Q&A: Getting R-Rated with SNL's Norm MacDonald
Starting tonight, comedy legend Norm MacDonald returns to Portland to perform six (nearly sold out) shows at the Helium Comedy Club. Most recognized from his years on Saturday Night Live during the 1990s, where he hosted the fake-news show Weekend Update, MacDonald was named one of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians of all time in 2005 by Comedy Central. His deadpan, off-the-cuff brand of humor is as hilarious as it is offensive. We called MacDonald while he was strolling through his LA neighborhood (“That’s when you know your career is in trouble—when that’s on your fucking 'to do' list: six hours of strolling.”).
If you're easily offended, consider this your warning.
I love Portland. Yes, yes, it’s one of my favorite cities. I love how everything’s big and wide. No, I’m not talking about the women. The streets and the sidewalks and the buildings. There’s so much space.
I was frightened at first because people said, "there’s two generations of [Portlanders]: the older people that smoke marijuana and the younger people that do ecstasy." I was like, "Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness." But, no, I found them to be quite, uh, sober. Not the way they’re portrayed in television programs.
One time a cabbie was driving me. He was talking about how liberal the city was, and I said, "Well, there’s no black people here at all. Kind of easy to be liberal when there’s no black people." He said, "We got our share!"
On his podcast, Norm MacDonald Live:
[The next guy we're interviewing] is a guy who thinks Charles Manson is innocent. He has a giant theory on it. We spoke for a long time over dinner the other night, and he was fascinating. Anybody that only has one compelling drive in his life is always fascinating—especially if they’re completely wrong. Just a completely wasted life.
Helium Comedy Club
I’m trying to—without getting killed—find a homeless guy that’s got a fascinating backstory. Many of them smell like their own shit and piss, you know? I don’t want that. It’d be very hard to interview a guy while denying my gag reflex at the same time. I’d like to get a guy who’s just recently homeless. Someone with a nice, shiny, new shopping cart. You know, a guy whose madness has just begun.
The homeless near where I live are in much better shape than I am. How can you be in better shape? What kind of diet are you on? You’re eating coffee-studded melon rinds all day. And they’re tan, you know? They’re leathery from the elements. Are you homeless? Or just adventurous?
On what he would talk about if he were still hosting SNL’s Weekend Update:
I liked to do unrelenting jokes on one particular subject, rather going all over the place. So I’d probably talk about Oscar Pistorius. That’s what I’m most interested in right now: watching him weep off-camera [at his trial] about his crazy f**king life, about having no legs and then beating people with legs. And the people with legs are like, "Damn I just got beat by a motherf**ker with no legs. I’m a runner. And I just got beat by a man who’s got no legs."
Of course, he’s gonna beat people with actual legs. His friggin’ legs are like something Wile E. Coyote would order. Like, are you sure this is legal? There’s like rocket fuel coming out of what he calls his “feet.”
Funny that he and OJ were both such great athletes. Maybe there’s something to that. Like they’re athletes, and they’re filled with testosterone and so forth. I’d never have the energy to actually kill someone. I’d get too tired. Just half-kill them or something. I’d have to get in shape and work out. If I was in a relationship that I really hated, I’d have to get in a program and get a trainer. (Laughs)
On sketches he wanted to write for SNL that never made it on:
There were dozens and dozens of sketches they didn’t want from me.
There was this homeless newspaper in New York called Street News. So my idea was the editorial meeting for Street News. Everyone in there is, you know, a paranoid schizophrenic. The editor goes, "Okay, what do we got? I’m looking for a three-part piece on, uh, urinating on an ATM. Anybody? It's a Lifestyle piece. Johnson, what do you got?"
"I’m doing a thing on how the Empire State Building’s made of cotton candy!"
"I like it! Get on that right away!" No one ever liked that one. I pitched that one about 20 times.
I had another one called Dick Blocker, who was a cock blocker. There’d be a charming guy talking to a girl and then Dick Blocker would show up. [He would say:] "Have you heard about that charming murderer that’s been hanging around? Have you heard of the charming rapist?" He would wreck everyone’s chances of getting laid. So yeah, that one didn’t work.
And then, the first year I was there, the phrase the “N-Word” was relatively new. And my first week on SNL, Time magazine said “The N-Word” on the cover. It was a big story, and they made up that phrase. So my idea was to go on Update and join Kevin Nealon and say, "I don’t even know what the ‘N-Word’ means. You know, there’s so many words that start with N. There’s nectarine, there’s n*****…" And then it would be like the second word I said.
You know, I did that in front of the whole table, and it was dead silence. And I had to go apologize to six African Americans. That’s the one that didn’t work out the worst of all of them. Trying to explain satire to 50 people. I remember halfway into it, someone said, “Aww come on!” and I knew I was in trouble.
[Editor's note: MacDonald didn't actually say the N-Word in the interview.]