The late comic’s best work exemplified his resistance to cheap, easy material, but also his utter unpretentiousness.
Norm Macdonald, the brilliant and lacerating stand-up comedian who died yesterday of cancer, once told one of the best jokes about the disease that I’ve ever heard. “In the old days, they’d go, ‘Hey, that old man died.’ Now they go, ‘Hey, he lost his battle.’ That’s no way to end your life!” he said. “I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer also dies at exactly the same time. So that, to me, is not a loss; that’s a draw.” True to form, many news stories yesterday referred to Macdonald’s “battle” with the disease over the past nine years. But none mentioned that he fought it to a draw.
Macdonald was the purest kind of stand-up, someone who could sidle up to an issue as dark as cancer and talk about it with disarming frankness and goofy glee. He didn’t tell jokes to shock people or to deliver a polemic, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be thought-provoking. He could create finely tuned routines that’d knock the house down, but he took just as much delight in eliciting roars of laughter from fellow comics by reading corny one-liners from an old joke book, to the bafflement of the audience at large.