Macdonald privately battled cancer for almost a decade.
Norm Macdonald—comedian, actor, writer, and Saturday Night Live star—has died at 61 after a private nine-year battle with cancer. Comedy Central had put him on its 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. The comedian was determined to keep his cancer battle private from family, friends and fans, his longtime friend Lori Jo Hoekstra told Deadline. “He was most proud of his comedy,” Hoekstra said. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him. Norm was a pure comic. He once wrote that ‘a joke should catch someone by surprise, it should never pander.’ He certainly never pandered. Norm will be missed terribly.”
Known for his deadpan style of comedy, Macdonald was born in Quebec City and began his entertainment career doing stand-up in Canada, before he came on board as a writer on The Dennis Miller Show and Roseanne in the early 1990s. While at Roseanne for the 1992-93 season, he was noticed first by SNL producer Lorne Michaels. Macdonald joined the cast of the sketch comedy show in 1993 and stayed on till 1998. He spent three years during this time anchoring the Weekend Update segment. Macdonald was known for his dry humor and his impersonations of Burt Reynolds, Bob Dole, Larry King, David Letterman and Quentin Tarantino, among others. In the 1990s, Macdonald appeared in films like the Adam Sandler comedy, Billy Madison. He also had roles in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Dolittle as the voice of Lucky the dog, reports Variety.
Today is a sad day. All of us here at SNL mourn the loss of Norm Macdonald, one of the most impactful comedic voices of his or any other generation. pic.twitter.com/KQYuuz5eM9— Saturday Night Live - SNL (@nbcsnl) September 14, 2021
Macdonald's departure from the NBC show in 1998 was somewhat controversial at the time—Don Ohlmeyer, then the president of the network's West Coast division, replaced Macdonald with Colin Quin. While Ohlmeyer attributed the decision to a decline in ratings, Macdonald believed it was due to his comments about O.J. Simpson, who was a friend of Ohlmeyer, during the former NFL player's murder trial.
The thing about Norm, is sometimes his comedy was quite obtuse. But he never explained a joke. He delighted in the fact that sometimes only one or two people knew why it was funny. #NormMacdonald— Jennifer Tilly (@JenniferTilly) September 14, 2021
“According to retailers, the most popular Halloween mask this year is OJ Simpson,” Macdonald joked during one broadcast, according to The Rolling Stone. “And the most popular Halloween greeting is, ‘I’ll kill you and that guy that is bringing over your glasses, or treat.' Well, it is finally official,” he said in the first Weekend Update after Simpson’s acquittal. “Murder is legal in the state of California … At the moment the verdict was delivered, Court TV scored its highest ratings ever. An hour later, the channel went out of business … Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Mayor Marion Berry praised the verdict as ‘wise’ and 'just.’ And he called upon people of all races to please get him some crack.” Also fired was James Downey, who wrote many of the jokes about Simpson. He told Vulture in 2014 that they were both kicked out due to Ohlmeyer's friendship with Simpson.
One of the few comedians who with guts to jeer at murderer OJ Simpson. Lost jobs as a result. RIP Norm Macdonald pic.twitter.com/xWkY09YUv1— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) September 15, 2021
Despite the controversies, Macdonald reflected on his career in his memoir titled Based on a True Story, sharing that he would describe his life as "lucky", according to PEOPLE he wrote, "I think a lot of people feel sorry for you if you were on SNL and emerged from the show anything less than a superstar. They assume you must be bitter. But it is impossible for me to be bitter." Macdonald continued, "I've been lucky. If I had to sum up my whole life, I guess those are the words I would choose, all right."