By Aidan Callahan, Back page editor
“The only thing an old man can tell a young man is that it goes fast, real fast, and if you’re not careful it’s too late. Of course, the young man will never understand this truth.”
This quote comes from the final chapter of Based on a True Story, the memoir of legendary comedian Norm MacDonald. It has become especially poignant as MacDonald lost his 10-year battle with cancer on Sept. 14. MacDonald would tell you not to get broken up about this. He famously said that, when you die from cancer, the cancer dies too: “That’s not a loss. That’s a draw.”
If you’re not familiar with his work, that’s a great example of his sense of humor. He gets dark, and his jokes cross the line like it’s nobody’s business. He was fired from SNL because he made repeated jokes about O.J. Simpson being a murderer. And yet, within a year, he was invited back to host — because he’s just that damn good.
He was so damn good because his jokes aren’t offensive just for the sake of shocking people. They’re genuinely full of wit, and his unique delivery solidified him as a one-of-a-kind performer. He told jokes in a way where he tried to convince you he wasn’t very good at telling jokes.
Take, for example, his legendary moth joke. MacDonald was on Conan, and after his first interview, was surprised to learn he was going to be on for five more minutes. He had no material left; the only joke he could think of was: “A moth goes to a podiatrist and tells him he’s depressed. The podiatrist asks, ‘Then why come to me? Why not a psychologist?’ The moth responds: ‘Because the light was on.’” A good joke, but certainly not five minutes worth.
MacDonald proceeded to spend five minutes building up the horribly depressed life of this moth. Conan was baffled as MacDonald described in intricate detail why this moth is depressed. At this point, the audience probably thought he was crazy. But after completely throwing the audience for a loop and drawing them into this insane narrative, he ended with the stupidest, simplest punchline: “‘Why’d you come in here?’ ‘Because the light was on.’”
Since he needed to eat up time, MacDonald told one of the most legendary jokes ever told on a talk show. It was a huge risk, and it paid off. But MacDonald was used to huge risks: he was, after all, addicted to gambling.
Obviously, addiction is a serious condition. But I love how, in classic MacDonald style, he found a way to put a positive spin on it. In his book he writes, “If you’re at the table and you’re rolling them bones, there’s no money in playing it safe.”
“You have to take all your chips and put them on double six and watch as every eye goes to you and then to those red dice doing their wild dance and freezing time before finding the cruel green felt.”
I think this passage is beautifully written, especially the final image of the “cruel green felt.” It turns the roll of the dice into a metaphor for life. Your roll will ultimately be decided by the uncaring table, but you make the choice to roll the dice.
MacDonald chose to risk it all and became a comedian — an offensive, easily-cancelable comedian at that. Ultimately, it paid off for him: he said that when people met him, they’d dance like they’d won a prize, and he’d “just stand there and smile and feel warmth from their love. So the fame made the world, which is a real cold place, a little less cold.”
MacDonald’s comedy often called out the dark aspects of life. For Pete’s sake, his most famous bit is about how O.J. Simpson got off scot-free with murder. And yet, he demonstrated that it’s possible to find happiness in the cruelty of the world. He provided so much joy to so many people, and it was because he put it all on the line. Life can be cruel, but that’s not going to change if you just accept things the way they are. You need to risk everything or gain nothing.
I highly encourage everyone reading this to spend some time with MacDonald. There are an infinite number of clips of him on YouTube. His roast of Bob Saget is unforgettable. He also appears in the show Mike Tyson Mysteries as an alcoholic pigeon. It’s as hilarious as it sounds.
Thanks for reading this sappy piece. I’m sure he would have hated it.