Standup for a steady job

Norm Macdonald avoids office politics and finds his spot onstage

Without even considering the absurd foam Stetson he wore on Saturday Night Live ( SNL ) as Burt Reynolds (or as his character insisted on being called “Turd Ferguson”) Norm Macdonald is a man who’s used to wearing many hats. He’s variously been a sitcom star ( Norm ) a sports satirist ( Sports Show with Norm Macdonald ) an object of cult film fandom ( Dirty Work ) and a podcaster ( Norm Macdonald Live ).

Macdonald comes by his itinerancy honestly — after a brief stint as a mathematics student at Carleton University he spent years picking up odd jobs across the country before taking a broadcasting course at Algonquin College. (“It was slightly more useful than math” he says “but mostly useless.”) Standup was the first job where sticking with something made sense to Macdonald who secured a spot at Montreal’s prestigious Just For Laughs Festival after just two years as a performer. Every opportunity Macdonald’s had since is owed to his original standup sets for better or worse.

“I’m not good at acting” he declares in his matter-of-fact deadpan. “I suck. It’s an interesting way that Hollywood is: if you’re good at one thing they expect you to be good at a whole completely different thing. And I find that with standup and acting — improv guys are good at acting but with standup you’re not reacting or interacting with another human you’re all by yourself.”

With little to no Canadian film and television work to be had at the time he started in his mid-20s Macdonald always saw standup as its own end. Now with film and television credits of his own he’s seeing an unexpected reversal.

“Now it’s the other way where already famous guys decide to be standups” he says. “So they’ll be like whatever they are famous from a sitcom or maybe on SNL but never were standups. The work dries up and they go: ‘I’ll figure it out.’”

“[ SNL alumnus] Jon Lovitz started at 50” he adds. “That’s like Grandma Moses. How do you start that old?”

Macdonald’s heart remains in standup — his 2011 album Me Doing Standup is a perfect distillation of his wry often dark sensibility — but that singular love hasn’t prevented his multiple projects from occasionally conflicting. For example in June Macdonald put Norm Macdonald Live on hiatus to begin writing his memoirs.

“It turns out it’s easier to write just any fucking shit” he says. “It’s hard to write a good one that’s for goddamned sure. Also when you look at your life you realize almost nothing has happened. I read a bunch of memoirs to get ready to do mine and other than like Benjamin Franklin most people don’t have 300 pages of interesting.”

Nearly 30 years in the comedy industry doesn’t make for 300 pages of interesting?

“The only interesting thing is the finished product” he explains. “Let’s say you do a great sketch. The backstage part of that was you eating a sandwich with your friend trying to think of the sketch.”

As it happens part of that history includes Calgary’s Cash Corner the section of sidewalk on Centre Street that serves as an informal marketplace for contractors and labourers looking to pay and be paid in cash.

“That was my go-to job moving furniture” says Macdonald. “We’d stand on the corner trucks would go by and we’d would stand around in the cold.”

Norm Macdonald has held down (and let go of) a lot of jobs. But all things considered he says standup at its best represents a job worth sticking with: no bullshit and a paycheque at the end.

“That’s why you get into standup to try to avoid office politics and all that stuff” he says. “If you send me to a gig and give me money then I’m happy with that.”