When it was reported Tuesday that comedy icon Norm Macdonald died of cancer at age 61 a million thoughts went through my mind. Never have we had someone who felt so ahead of his time, because he was willing to transport you back. Norm had this ability to blend modern biting comedy, self depreciation, and observational comedy — all with a delivery that felt like your uncle telling jokes at a family reunion.
The beautiful thing about Macdonald’s comedy was how he relished in the awkward. He made it his playground. No matter what he said, or did on stage — he always had the audience right where he wanted them, in the palm of his hand. If you groaned because he made a joke straight out of the 1950s, it’s because he wanted you to. The man understood an audience better than any comedian of the last 30 years. It’s for this reason that news of his death immediately made me think back to the 1998 ESPY Awards, something that never, ever would have happened today.
Armed with the looks of a nightly news host, Norm took to the stage and began roasting everyone in sight, without second thought of the ramifications. If it seemed like Macdonald didn’t care, it’s because he likely didn’t. His brand of comedy was never aimed at marketability, it was aimed to make people laugh, which he did, in a way we will never seen again at the show.
“I was talking to Jerry Jones backstage, and he’s a good guy, and he talking about rebuilding the team, you know. And he told me, he says, ‘We have to get back to what made us a championship team: Strippers and crack.’”
Norm turned the entire monologue into rapid fire burns of everyone in attendance, often striking to the core of their off field/court troubles and really hit people where it hurts. Nobody in that audience wanted to hear their name mentioned by Macdonald, knowing something was coming around the corner. Hell, look at John Elway’s face when the camera cuts to him after Norm congratulated the Broncos on winning the Super Bowl. This is a man terrified of what might come next.
Thankfully for Elway, he was spared. Norm knew after the eruption of applause that it wasn’t the time to goof on the champs, so he swung down, saying there was a movie being made about the Denver Nuggets: “Black men can’t jump either.”
Now look, I know there are PLENTY of times where Norm makes jokes in this that are a product of their time. Things we would never, ever joke about now — and the point here isn’t to litigate what is, or isn’t appropriate comedy in 2021, it’s just appreciating that for one fleeting moment in 1998, ESPN handed their cherished awards over to Macdonald and had to watch.
Saving the most shocking joke for last, Macdonald congratulates Charles Woodson on becoming the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, something he says can never be taken away from him ... “unless you kill your wife and a waiter.” Closing with an O.J. Simpson joke is only something Macdonald would have been brave enough to do on that stage, and it was perfect.
Rest in peace, Norm Macdonald. Nobody will ever, every be like you.