Norm Macdonald, Comedian and ‘SNL’ Alum, Dies at 61 After Long, Private Battle With Cancer

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Kevin Winter/Getty
Kevin Winter/Getty

Norm Macdonald has died after a long and private battle with cancer, his management team confirmed on Tuesday. The highly influential stand-up comedian and former anchor of “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live was 61.

Macdonald, who was scheduled to perform at the New York Comedy Festival this November, had reportedly been sick with an undisclosed form of cancer for nine years but declined to make his illness public.

“He was most proud of his comedy,” Macdonald’s producing partner and friend Lori Jo Hoekstra said in a statement. “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.”

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Born in Quebec City, Canada, in 1959, Macdonald spent several years as a working stand-up comic before joining the cast of SNL in 1993, where his indelible impressions included Larry King, David Letterman, Bob Dole, and Burt Reynolds. After just one season in the cast, he replaced Kevin Nealon as “Weekend Update” anchor. He was named the all-time best comedian to sit in that chair by Entertainment Weekly in 2017.

Tributes from shocked comedian friends immediately began pouring in on Tuesday afternoon.

“In every important way, in the world of stand-up, Norm was the best,” David Letterman, who featured a tear-jerker send-off from Macdonald during his final week as host of The Late Show, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “An opinion shared by me and all peers. Always up to something, never certain, until his matter-of-fact delivery leveled you. I was always delighted by his bizarre mind and earnest gaze. (I’m trying to avoid using the phrase, ‘twinkle in his eyes.’) He was a lifetime Cy Young winner in comedy. Gone, but impossible to forget.”

“My dear friend Norm MacDonald passed after a brave 10 year battle,” Jim Carrey wrote. “He was one of our most precious gems. An honest and courageous comedy genius. I love him.”

Conan O’Brien, who hosted Macdonald on his show 25 times over the years, shared, “I am absolutely devastated about Norm Macdonald. Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny. I will never laugh that hard again. I'm so sad for all of us today.”

“No one could make you break like Norm Macdonald. Hilarious and unique. Fuck cancer,” Jon Stewart tweeted.

“Oh fuck. I was a huge fan of Norm Macdonald and I essentially ripped off his delivery when I first started acting,” Seth Rogen admitted. “I would stay up specifically to watch him on talk shows. He was the funniest guest of all time. We lost a comedy giant today. One of the all time greats. RIP.”

Macdonald’s deadpan, acerbic and uncompromising joke-telling style was beloved by comedy fans but also caused problems for him behind the scenes at SNL. He was ultimately fired mid-season in 1998 for telling too many jokes about O.J. Simpson, who was friends with NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer.

Norm Macdonald Was Fired From SNL Over O.J. Jokes. Now He’s ‘Not Completely Sure’ He’s Guilty.

Among the brutal jokes Macdonald delivered about Simpson were, “After grisly photos of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson were shown in court, O.J. turned his head away and wept. It was at that moment that he realized he would never be able to kill her again.” And, “In a sworn deposition this week, O.J. Simpson claimed that he never beat, choked, or hit his ex-wife with a closed or open fist. Luckily for O.J., lawyers forgot to ask if he had ever cut her head off.”

He opened the first “Weekend Update” after the not guilty verdict came back with, “Well, it’s official: Murder is now legal in the state of California.”

Speaking to The Daily Beast just a few years ago, Macdonald said he’s now “not completely sure he’s guilty anymore,” adding, “I’m almost completely sure, but I’m not completely sure.”

“You know how O.J. was the greatest rusher in the history of the NFL?” Macdonald asked. “I guess I was the greatest rusher-to-judgment.” While he said he feels “sorry for the victims of the double murder,” he joked, “although I guess I was a victim also. I guess there were three victims that night. Nicole Simpson, some waiter, and me.”

Macdonald was replaced by comedian Colin Quinn, who recently told The Last Laugh podcast that he “sabotaged” himself on “Weekend Update” out of loyalty to his friend.

“I had never been in a position before where people might think I’m the good boy who comes in when this guy is acting up,” Quinn said of Macdonald. “So every episode I would not smile, I would just throw away everything. And so really I would self-destruct, as you can see if you watch it, even more so than I normally would, because of that.”

Controversy continued to follow Macdonald, who was never shy about speaking his mind, even if it meant angering his increasingly woke critics. Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show famously canceled his planned appearance in 2018 after he criticized the #MeToo movement and framed his friend Roseanne Barr as a victim.

In his 2011 special Me Doing Stand-Up, Macdonald pointedly joked about the idea of “battling” cancer. Referring to his “Uncle Bert,” the comedian joked, “Here’s how he battled cancer: Lying in a hospital bed watching Matlock.”

He was even more direct in 2018 when he told Vulture’s David Marchese, “I’ve heard people go on stage and talk about cancer or some shit, and I go, ‘Isn’t this what happens to everybody?’ They seem to think they’re singular in their story when their story is the most common story that could possibly be, which is suffering and pain.”

More recently, Macdonald was notably one of the first stand-up comedians to joke about the COVID-19 pandemic on stage. In mid-March 2020, he went up at the Irvine Improv and told the audience, “It’s funny how we all now know how we’re going to die. It’s just a matter of what order at this point.”

“Remember the good old days when washing your hands didn’t take three hours?” he asked later in the set. “Just take me now.”

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