NORMAN IS THAT YOU?
The uncrowned king of Weekend Update gives us an update on his life. Sort of.
By Don Stradley
Based on a True Story might’ve been called And Now, A Fake Memoir. Norm Macdonald is a funny man, but as a memoirist he’s a dirty bum and can’t be trusted. He’s what my grandfather would’ve called “a leg puller.” He writes in the introduction that the book will be “the truth, every word of it, to the best of my memory.” This titillated me because anyone who can quote both Billy Joe Shaver and Leo Tolstoy, as Macdonald does at the book’s beginning, might write something of interest. I’ve often suspected Macdonald of being smarter than he acts, with a dark, wintry side, as if the pauses in his comedy are run through by a cold Canadian wind. But by page 24, when a very young Norm is locked in the toolshed with a perverted creep, I realized I was reading a variation on the usual Macdonald fantasia, where Jeffrey Dahmer might appear alongside Rodney Dangerfield, and pervs run amok, and Macdonald’s folksy delivery gives way to weirdness. So be it. Norm is Norm. If my leg must be pulled, he’s the guy to do it.
Macdonald occasionally interrupts the proceedings to share some insights into the life of a stand-up comedian. It’s a “shabby business,” he writes, “made up of shabby fellows like me who cross the country, stay at shabby hotels, and tell jokes they no longer find funny.” He compares himself to a “criminal drifter…never in one place long enough to experience anything but the shabbiest of love.” As for his status as a cult figure, it “just means that most folks hate your guts.”
Surely, to describe Macdonald as a mere stand-up comic who spent a few years on SNL is to sell him short. It’s not just that his eyes twinkle when reciting the grimmest details of cannibalism. It’s that he’s so utterly different than any other comic out there. Most comedians who write a book will try to show their intelligence, while Macdonald tries to keep his intelligence hidden. But he can’t keep it entirely covered up, any more than a fat guy can successfully hide his gut. The penultimate chapter, with its mix of wistfulness, self-deprecation, and gratitude, is perhaps the best “look back” you’ll ever read in a show business memoir. His passages about his gambling addiction are stirring and poignant, as is his account of being an ex-SNLer. “It can be difficult,” he writes, “to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever.”
“It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck.”
As a storyteller, Macdonald is somewhere between vintage Steve Martin and the surreal novels of Nathanael West. In fact, he takes enough beatings in this book to rival Lem Pitkin in West’s A Cool Million. There’s a bit of W.C. Fields here, too, especially the later Fields of The Bank Dick and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break. Like Fields, Macdonald meanders from one unlikely scenario to the next, escaping danger by the skin of his teeth, usually by a fluke. And like Fields, Macdonald enjoys the way words sound. “I’ve been on the road a pickler’s fortnight,” Macdonald writes, which is pure Fields, as is his habit of calling his assistant “Adam Eget” rather than just “Adam”. Fields would do the same. To my knowledge, Macdonald has never cited Fields as an influence, but if Fields wrote a book, it would’ve been something like Based on a True Story.
Granted, not everything works. There are too many subplots, and the switching from serious to surreal is sometimes ragged. But the parts that succeed are as brilliant as gold dust. I especially liked a chapter where Macdonald speaks at a funeral. In a moment that borders on Pythonesque, he can’t think of anything to say so he goes on about the greatness of Gordie Howe. Then, showing he’s more of a swashbuckler in print than he is onstage, he ends the scene with the rhythms of Ernest Hemingway: “Afterward, I walked back alone down a long blacktop road, and it was cold, and in the sky there were white clouds, and they all looked like white clouds and nothing else.” From Python to Papa? In one scene? Even if you don’t find it funny, you must admire the daring.
Macdonald has tipped his hand. He probably wouldn’t want me to mention people like Hemingway or Nat West, because he wouldn’t want to discourage customers from attending his next gig at Yuk Yuks. Spare me the highfalutin mumbo-jumbo, he’d say, and tell the people it’s a funny book. But I can no longer look at Macdonald as merely a comic. He’s a writer, a very fine one, and if I may use a worn and battered cliché to describe him, he’s unique. And if being on the road for so many years has left him feeling shabby, it’s also afforded him a type of freedom that few of us will ever know.