A screen grab from The Norm Show (1999), with Norm and Wiener Dog in Mackinaw coats.

Too bad that you’re not smart/ than you thought you were in the first place…

This is the opening line of the theme song to “The Norm Show,” a show that ran alongside “Seinfeld” in the 90s but I never heard of. It’s a brilliant, bum-tickling gem of a comedy show starring the Canadian comic Norm Macdonald, who also wrote and produced the show.

Such a gem. No wonder it was hidden so well.

There were so many things I never heard of before that are surfacing now. Call it maturity, or the forward march of Youtube and social media suddenly washing ashore everything that had lain undisturbed in its depths. But that whale of brilliance and remarkability that is Norm Macdonald has suddenly beached itself on the sands of my unremarkable little Canadian life. The high tide is coming in, but I am running to the shore and holding tightly to this beautiful beached whale of comedic, and I daresay, life genius. I am not letting go.

After 9 years of keeping his illness to himself and to a select few, Norm Macdonald finally let go. He died last month of cancer, and would have celebrated his 62nd birthday today, October 17th, as I write this little tribute. I shook my head at the star-crossed timing. Throughout his stand-up comedy career, he had play dates in Richmond, the neighboring city just 15-20 minutes away by car. I could have seen him live if I’d arrived a little earlier in Canada.

Why have I become so drawn to Norm Macdonald? Well, I can’t claim to knowing even a fourth of all those American and Canadian personalities that he mentions in his bits and podcasts. I’m not Canadian – not yet anyway. I don’t even know what the whole point of playing hockey is. But because I understand and speak English and benefited from a colonial American-style education back home, I could get and even dig Norm’s humor. It also helps that the English language doesn’t give me nosebleeds, and that he once wrote this funny scripted bit featuring our very own Manny Pacquiao.

Those with a literary mind will surely enjoy Norm’s moth-goes- to- a -podiatrist joke, a rambling gem of a narrative that would have made Leo Tolstoy laugh his beard off.

I have been watching Norm’s bits, especially SNL’s Weekend Update, which made him both famous and infamous in the public eye. As far as I’m concerned, Norm owned the concept of funny news. His version of the “news” hit people the hardest and that’s what made it so devastatingly funny. It’s not even straight news, of course (but is there such a thing, really?) – Norm just expands whatever headline he finds interesting in the papers and pokes fun at it. But the comedic dumpling that he creates with this is so meaty, so juicy, and so satisfying.

What I love about his comedy is that Norm did it efficiently. He skewered people who were in the public eye, those who made the news. He roasted Bill Clinton. He made fun of fictional uncles, and even a fictional version of himself in his autobiography. After all, he was Canadian – he really was nice. But when he wasn’t, you might have to look a second time at the person he’s interacting with. I watched this exchange with the Lonely Island online that had me floored. When all that nastiness was over, Norm stood up, reached out and gave the young man a warm manly embrace, as if to say, walang personalan, trabaho lang!

Norm read any situation, then commented on it, which seems pretty easy to do and straightforward, except that the person doing it was Norm. His insights came lightning-quick and dug deep into the marrow for us to savor and enjoy. His comedy was essential. Whatever the format he used – whether sitting down as a curly-haired news anchor in Weekend Update or standing up in Yuk Yuks in front of a live audience – Norm deployed the same comedic technique. He would read the situation, and then drop a one-liner that brought even fellow comics down to their knees in stitches. He was not physical and didn’t do impressions as much as the others, but was unbelievably marvelous in the few times that he did: the Burt Reynolds; the fake Colonel Sanders, Quentin Tarantino, and David Letterman. As far as I know, there weren’t any among his industry peers that didn’t think he was brilliant and unique. Often called the comic’s comic, Norm had many admirers including David Letterman (who believed in him so much that he even produced his show), Dennis Miller, Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Meyers, Tom Green, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien, just to name a few (also, Steve Martin thought this joke of his was great). As for female comics, Sarah Silverman is one, I believe – but the relative rarity of female stand-up comics is topic for another essay altogether…

Norm excels in the curation of his material – the stuff he chooses to read and comment on. Let’s not even discuss his perfect comedic timing, because you won’t be able to keep up with the dizzying speed with which his brain processes information. He has been called the king of comebacks for this reason (check out this comeback with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith on the Conan show) but as far as I’m concerned, whenever he’s engaged with anyone in any conversation, Norm will never hesitate to pick on buttons until they’re somewhat undone, which is even funnier than having them all undone (if you’re one of them thick-skinned friends, head over to this dirty bit about one of Norm’s many uncles in rural Canada).

So it was astounding to hear that despite the raucous spontaneity of his verbalized humor, Norm confessed to love being a writer above all else (which of course tickled THIS writer no end). He was, after all, a writer for the show Roseanne when he started out in the biz. I found it ironic that he would prefer ruminating and measuring out his thoughts on paper when he was such a natural about not giving a fuck. But I suppose it’s his being Canadian again kicking in –meticulous preparation is, after all, half the battle won. Norm would find something so random in the news as O.J’s lawyer wearing a knitted cap and create something terribly devastating with it. That odd mix of intellectual honesty, deadpan nasal-voiced delivery, dimpled grin, piercing blue-eyed gaze and utter unpredictability would have been too much stimuli for me to bear, so it was just as well that I never saw him in the flesh. For me, Norm was the funniest and most brilliant comic that ever died.

Norm was born in Quebec City, according to Wikipedia, and had faith, according to various interviews of him that I’d seen and heard. Of all the things that have been said about this man, his strong faith in things, in himself, and in people in general is what I love the most about him. In one podcast, Norm had this to say about death: “it’s not you that dies – it’s the world that dies.” He had faith that people, including himself, didn’t really die when they gasped their final breath. I find this thought of his unbelievably comforting in these darkest of times.

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