On one of the final episodes of “The Late Show With David Letterman” two years ago, comedian Norm Macdonald, sporting a suit and sharp red tie, finished his standup set with a glowing tribute to the legendary host. “Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” Macdonald told the audience, raising his hand briefly to help maintain composure. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth: I love you.”
Then Macdonald cried. And Letterman hugged him.
It was a rare moment of graciousness from a comedian whose standup is often skewed, fatalistic and filled with outlandish exaggerations. Like Letterman, Macdonald has “no truck” for the sentimental, either: His comedy has a bumbling, bone-dry cadence that lulls and misleads before turning into a sharply caustic punchline. Still, on the Season 3 premiere of his sporadic web series “Norm Macdonald Live” on July 25, MacDonald reunited with Letterman for an hourlong interview, and couldn’t help but sound sentimental again. The wistful conversation touched on the state of late-night television and old mentors such as Johnny Carson. “Why don’t you get one of those big ‘Charlie Rose’ desks and get back on the air?” Macdonald asked Letterman, who laughed but, of course, declined.
“I don’t think I convinced him,” Macdonald says, speaking from a San Jose, Calif., airport between bites of hamburger steak.
Reached by phone ahead of his two performances on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the Casino at Dania Beach, Macdonald sounds giddy when reflecting on Letterman’s enduring wit. “Norm MacDonald Live,” his podcast-turned-streaming video show, also tries to simulate Letterman’s loose, cheeky playfulness.
“It was fantastic to shoot the crap with Letterman,” Macdonald recalls of his show, which launched in 2013. “Our entire relationship has been on camera. He’s very quiet off-camera, like Howard Stern. Both those guys are more real on-camera than they are when the cameras aren’t rolling.”
The series’ return comes at a prolific time for the comic, who will also co-star on Seth MacFarlane’s new science-fiction parody series “The Orville,” premiering Sept. 10 on Fox. But Macdonald’s current fixation is his web series: This season on the show (new episodes will appear Tuesdays on YouTube), he will interview Caitlyn Jenner, Mike Tyson and fellow Canadian icon Jim Carrey, who “could’ve been the greatest impressionist in the world if he didn’t have an acting career,” Macdonald quips.
But there’s one guy he hoped to get: the recently paroled O.J. Simpson, a name intertwined with Macdonald’s career 20 years ago on “Saturday Night Live,” when he routinely feasted on the disgraced football star’s trial from the "Weekend Update" desk. (Macdonald appeared on “SNL” from 1994 to 1997.)
The first topic of conversation? Macdonald wanted to tell Simpson, due for release Oct. 1, that he probably wasn’t guilty of murder. He says he believes Simpson’s son Jason, who shares his father’s DNA, murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman (a conspiracy theory debunked in several documentaries and news reports). After approaching Simpson’s lawyer to schedule an interview, Macdonald says things started off promising.
“At first, his lawyer was like, ‘Oh, sure, yeah, he’ll do it.’ But he didn’t know who I was,” Macdonald recalls. “And then the lawyer came back and said that O.J. didn’t want to do it because I was ‘too tough’ on him on ‘SNL.’ I’ve also been trying to get Robert Blake to do [the show]. I really loved ‘Beretta.’ When Blake was up for murder, I realized why black guys liked it when O.J. got off. I wanted Robert Blake to get off because I liked ‘Beretta.’ ”
What would he have asked Simpson if he granted the interview? Macdonald pauses for a beat.
“I’d ask him if the nine years in prison hurt his golf game, you know?” he says.
The wisecrack should sound familiar to longtime fans of Macdonald, who reasons that he was fired from “Weekend Update” for lobbing too many O.J. zingers by then-NBC head Don Ohlmeyer, one of Simpson’s close friends. Macdonald says he was asked to recall that behind-the-scenes drama by publishers for his 2016 memoir, “Based on a True Story.” He did not. The “memoir” is actually fiction, a self-loathing collection of absurd stories about the comedy profession that Macdonald created when he realized that fantasy was more fun than his personal life.
“[The publisher] wanted me to write a memoir, and they wanted to know about what I do backstage, but backstage is boring,” Macdonald says. “It’s just eating a sandwich and trying to figure out what you’re going to say onstage. Three hundred pages is a lot of pages. People who read my actual memoir would be disappointed. My life would be five pages. Maybe six. It would be a pamphlet.”
Other than his show, the closest Macdonald comes to sincerity these days is his standup. On his 2017 Netflix special “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery,” he’s more self-deprecating than ever, comparing himself to “some cheap magician” who says “nothing of substance.” Over the phone, Macdonald also downplays his importance to comedy.
“I did 20 different sets, and that was my worst one,” Macdonald deadpans. “There’s so many specials now, it’s kind of lost its special-ness. There’s one a week on Netflix. I just think to myself, ‘Richard Pryor is the best and he only did three, and the third one wasn’t even that good. I’d be happy to hit just one home run.”
Norm MacDonald will perform at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at Stage 954 at the Casino at Dania Beach, 301 E. Dania Beach Blvd. Admission is $30-$75. Call 954-920-1511 or go to CasinoDaniaBeach.com.
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