, do you want to do one?” I said, “That’d be great!” So I made it. But it took me so long to make, ‘cause I had no deadline. It took me eight years. And during those eight years, music stores went out of business, and Napster came along… (Laughs) …and so, basically, we just had to give away my album. Sandler’s have gone platinum or something, but now the highest you can go is, like, selling a hundred.
BE: Was it an enjoyable experience making the album, at least?
NM: Yeah, it was enjoyable. It felt really good.
BE: As far “The Norm Show” goes, you obviously had a great cast – Laurie Metcalfe, Max Wright, Artie Lange – but did you have any favorite guest stars who turned up during the run of the show?
NM: Yeah, Richard Pryor showed up once, and he was awesome. Like, I did stand-up, and he was the best stand-up ever, so it was a pleasure.
BE: Was he a fan of your work?
NM: Well, I used to see him at the Comedy Store, and he always used to be so supportive of me. It was really awesome. Everybody learned from him.
BE: You and I traded email on Facebook a few months ago about that Norm Crosby joke you made on “The Norm Show”…
(Writer’s note: The joke in question was in regards to the so-called "Norm Law" that Max Wright's character was proposing, and Norm said, “Sir, I cannot believe this! You are besmirching the name of many famous Norms! Why, I believe the great Norm Crosby himself would find this law grossly erogenous!” If you don’t get the joke, then you should Google Mr. Crosby immediately and educate yourself on this master of malapropism.)
NM: Oh, yeah, that’s right! I loved Norm Crosby when I was a kid, on the Dean Martin roasts.
BE: And, yet, you said no one else got that joke. No one at the network, not even anyone on the show’s writing staff.
NM: Yeah, that’s a joke on “The Norm Show” that you heard that nobody else ever heard! (Laughs)
BE: The show was obviously written with you in mind, but how much different would it have been if you’d had carte blanche to make it whatever the hell you wanted?
NM: Oh, it would’ve been completely different! (Laughs) I can’t even imagine what it would’ve been if I’d been carte blanche.
BE: Did we miss out by not getting to see any more of your next series, “A Minute with Stan Hooper,” than we did?
NM: I think it wouldn’t have affected your life one way or the other that much. (Laughs)
BE: How did it affect your life?
NM: Oh, I liked “A Minute with Stan Hooper.” It was nice. But it was kind of hard, because…well, this is kind of boring, ‘cause it’s already over, but we were trying to make a subversive sitcom that looked real normal, but, uh, people just thought it was normal. We never really got to the subversive part. That was the problem.
BE: I interviewed Bob Saget a few months ago…
NM: Saget, huh?
BE: Yeah, and he said the studio was ready to kick his ass for blowing a week of the filming budget for “Dirty Work” (which Saget directed) by just turning on the camera and letting Don Rickles riff.
NM: That is true. But that turned out to be a smart thing to do, ‘cause we tried to write lines for Rickles, and he just couldn’t get them.
BE: Saget also said that someday he’s going to sit down and put together “Dirty Work: The Director’s Cut.”
NM: Yeah, he keeps talking about that. That would be awesome!
BE: Yeah, he said there’s about five minutes of material that had to be cut that’s just absolutely filthy.
NM: Holy lord, there was some dirty stuff in there…
BE: Can you speak to any of those moments?
NM: There’s one where… (Hesitates) I don’t know how to put it delicately, but, uh, Artie Lange and I, as a trick, we sent these doughnuts to this frat house, and then we send them a picture, and it’s my cock with 12 doughnuts on it.
BE: Nice. So, okay, “Dirty Work,” awesome. “Screwed,” not quite as much.
NM: No. “Screwed” was not awesome.
BE: Now, obviously, you didn’t write “Screwed,” but was that the only problem with it?
NM: No, you know, it wasn’t written for me, and, uh, I can’t act. I can only, like, really do something that I’ve written for myself. I can’t act like what people say. That’s never worked. So it’s not that they’re bad writers. It’s just that I can only really act what I write myself.
BE: I believe more people have watched the clip of you talking about Carrot Top’s movie, “Chairman of the Board,” than have actually ever seen “Chairman of the Board.”
NM: (Laughs) That’s probably true! People talk about it to me all the time. I felt bad after it, ‘cause that was…whenever it was. 15 years ago. We didn’t know about Google and YouTube. You thought it was just a joke you did once, and then maybe the guy heard about it or not. But now, clearly, Carrot Top has heard about it. So I feel kind bad about it.
BE: As a talk show guest…well, speaking of YouTube, someone posted the clip of you telling the moth joke on “Conan,” and one of the commenters suggested that you never could’ve told that joke on “The Tonight Show” because Jay Leno would’ve punctuated every silence with a one-liner.
BE: Do you appreciate a talk show host who lets a guest run with his routine?
NM: Well, you know, there’s different guys. The best guy to interview you, I think, is…maybe Letterman, you know, ‘cause he kind of knows when the story should stop. That’s what good about him. Sometimes a guy who’s inexperienced will just keep talking, or he’ll let you keep talking. Like, he thinks the story should be longer, but it really shouldn’t, and it just ends up petering out. So I’d say the more experienced guys are better, but the guys where you really feel safe in their hands are guys like…well, with broadcasters, it’s either guys like Larry King or Tom Snyder, or Letterman.
BE: I know you didn’t do a whole lot of sketches on “SNL,” but do you have a favorite sketch that didn’t actually make it to air that you still remember fondly?
NM: That didn’t make it to air. Yeah, I think I did one where…Andy Rooney got a little mad, a little crazy, and it was just about him looking and thinking about much cotton there was in his little packages of anti-psychotic medication that he wasn’t taking. So it was a lot of, “This one’s called CentroCross. That’s for my heart.” And he’s not taking it. Mostly, though, he’s just complaining about how much cotton there is.
BE: As far as your stand-up goes, I loved the new special you did for Comedy Central.
NM: Oh, you did? Thanks a lot!
BE: But I’ve heard that you were only kind of “meh” about how it turned out, that you didn’t think it necessarily captured the Norm MacDonald stand-up experience.
NM: Well, video can never do that, but whatever. It’s still good compared to other stand-up specials, so that’s good. That’s all you can hope for, I guess.
BE: You have some decidedly dark material in the special.
NM: I do in that one, yeah. I was thinking of dark stuff, I guess. But I change my act a lot. Sometimes I’m thinking of dark stuff. But sometimes my entire act is clean.
BE: See, I wouldn’t necessarily think of you and Brian Regan in the same breath, but…
NM: Oh, you wouldn’t? Why, do you think I’d be dirtier?
BE: Potentially. There’s some precedence for that.
NM: (Laughs) Yeah, I can do all the different ones. But sometimes it’s just easier to be dirty.
BE: Or sometimes you go the other direction, like you did during Saget’s roast.
NM: Yeah, they were the dirty ones! (Laughs)
BE: It’s got to be a case of living your dream to grow up watching celebrity roasts and now find yourself being one of the people doing the roasting.
NM: Yeah, well, I mean, when I was watching as a kid, it was, like, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and guys. (Laughs) Participating with a young lady comic from New York isn’t exactly what you’d call “living your dream.” It’s not like Buddy Hackett was there!
(Writer’s note: David Medsker and I debated which “young lady comic” MacDonald was referencing, with both of us originally theorizing that it was probably Whitney Cummings, but after listening to a clip of his recent appearance on Opie & Anthony’s show, it became clear that I had accidentally stepped into a topic that had already been annoying him. When the topic of roasts came up during that appearance, MacDonald bemoaned a problem with roast producers. “They always want the new people,” he said. ‘Hey, guess what? There’s a young girl that’s middling attractive that swears a lot! Let’s get her!” Is that the new fucking thing? Sarah Silverman is hysterical. But these other ladies, they forget that she’s funny, and they think the whole point is just to be attractive and then talk about sucking cock and doing crazy shit. Bring back Phyllis Diller! Some ugly old bag. Or Rose Marie! Those were the funny ones. Funny ladies always used to be ugly old bags!”)
BE: Entertainment Weekly did a piece where they talked about “Sports Show” and then asked readers who they thought the next “SNL” comeback story should be. They suggested Darrel Hammond. Who would you nominate?
NM: Darrel Hammond’s great. He’s actually a great actor, too. He’s awesome. (Considers the question) I’d say David Koechner, Mark McKinney…see, the problem is you forget people. Victoria Jackson…
BE: (Surprised) She’s certainly been in the spotlight. Or limelight.
NM: Yeah, for all the wrong things! But… (Laughs) …I didn’t mean Victoria Jackson. I mean, she’s nice, but I don’t know what the hell she could do. I don’t know who else, man. I can’t remember! I forget names…
BE: I’ll start wrapping up, but, since I Tweeted earlier today that I was going to ask you this, I guess I should actually do it: can you speak to the subtleties and nuances in your performance as Hobo Bob on the sitcom “Oliver Beene”?
NM: Hobo Bob? (Bursts out laughing) How’d you know about that?
BE: IMDb, man!
NM: Well, Hobo Bob… (Starts to laugh again) That was a thing on “Oliver Beene” where the director or the show runner wanted me to play a guy who lived in a dumpster, and he wanted me to play it like a real tramp. But I decided to play it with, like, dignity. So I was, like, “I believe I’ve lived in this dumpster for many years,” kind of like I was Clint Eastwood in “White Hunter Black Heart.” (Laughs) And, uh, he didn’t care much for that.
BE: Do you see yourself returning to the role of Rusty Hecht on “The Middle”?
NM: Oh, that’d be good! I used to write with the guys that wrote on that show. I liked the actors on there, and Patricia Heaton’s great. So, yeah, definitely, I’d do that again.
BE: Lastly, to bring it back on the topic that brought us together, what are your hopes for “Sports Show”? It’s certainly starting out of the gate with a strong buzz.
NM: Yeah, I just hope we…we’re doing nine, and hopefully then they’ll make it 13, and then we can come back in September and do, like, 30 in a row and just be a presence in the sports-com world.
BE: Could you conceive of doing it daily?NM: (Without hesitation) Sure, why not?