Norm Macdonald is a treasure. There. I said it. Ever since I saw his bizarre, surrealistic appearances on E!’s Howard Stern show back in the wee 1990s and became one of a handful of cult fans of Dirty Work, I’ve appreciated his truly unique wit, evident intellect, extemporaneity, cleverness, subversion and, in a word, weirdness – all delivered through a Puckish grin, a mischievous smirk and two twinkling, almost literally laughing eyes. And I love that Norm voice: somewhat dry, bordering on monotonous, often on the verge of emphasizing that he’s cracking himself up.
Roseanne Barr calls him “a comic’s comic.” Judd Apatow asks and answers his own question when praising him: “Who is funnier than Norm Macdonald? Nobody.” According to Rob Schneider, “David Letterman said it best: Nobody is funnier than Norm Macdonald.” And the monumentally funny Louis C.K. says that he’s “one of the greatest [comedians] of all time” in the introduction of Norm’s recent memoir, Based on a True Story. “I put him in my top five.” Louis also pays Norm an even worthier compliment when he writes that “a lot of comics over the years have been compared to Mark Twain, but I think Norm is the only one who actually matches the guy in terms of his voice and ability.”
I sum up the humor of comedian Norm Macdonald with his choice of dedication for the memoir: “To Charles Manson (not that one).” Norm has always been unafraid to incorporate the grimmest references and scenarios into his bits, so evoking the name of diabolical Charlie (even if it’s “not that one”) is actually the least of so many “Did he just go there?” moments in his work. He also obviously despises political correctness while also demonstrating why political correctness arose in the first place. “Now, people always wonder if God is a man or a woman or black or white or yellow,” he writes, “but I’m here to tell you that none of this silly stuff matters. (He’s a white guy, by the way.)” Fundamentally, I think Louis C.K.’s comparison to Twain is right on, since Norm is a master of tortuous yarns, complete with folksy phrases.
The fact that Based on a True Story is not all factual but contains many facts is hinted at in the title itself. It shouldn’t take long for the reader to realize this, because anyone who has watched comedians on talk shows knows that they tend to “do their act” rather than deliver a serious, forthright dialogue. And here’s the key: many of them sprinkle in moments of sincerity before letting their personae take over again. Think Don Rickles, Seinfeld, Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Jim Carrey. Some comedians, however, are/were always in character: Gilbert Gottfried, old-school Bobcat Goldthwait, Andy Kaufman and Robin Williams (for the most part). Sometimes it’s hard to tell with Norm Macdonald, however. I’d say that his sarcasm and basic surrealism are so ingrained that he belongs in the latter group of comedians, but two things contradict the notion for sure: his astute, even pedantic job as judge on Last Comic Standing (next to Roseanne Barr and Keenan Ivory Wayans) and his stand-up swan song on the Late Show with David Letterman back in 2015, when he choked up, fought back tears and said, “I say in truth, I love you” at the end of his set. In spite of his ironic armor, Norm needed to let one of his heroes and mentors know his heart in those touching moments (even though the muttonheaded audience mistook his emotion as a joke at first).
Other memoirs that are comparable to Based on a True Story are John Waters’ delightful Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, Gilbert Gottfried’s Rubber Balls and Liquor, anything by Salvador Dali, Chuck Barris’ Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Klaus Kinski’s Kinski Uncut. Honestly, I’m annoyed easily by fabricated memoirs, but if they’re crafted with literary license, I take them as works of artistic prose rather than biographically informative. Meta-memoir, if you will. Norm himself sums up this concept in “The Final Chapter” (which is not the final chapter): “There is the way things are and then the way things appear, and it is the way things appear, even when false, that is often the truest.”
Norm establishes the “present” of the book after some words on his interview with Lorne Michaels for a spot on Saturday Night Live. He’s accompanied by Adam Eget, and the two of them are driving to Las Vegas to gamble big bucks, all or nothing, or enact Plan B, which is suicide. Stories of the past are interspersed as if they’re being told to Eget to prevent boredom and make the trip more enjoyable. “…I’m the passenger and my job is to keep the driver relaxed and happy,” goes the narration, “and that means telling him more stories. Stories from the old days.”
There’s a good number of pages dedicated to Norm’s childhood, and much in those pages is well told and interesting, though I don’t think a person is worth enough to be written about before at least age 18 (unless they’re Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mozart or Orson Welles). After the fifteen pages of “My First Five Years,” “Six Years Old to Eight Years Old” and “Thirteen Years Old,” I found an uncharacteristically sentimental passage about a young Norm having to face the death of a family friend, Old Jack. He shares his reaction to looking into the coffin:
And when I looked inside, a curious thought struck me. a thought that made my fear evaporate and my tears dry. You see, Old Jack wasn’t lying there in that casket; why, it wasn’t him at all. It was just something that looked like him, the same way a suit lying on a bed resembles the man once wore it.
A bit that made me laugh out loud – no, laugh until almost dying – is Norm’s fictional description of how he prepares for stand-up gigs. First he visualizes an idyllic nature scene with his Labrador retriever, describing a sappy utopian atmosphere. Eventually “it is then time to work on [his] soul”:
I take out six two-milligram bars of Xanax and slowly swallow them. Then I reach into my back pocket to find my flask, which is always filled with Wild Turkey 101. I upend it into my mouth and drink until I have to stop to gasp for breath. Then I vomit…Then I punch my agent in the stomach.
All of a sudden, on page 50, the book gets even weirder when another narrator joins: “My name is Keane. I’m a ghostwriter. Nothing you have read in this book was written by Norm Macdonald.” In the next Keane section readers learn that his full name is Terence Keane, and he’s part of a deal with Random House to be Norm’s ghostwriter. Through Keene’s eyes Norm is presented as a loutish jerk with “sluggard’s eyes,” and the conceited comedian denies needing a ghostwriter but desires a secretary, since he can’t type worth shit. Eventually, Keane is brought in as an official character who’s involved in the present narrative. His distaste for his boss builds as the alternating narratives progress. “I am determined to make Mr. Macdonald appear interesting, engaging, and, most of all, funny,” he writes. “This last bit is the most difficult task, because the man is simply not funny.” Norm plays an ingenious (sometimes amusing, sometimes disturbing) psychoanalytical game here. For example, when Keane writes that he “cannot find Norm’s essence,” it’s got to be Norm who is conducting the psyche-excavation.
Perhaps my favorite tall tale in the book is Norm’s obsession with and stalking of Sarah Silverman, which is extra funny because of the apparent asexuality of Norm Macdonald. (Even he says as much here and there in interviews and spiels on his podcast.) Of course, his desire for the sylphic Silverman is frustrated by unrequited love and a distracting paramour: fellow comedian Dave Attell. “I hated Dave Attell,” Norm confesses. “But I only hated him because I loved Sarah Silverman, and she loved Dave Attell.” In desperation, he tries to hire a hitman (via Colin Quinn) to kill Attell. The plan fails, resulting in Norm’s arrest.
In a chapter called “Doing Time” an outrageous story about life in prison is told, and the second LOL part of the book unfolds. (I don’t think I’ve had such abdomen-splitting laugher since reading The Onion’s Finest News Reporting back in the late 1990s.) Now, normally, a story involving an explicit and zany prison-rape caper would be laugh-free as far as I’m concerned, but, Normally, it works as comedy. I think perhaps the only other comedy guys who can joke so bluntly about atrocious things are Howard Stern, Artie Lange, Jim Norton, Bob Saget and…well…Dave Attell.
As any straight man with a pulse would, Norm continues his quest to woo Sarah Silverman. Luckily, at a bar he meets the Devil, who promises to make Sarah love him if he signs a contract for his soul – “plus two beers.” Does Norm’s dastardly machination succeed, and does he bed the sylphic Silverman? Get the book to find out.
This “dark” streak (I put “dark” in quotes because I really hate the stigmatization of the word) worsens after Norm loses all his money and resorts to suicidal Plan B, facilitated by ingesting 600 milligrams of Dilaudid (which, incidentally, was one of Elvis’ abused drugs of choice). Does Norm croak? Or does the sylphic Sarah Silverman burst in on the scene and save his life? Get the book to find out. In another part, Norm wants to grant a terminally-ill boy his greatest wish, and the predictable child desires for a trip to Disneyland or lunch with Tom Brady are thrown out the window when the boy says that he wants “to kill a baby seal.” Does Norm oblige this sick little creep? (You know what to do.)
My third LOL moment came in a chapter called “Weekend Update.” Once again, profound drug abuse is the central factor. “I’m out of cigarettes so I pour a few grains of liquid morphine into a glass pipe. I use a torch lighter that sends an obelisk of hard blue fire to attack the glass and make the morphine sizzle and spit like bacon grease. My mind begins a crazy dance.” And later, in the Macdonald tradition of marring sacred cows for the sake of comedy: “Thank God for Lorne Michaels and his hopeless addiction to liquid morphine.”
“If I am remembered, it will always be by the four years I spent at Saturday Night Live and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from the show,” writes Norm. “As long as SNL exists, then so do I.” The book starts out with Norm’s interview with Lorne Michaels for a spot on Saturday Night Live, covers his joining the SNL cast (which included Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, David Spade, Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, and Jay Mohr) and, of course, includes passages about his tenure with the show. You’d think that much would be written about his being fired, especially since he guesses that that is the primary thing for which he’ll be remembered, but information on this is disappointingly scant. Regardless, one of my favorite chapters is called “Top 25 Weekend Update Jokes of All Time.” The first joke is Chevy Chase’s bit about the U.S. prostitute stamp; the rest are – surprise, surprise – Norm’s.
The Keane/Norm dichotomy comes to an insane head in “Me, Myself, and I,” but this review is spoiler-heavy enough. Let’s just say that the dichotomy becomes increasingly blurred until it becomes a sort of the-end-of-Animal Farm thing. By “The Last Part of the Whole Book,” due to a serious reason (not disclosed here), Keane is no longer able to perform as secretary, so Norm has to type the final pages himself. Folks who are familiar with Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and the opening Benjy section will appreciate this part in particular. (Even Flowers for Algernon fans will get an extra guffaw.)
Before a sincere, joke-free Acknowledgements section, Norm – my favorite comedian – writes: “I’ve been lucky. If I had to sum up my whole life, I guess those are the words I would choose, all right.” And, continuing the positive tone, everything ultimately ends with “turkey fucking chili.” That’s not too bad of a spoiler, is it?
PS: Norm’s advice for anyone who wants to be successful in showbiz: “Meet Adam Sandler.”
PSS: I also recommend the extremely impressive and touching Crash and Burn memoir by the great Artie Lange. I’ll never forget when Norm Macdonald introduced him to Howard Stern back in the 1990s, and I’ll always be glad that Artie graced one of the most underrated comedy movies of all time, Dirty Work, almost as much as he does HBO’s Crashing.