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Norm Macdonald, legendary 'SNL' comedian, dead at 61


Norm Macdonald, the legendary actor and stand up comedian best known for his five year run on Saturday Night Live, has died after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was 61.

The actor’s management, Brillstein Entertainment, have confirmed his death. Longtime friend and producer Lori Jo Hoekstra has shared a statement that confirmed the actor had privately been battling cancer for almost a decade. “He was most proud of his comedy,” Hoekstra said. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic. He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”

Macdonald began his comedy career as a stand up in the Ottawa underground comedy scene where he refined his signature droll and deadpan style. It took him until his early thirties before he broke into show business, with his initial break coming as a writer for the American sitcom Roseanne, before being recruited for the 19th season of Saturday Night Live. Initially, Macdonald was a writer and featured player.

Macdonald’s entry into the mainstream came when Kevin Nealon stepped down as the anchor for Weekend Update. Macdonald was chosen as his successor and quickly established a reputation for irreverent and occasionally insolent humour, often poking fun at celebrities, politicians, and corporations, including those that owned NBC, Saturday Night Live‘s network. His approach was rarely adversarial, often presenting his jokes in a tongue-in-cheek style, but his frequent prods at prominent figures and authority figures did not endear him to higher-ups at NBC.

Concurrent with his run on Weekend Update, Macdonald established a number of recurring characters on SNL, most notably his impression of Burt Reynolds on the Celebrity Jeopardy!. Macdonald conceived the sketch and appeared in the first three episodes, later reprising his Reynolds impression three more times after his departure.

Macdonald often stirred controversy with his remarks based around Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton, but he found his most notable target during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Famously, four days after Simpson’s acquittal, Macdonald led off his Weekend Update segment with the line: “Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California.”

NBC’s West Coast division president Don Ohlmeyer, was a close friend and supporter of Simpson during his trial. Macdonald and writer Jim Downey, in turn, frequently made jokes referring to Simpson as a murderer. Ohlmeyer fired Downey and removed Macdonald from the segment halfway through the 23rd season. Macdonald’s firing led to a number of calls to return him to the job, including a write-in campaign, but Macdonald eventually quit the show before the season’s end.

The comic had established himself as a film actor by the time of his firing, appearing in SNL castmate Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison with a bit part in The People vs. Larry Flint. His first major role came as the lead in Dirty Work, which he also co-wrote. The film flopped during its initial run and largely ended Macdonald’s career as a lead actor, but it has since gained cult status with positive retrospective reviews.

Macdonald also starred in his own sitcom, Norm, and briefly starred as the title character in A Minute with Stan Hooper. Macdonald then turned his attention back to stand up comedy, also producing episodes of his podcast Norm Macdonald Live. Most recently, Macdonald hosted the talk show Norm Macdonald Has a Show on Netflix.

Macdonald was a staple on late-night talk shows, specially notching several appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and its subsequent spinoffs The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien and Conan. Macdonald was the final guest comedian on The Late Show with David Letterman and broke his normal persona to pay heartfelt tribute to the host.

An icon of the stage and screen, Norm Macdonald will be sorely missed.