Norm Macdonald emits a vibe of genuine decency, much like Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks. It can’t be faked, much as politicians may try.
MacDonald, 51, takes his place at the judges’ table with Roseanne Barr and Keenen Ivory Wayans when Last Comic Standing returns on NBC July 22 at 9pm ET/PT. After decades as a standup (he still does some 250 gigs annually), Macdonald has the experience to impart wisdom to those trying to make it in such a tough field.
“Standup is more like a craft than an art so it can be learned more,” Macdonald says from his Los Angeles home. “An artistic endeavor is more open to interpretation. With standup, because there is an audience, it has to laugh, it has to make this particular noise all at the same time.
“It is almost all language,” Macdonald continues, citing his top advice. “And taking out words is probably the biggest thing you can do. Just omit words, omit words, omit words. And understand that the audience is usually ahead of you anyway. Sometimes when you start, you overstate the premise too much. They don’t have to hear that or the premise is so weak and has to be stated. Brevity, I guess, would be a really important one especially nowadays, because no one wants anything long.”
This season finds Macdonald working with his old boss, Roseanne Barr. He was a staff writer on Roseanne and recalls her main mandate being that writers not put too many gags in the script.
Macdonald, who is from Quebec City, then went to SNL and had the coveted anchor spot on “Weekend Update” from 1994-97. A bunch of sitcoms and movies followed — Norm, A Minute With Stan Hooper, Grown Ups — yet all along he stuck with standup.
As David Letterman premiered his last episodes of Late Show, Macdonald did his final appearance and, bringing his act to a close, he started to cry, thanking Letterman.
“He was more like a hero of mine, more than a friend,” Macdonald says. “He was always very nice to me.”
Macdonald pays it forward with Last Comic Standing. The contestants already have logged many hours onstage; they just need to refine their acts. Like every comedian, Macdonald has bombed, has endured a night of jokes that went so far south it haunts him years later.
“I was at a bar and I heard what I thought were gunshots,” Macdonald says. “And a guy in the front row was throwing firecrackers at my feet in Oshawa, Canada. I had been having a bad set before that.”
Before Macdonald moved on to his next thing, he answered our “5 (And a Half) Questions.”
1. If you weren’t a comic, what career would you most likely have pursued?
I did manual labor in Canada; I have no education or anything.
2. If your TV carried just three shows or networks, what would they be?
NBC, CBS and ABC because I’m still not used to Netflix and stuff. I used to watch Conan all the time and now it’s way deep down the dial.
3. What has been your strangest fan encounter?
I have had stalkers. It was my own fault. When I was working on SNL I said to a friend in the street, “I have such a bad headache.” And a guy gave me an aspirin. I said, “If you ever want to come to the show, just let me know.” He stalked me for years.
Wait, you took a pill from a stranger on the street?
Yeah, then five years later I met him in L.A. and his head was shaved like Travis Bickle. And we were standing in front of a restaurant called Norm’s and he thought this was fate. It was hard to talk him out of it.
4. Tell us about a time when you were starstruck.
I was on Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire and I picked Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang and I won half a million for them and got to meet Paul Newman and literally didn’t say anything.
5. What are three things you have to have in your fridge or pantry?
Coca-Cola, coffee and — I am going to go look — fruit salad.
Photo: © 2015 NBCUniversal Media, LLC Credit: Ben Cohen/NBC