Norm Macdonald

by Glenn on October 1, 2021

There’s something about the passing of Norm Macdonald at the age of 61 from a ten-year battle with cancer that has me thinking about a number of things.

First, there’s the way he lived with the cancer. To my knowledge, he never disclosed his illness in public. He did a bit in a stand-up act that took on the idea of “battling” cancer. He said, “I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you die, the cancer dies at the same time. That’s not a loss. That’s a draw.” Somewhere else—Is it in his memoir?—he mentioned severe abdominal pain as part of a bit, but he never let on that he knew anything about that personally. It was with a remarkable dignity that he lived life with this awful disease of cancer.

I suspect the way Macdonald lived with cancer had something to do with his Christian faith. You don’t normally hear about the Christian faith of a comedian, but he was one who had one. It doesn’t mean I can listen to every joke he told. He often said things I wouldn’t say. But he seemed to have his identity settled in Christ.

In an interview he once said this:
“Some people believe that man is divine, like kind of a hippie idea. I can’t believe that because I know my own heart, and I know that’s not true. Other people believe that we’re wretched like the cynics or the atheists would believe we’re all just wretched nothingness, just animals, just creatures. I can’t believe that. It doesn’t make any sense, that we’re just beasts. I will say that Christianity has this interesting compromise where we’re both divine and wretched, and there’s this Middle Man that’s the Savior, that through Him we can become divine, but we’re born wretched. I kind of like that one, because it sort of makes sense.”

In an interview with Larry King, Macdonald declared, “I’m a Christian. It’s not stylish to say that now.”

King replied, “Are you devout? … You believe in the Lord?”

“Yes, I do,” Macdonald said.

I don’t think King was aware that Macdonald was dying from cancer at the time of the interview. He asked, “You think that you’re going somewhere when (life) ends?”

“Well, I don’t believe it. What people don’t understand about faith is that you have to choose. You know what I mean? They think that you believe it – but you have to choose.”

On Reformation Day (November 1) years ago he sent out this message on Twitter: “Scripture. Faith. Grace. Christ, Glory of God. Smart men say nothing is a miracle. I say everything is.”

Macdonald was listing the “Five Sola’s.” Sola is Latin for “alone,” so it’s “Scripture Alone. Faith Alone. Grace Alone. Christ Alone. And To God Alone Be The Glory.” That’s a pretty good foundation to build your life.

In 2018 he told his Twitter audience this: “At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. How could a man be a cynic? It is a sin.”

There’s a rather famous (infamous?) interchange Macdonald had with a comedian when he was a judge on Last Comic Standing, where he makes a defense of Christianity. It’s worth watching. One of the other judges said they thought a joke was brave. Here you can hear the joke and Macdonald’s reaction to both it and the reaction of the other judge:

You can hear the audience (and a fellow judge) not know quite how to respond. On a show about laughter, Macdonald is deadly serious about things that mattered to him.

This week, I’ve gotten a lot of joy of out Macdonald’s moth joke. It’s probably the reason that he is in my thoughts today.

I just heard the backstory to this joke. Macdonald did a segment on Conan’s show. Just before the commercial break Conan said, “We’ll be right back with Norm Macdonald.” The problem was that He didn’t have any material for a second segment. He was totally unprepared. So what we hear is Macdonald just making up things as he goes. He takes a 20″ joke and stretches it out for several minutes.

A writer, Jon Gabriel, said this: “The smartest comedians portray themselves as the dumbest; Norm Macdonald was the best at this sleight of hand. He graduated high school at 14, read Russian literature in his downtime and had long philosophical discussions with clergy. … Macdonald was a student of human nature first, comedy second.”

Norm Macdonald was a disarming comic. He kept his intelligence and his reading a secret. And he offers a challenge to me.

Eric Sorensen reflected on a interview he had heard Macdonald give. In the interview, Macdonald says, “I have a Rabbi who I talk to a lot… he’s a real scholar. My pastor doesn’t know anything-I mean anything…. he’s just a pleasant guy. If you ask him a direct question, he’ll go: ‘What? Didn’t you hear my sermon?’ But his sermon’s always like ‘How to be a nice fella’ or some nonsense.”

And there’s the challenge: How do you be more than pleasant? How can you be a scholar that knows something? But, then, how do you own that knowledge in a way that isn’t off-putting. How can you relate Christianity to others the way Macdonald tells a joke?