Norm Macdonald didn’t lose, he drew, and he showed us the difference

“I’m pretty sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies at the same time. That’s not a loss. That’s a draw.” – Norm Macdonald (1959 – 2021)

The passing of a celebrity is an unfortunately grim cog in the machine of life. No harsher could it be to lose Norm Macdonald so soon after Sean Lock, these funny men are different in their approach but identical in their aims. Laughter out of intense, dreary behaviour. Glum delivery, no punches held back and a beautiful irreverence that made them leagues ahead of the rest. Their material, when compared to other comedians, was the same. But it was their delivery, especially that of Macdonald’s, that was so fascinating. Norm Macdonald didn’t lose his battle with cancer, he drew, he took the beast with him, and we would do well to learn from his words and his odd elements of wisdom.

No doubt his career will be poured over with that abject nostalgia we feel for those that departed too soon. Thankfully his backlog is filled with consistent quality. He was a great comedian, and there are few of those working now. His keen eye for the beauty of wordplay separated his act as art and his quality as an inherited piece of his craft. A set-up and knock-down style were still there, the punchline still came through, but Macdonald focused on the lingering realisations that would come beats after the delivery had ended. It was those moments that set him out as one of the best. He turned quick-witted wordplay into slow, aggressive perfection.

There is no greater example of that than the Weekend Report or Norm Macdonald Live. Off the cuff, non-fiction works with planned jokes that expand and slither their way into the subconscious of the audience and the spirit of the times he poked fun at. He did it well, and there was no better than him at getting a laugh out of large, vague topics. It is the breaking of taboo that he often found comfort in, and how comfortable he made it for others to relish in the opportunity to join in a respectful level of poking fun at tragedy. Comments on 9/11, Adolf Hitler, Steve Irwin and pop culture hangers-on of the time made him a delightful treat for talk shows, podcasts and stand-up.

It was there that the difference between losing and drawing was shown. His attitude as a comedian was those that weren’t losing weren’t winning either. He took no real delight in kicking people when they were down, but when they were dead it was a whole new field of opportunities. Misery loves comedy. Tragedy, Macdonald understood, was the reaction to an event and a personal experience, one that could be moulded and joined with comedy. His quips on 9/11, the sudden realisation that his brother was nowhere near the event. It is not the tragedy he makes fun of, but he uses it as a backdrop to comedy that comes from confusion. His sincerely brilliant and intentional misinterpretation and play on words give his work a faux sense of venom, and it is utilising that venom that gave his work and his words such genuine credence.

But many will remember him for Dirty Work, a film that captured Macdonald’s humour and riffed on its likability and application to the real world. Larger than life scenarios and a wild situation, packed to the brim with SNL alumni, it is a project of its times and falls in side-by-side with Freddy Got Fingered as a beautifully forgotten gem. For those that uncover the cult classic work deep within Dirty Work, they are in for a treat. Macdonald is just as natural there as he was on-stage. That is the greatest draw of the feature, its application of a strange and vivid style of comedy that has aged timelessly despite being surrounded by F-List celebrities and chat show filler.

His work implied he was up to something. Some dark, ulterior motive would crash through the bumbling innocence. The delivery sealed the deal and it opened up a firm place in the hearts of generations of comedy fans. Norm Macdonald fought bravely and quietly for ten years and came out with a draw. In warfare, that’s not great, but when we consider how great a man Macdonald was, and how much work he has offered us, he’s looking more and more like a winner. His win is our win, his draw is our loss.

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