The owner of Yuk Yuk’s, where Norm Macdonald got his start, says the late comedian had three qualities that made him successful at his craft.
“He was smart, honest and cutting. Three great things you want to see in a comedian,” Mark Breslin, CEO and founder of the Yuk Yuk’s standup comedy clubs said Tuesday, recalling the career of Canadian Norm Macdonald, a funnyman who died after nine years with cancer.
He was 61. His family said Norm died peacefully in hospital in Pasadena, Calif., from acute leukemia on Tuesday, an illness he was very private about.
“He was a friend too. We were pals. I lost a pal today,” Breslin said of Macdonald’s passing.
The former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, actor and voice-over personality, who was known for his deadpan style where he often milked a joke, even when no one else was laughing, was born in Quebec City.
His niece, Andrea Macdonald, a team editor on the Star’s production desk, remembers the man she fondly called “Uncle Norm.”
Star editor Andrea Macdonald with her "Uncle Norm" and her sister Maxine in 1991.
Once when she was a youngster, around 4 or 5 years old, visiting him in Toronto in the 1980s, (she would stay here overnight while travelling from London Ont. to the family farm in Ottawa) he took her to see the movie “The NeverEnding Story.” One scene frightened her and she had to run out of the theatre.
“He was there consoling me, but also kinda laughed with me,” she says, choking up recalling the moment. “He liked to tease me in a friendly way.”
She remembers him as the “fun” uncle.
“He was a big part of my life growing up. He was around a lot,” his niece says.
Norm grew up with his older brother Neil, a veteran CBC television journalist, and his youngest brother Leslie. The brothers first lived at the Camp Valcartier Canadian Forces army base in Quebec City, where their father was a principal and mother a teacher. They spent about 17 years there.
According to family lore, Norm and his brothers would crack each other up imitating the locals in the area.
“That’s where he got his chops for imitating people,” his niece says.
The family had a farm in the Ottawa Valley area and Norm would sometimes get a stern look from his father whenever Norm imitated visitors to the property.
“Grandpa apparently didn’t appreciate that,” Macdonald’s niece says chuckling.
As his success as an entertainer later blossomed, the family basked in the joy with the comedian. Macdonald arranged for his niece to be in the front row of the studio for the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” in 1995.
“He was such a big part of everyone’s life. Everyone was very proud of him,” his niece says.
“He was a very private but emotional person. He always did his best to take care of all of us,” she went on to say.
Macdonald got his big break after working the open mic comedy scene in Ottawa and Toronto then later heading to Los Angeles and taking off in the U.S. — his highlight as one of the cast members on “SNL” in the mid to late 1990s, including a period on the show where he hosted the popular Weekend Update segment, a satiric take on the weekly news.
He was known for killer impressions, including a gum-chomping Burt Reynolds and former Republican presidential nominee and U.S. senator Bob Dole.
Comics both in the U.S. and Canada mourned Macdonald’s passing on social media and elsewhere.
Well-known Canadian actor and comedian Seth Rogan said: “I was a huge fan of Norm Macdonald and I essentially ripped off his delivery when I first started acting. 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.”
Breslin recalls the days when Macdonald first started out doing off the wall bits at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa and Toronto as a shy amateur in the mid to late 1980s.
“Most comedians suck when they first start out, and stink for a while before they get good. Norm shows up for amateur night in Ottawa and he’s absolutely fantastic in five minutes. My manager there told me Norm thought he bombed. (The manager) ran after him and told him, ‘You gotta come back.’ He came back the next night and killed again,” Breslin recalls.
In fact, Macdonald was so good, he was pulled off the amateur roster in Ottawa in three weeks, which Breslin believes is a record for his club.
“When he came to Toronto (as a headliner) I expected someone great, and I got it,” Breslin says. Macdonald spent about two or three years honing his routine in Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s on Richmond St., Breslin says.
Deborah Knight, Macdonald’s publicist in Toronto at this time, recalls his dry wit.
“He said ‘oh, I have to perform for you as well?’ He was so funny. It was a deadpan way of thinking of a publicist,” she recalls.
“He had observational humour that cracked you up because he said it so genuinely. He had quick, off-the-cuff remarks that made you feel at ease even when he was poking fun at you,” Knight said, recalling a client who was “a lot of fun to work with.”
“He was humble and a riot to be around. He always had a quip to crack you up,” Knight recalls.
Breslin remembers spending time with Macdonald in Aspen, Colo. around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. Macdonald was appeared at a comedy festival in the city.
“He did as brilliant a set as I’ve ever seen. His entire 45 minutes was on one theme — fear. Fear of politics, fears concerning his body and his mortality,” Breslin says, recalling the edgy bit.
During his stint on Weekend Update, Macdonald dropped lines that were very cutting and close to the line. After O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, Macdonald famously said, “Well it’s official. Murder is legal in the state of California.”
A short time later he lost his Weekend Update gig and was let go from “SNL” entirely. Some blame NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, who was friendly with O.J. Simpson, for Macdonald’s fate on the show.
“What you want from a comic is honesty because you can’t get that from anyone else,” Breslin says of the controversy.
Perhaps it’s a mark of irony that one of Macdonald’s most famous standup routines was about his uncle’s cancer treatment, and a sign of his acerbic wit that he shredded the cliche of cancer as a battle, or the notion of “losing” to the disease.
Todd Van Allen, a standup comic and voice actor in Ottawa, was around for Macdonald’s early open mic days. Then, as always, Macdonald’s material was “dry, witty, well thought-out” and often silly, Van Allen says.
“His delivery, his word choice. It was always succinct and in his own style. We’re never going to hear anyone like that again, which makes his passing that much sadder.