Norm Macdonald, the deadpan Quebec comedian who rose from Canadian nightclubs to the heights of “Saturday Night Live” fame has died at 61 after a private battle with cancer.
His brother Neil said Macdonald died Tuesday in Los Angeles from leukemia, which he was diagnosed with “a long time ago.”
“He kept it quiet because he didn’t want it to affect his comedy. He didn’t want it to affect the way he was perceived…. He wanted to carry on,” Neil said by phone from Los Angeles.
“He took great pains to conceal it from everybody but family. Cancer’s a roller-coaster. We hoped that he would live longer than he did, but it took a turn for the worst last month, and he want into hospital and never came out.”
The Quebec City-raised standup was best known for his tenure on “Saturday Night Live” from 1993 to 1998 where he manned the “Weekend Update” desk and became known for impressions including a mischievous Burt Reynolds as a contestant on “Jeopardy!”
After leaving “SNL,” he created “The Norm Show” for ABC where he played a hockey player banned from the National Hockey League for tax evasion. The show ran from 1999 until 2001.
“He combined a laconic delivery and a deadpan look, and yet he had this great twinkle in those blue eyes of his that let you know everything was kind of a joke,” said Yuk Yuk’s co-founder Mark Breslin, a longtime friend.
“And it was a real powerful combination all those things.”
Macdonald began his career on the Canadian comedy circuit and Breslin said his sheer star power was clear from the start.
One night in Ottawa, Macdonald took the stage on amateur night and left a big impression on the crowd.
“He did his act and he killed,” he said. “And no one, I’m telling you, no one kills the first time they go up.”
Macdonald thought he bombed. It took the Yuk Yuk’s manager chasing him down to book him for another show before reality sunk in, Breslin said.
Soon, Macdonald was making waves in the comedy community, eventually landing a gig as a writer on “Roseanne” in 1992.
He was cast by “Saturday Night Live” the next year, becoming the face of “Weekend Update” where he poked fun at topical events from behind the news desk.
The role showcased countless sharp-edged punchlines but ultimately marked his fall from “SNL.”
Macdonald’s sense of humour was divisive and some felt it was too prickly.
Don Ohlmeyer, then president of NBC’s West Coast division, pulled the comic from “Weekend Update” midway through the 1997-1998 season, replacing him with Colin Quinn and citing bad ratings.
However, Macdonald attested that he believed his dismissal was because he refused to stand down from controversial jokes about O.J. Simpson, who was on trial for the murder of his ex-wife.
Macdonald left “SNL” that year but went on to amass a devoted following among comedy fans for his ribald rejection of easy punchlines.
He would become a favourite guest on late night talk shows, and appeared in a number of films with fellow “SNL” alum, including several with his friend Adam Sandler, among them “Billy Madison,” and a bit part in Rob Schneider’s “The Animal.”
He also led the 1998 Hollywood comedy “Dirty Work,” directed by Bob Saget, where he played one of two friends who launch a revenge-for-hire business. The film was a box-office flop but found a cult following when it was released on home video.
Later in his career, he would host his own Netflix talk show “Norm Macdonald Has a Show” and voice the character of Pigeon on “Mike Tyson Mysteries.”
—The Canadian Press