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Norm Macdonald's 10 best jokes about O.J. Simpson

@TylerGolsen

This weekend marks the 26th anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal for the murders of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. At the time, there was a polarised response to the verdict, especially in America. Only three years after the Rodney King verdict had illustrated sharp divides in race relations throughout the country, Simpson’s acquittal was viewed differently between black and white Americans. That would change in time, but during the trial, there was some debate as to what the proper way to handle the case within pop culture should be.

One person who had no problem making direct references to the case was Norm Macdonald. “Making direct references” is the nice way of saying that Macdonald took direct aim at Simpson, mercilessly mocking him, the trial, and the notion that Simpson was at all innocent. Macdonald’s view had nothing to do with race, but solely to do with what he saw as irrefutable evidence of his guilt and the ridiculousness of both the circus that followed his trial and the unlikelihood of his acquittal.

As the anchor for Saturday Night Live‘s ‘Weekend Update’ segment, Macdonald had a platform that made him one of the most visible comedians of the day. He routinely used that position to repeatedly and relentlessly joke about Simpson’s status as a murderer. Macdonald was never afraid to antagonise his subject or his audience, but he never joked solely for the purpose of antagonisation. Instead, the punchlines were direct, unflinching, and oftentimes hilarious, even if a good portion of the audience wasn’t laughing.

Macdonald’s unwavering dedication to clowning on Simpson eventually cost him his job. NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer was friends with O.J. Simpson and supported him throughout his trial. Ohlmeyer was unhappy with one of his employees using one of his shows to continuously mock Simpson and repeatedly refer to him as a murderer. Ohlmeyer instructed Macdonald and writing partner Jim Downey to tone down the jokes at Simpson’s expense. When they refused, Ohlmeyer fired them both from Weekend Update. Downey, who had been writing for SNL since 1976, was fired outright, while Macdonald was relegated to giving up his anchor spot. Macdonald would leave the show a few episodes later.

Ohlmeyer claimed that he removed Macdonald from the desk because he was not funny. To directly contradict that, here are ten of the best O.J. Simpson jokes that Norm Macdonald ever made.

Norm Macdonald’s 10 best O.J. Simpson jokes:

10. “A.C. Cowlings”

A.C. Cowlings was one of many fascinating figures who littered the O.J. Simpson murder case. Cowlings had known Simpson since childhood, played football with him in both college and the pros, he drove the Bronco during the infamous low-speed chase before the trial, and set up a 900-number for people to call him and ask him questions.

Macdonald, eager to take down the various people leeching off of the case to boost their own profiles, made fun of Cowlings and his antics countless times. One joke, in particular, focusing on Cowlings’ ass-kissing of Simpson, was noticeably less goofy than the others, adding a slight bit of stinging vitriol into Macdonald’s usually indifferent style.

9. “Dorf on Stalking”

The key component about the constant O.J. Simpson jokes from Macdonald was that he wasn’t afraid to go directly against his audience. Macdonald’s tenure at Saturday Night Live was marred by mixed reactions from the in-studio audience, with jokes falling flat nearly as often as they killed. Whether it was controversial or just plain hammy, Macdonald always stuck to what he believed was funny.

This joke, about Simpson’s workout DVD, is the perfect example of Macdonald not giving a damn about whether the audience understood what he was going for. By referencing an obscure 1980s golf film, Macdonald all but guaranteed that his allusion to Simpson’s trailing of his wife would end up bricking. His acknowledgement that “the audience is torn” only doubles down on his own unwavering confidence

8. “O.J. is running out of money”

Whenever Macdonald made his O.J. jokes, he was happy to divide the audience. The very nature of the case was divisive, even if Macdonald presented it as if it was clear cut. Still, very rarely did Macdonald’s jokes completely bomb. When they did, it made for some of the most uncomfortable, and funny, television of the time.

Take for instance Macdonald’s joke about Simpson running out of money to defend himself. Just when you think Macdonald can’t spin the whole “O.J. is a murderer” angle into something new and fresh, he consciously does something so wrong that he dares you to blink first. Macdonald expressing his disbelief that this joke suddenly went too far is just the icing on top of the cake.

7. “Doing what O.J. does best”

One of Macdonald’s greatest gifts was his ability to bring long-winded stories with extraneous details to a sudden stop with a blunt punchline. If you’ve seen Macdonald tell “The Moth Joke”, you know exactly what this is like. Macdonald was an intelligent presence, but his wit always served the shit-kicking “aint I a stinker” persona that he perfected.

Macdonald’s joke about Simpson’s lawyers skipping DNA evidence isn’t very long or verbose in the way that he often trotted out, but the punchline serves the exact same purpose. Namely, to stop you in your tracks by stating the obvious and forcing you to laugh at it all the same. What does O.J. do best? Kill people, of course.

6. “Johnnie Cochran’s Defense”

Simpson hired high profile lawyer Johnny Cochrane for his defence, and under his direction, Cochran took the sideshow of a trial and made it into a full circus. He utilised rhymes, questionable handling of evidence, and consistent doubt to turn the case into a matter of race. His techniques were questioned by not only the prosecutors, but by his own co-council, and yet it was largely thanks to Cochran that Simpson got acquitted.

Macdonald saw Cochran as another swindling conman, and he took any opportunity he could to turn him into a bumbling idiot. Macdonald’s matter of fact dealings with spousal abuse and murder were envelope-pushing, but it had a specific purpose — to highlight just how bad everyone involved in the trial was.

5. “That’s my lucky stabbing hat!”

Never before or after was there a better example of Macdonald turning what would have been a hackneyed and obvious punchline into something transcendent. You knew right where Macdonald was going, but like an unstoppable train, he barreled straight into that ridiculous punchline anyway.

It’s the way Macdonald hangs on the line with gleeful abandon, clearly pleased that he was able to wrangle something so funny out of something so dumb. There’s nothing clever about it, and yet that’s what makes it so impactful. As Conan O’Brien remembers it, “That joke came through the TV and slapped me in the face it was so good.”

4. “O.J. turned his head and wept”

It was hard to tell why exactly Macdonald and Downey were so insistent that Simpson was unquestionably guilty. Perhaps they were disgusted by the inane three-ring circus that surrounded the trial, or maybe they just thought it would be funnier to be absolutely sure of his guilt. Either way, it was a weapon that never dulled throughout their repetitive use.

Macdonald was so convinced of Simpson’s guilt that he saw right through what was thought to be a key moment of Simpson’s alleged innocence: his crying at the images of his dead wife. Macdonald could be cold for the sake of comedy, but he rarely ever got darker than his unexpected punchline here.

3. “Murder is legal in the state of California”

After months of constant barbs and unrelenting digs, Macdonald was forced to face the fact that O.J. Simpson had been found not guilty of the murder charges levelled against him. Just two days after the acquittal, Macdonald would have to appear on Weekend Update to publicly eat crow for the barrage of jokes at Simpson’s expense.

Except he didn’t. Instead, right off the bat, Macdonald defiantly rebukes the verdict with one of the sharpest one-liners to ever come out of Saturday Night Live. The whoops and cheers that emanate from the audience come from a clear understanding that Macdonald and Downey had no intention of stopping their two-man crusade against Simpson. In fact, they were just getting warmed up.

2. “The Manhunt Continues”

Simpson made engaged in some ridiculous antics following his acquittal. There’s his book If I Did It, which puts forward a (hypothetical) scenario from Simpson about how he would have gone about murdering his wife and Goldman, his claim that he’s afraid to return to Los Angeles for fear that his wife’s real killer will find him, and his vow to not rest until the real murderer is brought to justice.

It’s the last point that Macdonald lampooned two weeks after the acquittal. All he had to do was repeat Simpson’s claim of not resting until he finds his wife’s killer and juxtapose it with a picture of Simpson playing golf. The stinger, “The manhunt continues,” was Macdonald at his most subtly savage.

1. “Charles Woodson and the ESPYs”

Macdonald took his brigade against Simpson outside the halls of 30 Rock when he was booked at the host for the 1998 ESPYs. Charles Woodson had just become the first, and currently only, primarily defensive position player to win the Heisman Trophy. No guesses as to who else won the Heisman in college. Macdonald, never one to pass up a golden opportunity, seized his opportunity to shit on the world’s most notorious athlete in a room full of athletes.

This was the joke that likely sealed his fate on SNL. The reaction from the crowd, a mix of bewilderment and unstoppable laughter, was another shocked reaction from an audience, which Macdonald was surely used to. Except for this time, Macdonald took it to the people who knew O.J. best. It took guts for Macdonald to be so dedicated to his scorched earth campaign against Simpson, but it would have been pointless if Macdonald let the humour slip away. No matter how far he went, Macdonald was never not funny, and that’s all that mattered.