Norm Macdonald: A Raw and Uncensored Interview
The comedy legend sounds off on Bill Maher ("completely unfunny"), admits faking drunk to win over audiences (and "grope" women) and compares Donald Trump to Hitler in this no-holds-barred conversation.
Is Norm Macdonald the best thing to happen recently to reality TV? The addition of the former "Weekend Update" anchor to Last Comic Standing's judging roster — joining a returning Roseanne Barr and Keenen Ivory Wayans — has lent the NBC competition some badly needed edge and comedy-world clout in its ninth outing: You're never quite sure what Macdonald is going to say about a performance, but you can be sure he won't censor himself before saying it. Elsewhere lately, Macdonald has been popping up as Colonel Sanders in a slightly surreal Kentucky Fried Chicken ad campaign — a head-scratcher to many, as another Saturday Night Live alum, Darrell Hammond, had assumed the same role in KFC ads only last May. As Last Comic Standing enters the home stretch (the penultimate episode airs Wednesday at 10 p.m.), The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Macdonald for a conversation as hilarious, guileless and off-the-wall as the man himself.
Why the leap to reality TV?
I really love stand-up, and I see a lot of guys on the road and think, "Why isn’t that guy more famous?" Sometimes they are afraid to move to Los Angeles, so they’re content to be the best guy in South Dakota and make a living there. That’s what I think this show does. [Executive producers] Page [Hurwitz] and Wanda [Sykes] went all over the country to look at a cross-section of comics and — this is way too long an answer. But that’s why. I love stand-ups, and I feel it’s the one thing I know about that I could actually judge, besides people’s morals.
Are you enjoying it?
I like fewer people than the other judges for some reason. I don’t know why. Sometimes it’s easy to [critique] someone. Like, if you see that they steal. We had a little thing where someone was accused of stealing. And I said, "Oh, we should find out. It’s easy enough to prove. And then we could call the person a thief when they’re up there, in front of the crowd." Which I think they deserve. But [the producers] didn’t want to do that. They were like, "Oh, we told the person that that [material] shouldn’t be done next time." And I was like, "No, there shouldn’t be a next time. That’s a bad person. That person should be exposed." She was voted off immediately. Because that’s a big thing in comedy, stealing material.
It's been in the headlines recently because of the Fat Jew controversy.
That guy is just so irritating. You don’t want to talk about it because it just gives him more fame, which is more corrupting, you know? But it’s just infuriating when they steal.
You do tend to throw a little cold water on the proceedings. Were you coached at all by producers as to how to assess the contestants?
No, I’m just giving my opinion. We all are. I mean, Roseanne said she wanted to be meaner at one point, but she just likes a lot more people than I do. I try to just point out how the joke could be better or if the material is problematic or false in its premise or structure.
Right, like the comedian who made a joke comparing someone quoting Bible verses on a subway to him quoting Harry Potter passages. That joke really irritated you. Why?
Oh, just the smugness. There are a lot more hack “smart” comedians nowadays and atheist comedians. It’s so dull. To be talking about being an atheist living in West Hollywood is not the bravest stance to take. If a guy went up and said, “Jesus Christ is our lord and savior,” I’d say, “Damn, that guy’s brave!” Or, “The infidels must die under the sword of Allah!” I’d go, “Goddamn, that’s a brave comic.” So that got under my skin. Also the idiocy of comparing the New Testament to Harry Potter. I knew because I read all the books with my kid that J.K. Rowling said she’s a Christian and based the books on the New Testament. I thought, now you’ve really stepped into an area that you don’t know what you’re talking about at all.
You also referenced an aversion to political humor. That surprised me, as most people associate you with "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live.
I didn’t really think we did political humor on "Update." Because most political humor is biased toward what the comedian thinks, so then it just becomes dull. Personally I’d rather just read politics. Like when people go, “Kids get their news from Jon Stewart,” then I go, “Well, then they’re in big trouble if that’s where they get their f—ing news.” Because the whole show is just making fun of Fox News. I don’t know where the news part is. It's a hilarious show because I don't think it's political.
What about Bill Maher? He’s both political and an outspoken atheist.
Yeah, yeah. I find him completely unfunny. Like, maybe the unfunniest person I’ve ever encountered that’s called a comedian. I like his show because of the arguing back and forth, and he knows a lot about politics. But the worst is when he forces you to sit on the panel while he does his New Rules, which are just a bunch of jokes. And you have to sit there, a foot from the dude with a camera in your face. You’d think he would just excuse them, but no, you have to sit there and watch.
And you’re expected to laugh.
Yeah, of course. You have to laugh like a banshee. I like watching actual political guys who know their stuff. One time Bill Maher was on Meet the Press, and it was hilarious. George Will like tore into him, because once you get in with the big boys who actually do it for a living, it doesn’t matter what you know. George Will had huge contempt for him and was slapping him around, and suddenly Bill Maher wasn’t confident at all anymore. It was really funny to watch. [Maher and Will actually sparred on ABC's 'This Week.']
So I take it you wouldn’t do Real Time? Or would you if Maher asked you?
(Laughs.) No, I would not. If I did I would just do jokes. I remember Garry Shandling once went on the show and did a great joke and Bill Maher stepped all over it. Maher was talking about the war in Iraq, and Garry goes, “I’m against the war, but at least I wish we had cheaper f—ing gas. Didn’t we steal their oil?” And it starts getting a big laugh and Bill goes, “Yeah, we go in wanting to get WMDs and we get STP.” And the whole audience stops laughing and Shandling goes, “Thanks for the help.” So those are the two levels of comedy.
Let's talk about those Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. We were already freaked out about Darrell Hammond playing the Colonel, then all of a sudden, you’re the Colonel. What’s the backstory there?
It’s so crazy, because I love Kentucky Fried Chicken. Because for a while I had this podcast, and I would constantly be eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on it and dipping it in gravy, you know? And so for a second I thought it was that reason. Because I liked Darrell Hammond in those commercials a lot. I think he was actually better than me. He had a whole crazy song, and it seemed like a funny ad to me. So they asked me, “Do you want to be the Colonel?” And I said, “What about Darrell?” And they said, “I don’t know …” They want a different Colonel every six months or something like that.
Well, yeah. I don’t think that was their original idea. But I did it. It was kind of a collaboration because they wanted me to do it all as me and not as an impression. And I thought that just seems like one joke, and doing it over every commercial would be odd. So I suggested occasionally dropping character at certain points and we settled on that. I think that people are upset that someone would even do the Colonel, like it’s blasphemy or something.
You always seem pretty relaxed. Do you get stage fright?
I get stage fright, but once I get out there I’m all right. I get crazy useless stage fright, actually. I’m just scared all day but I don’t do anything to help it. I just pace and do useless things. It’s better than the other way around. I recently had this comedy club emcee show up at the very last minute all calm and collected — and he sucked. If I had his act, I’d be nervous as hell!
Have you ever bombed on stage?
I used to bomb all the time. Once you’re famous you never bomb. They just forget you’ve been sucking for 20 minutes. They just accept it. When I started, I used to bomb about 90 percent of the time.
How did you recover?
Sometimes the only thing that can save you is if you drink. Because they’re all yahoos in some of these joints you play. So you tell a joke and they don’t laugh and you go, “I’m going to have a drink!” And they go, “Yeeahhh!” You take a gulp of alcohol and they all cheer. So for a while, since I have no tolerance for alcohol, I was having the waitress bring me fake shooters that had nothing in them. I’d down like 20 shooters and by the end of the night I was the biggest hero ever because I wasn’t down on my hands and knees barfing like a normal human would be doing.
That's pretty clever.
And I’d do it to get girls! I’d be in a bar and for some reason when you’re drunk, girls will put up with it if you try to grope them or whatever. (In a high-pitched voice:) “What are you doing? Haha!” If you’re sober, they’re like, “Hey! Just what do you think you‘re doing?” So I’d just garble my words. I have used being a drunk to my advantage many times.
But you’ve never actually drank.
I’ve never drank, no. Maybe I could join AA as a pretend alcoholic. But people think I’m drunk all the time because for some reason my voice is all slurry, and when I’m talking onstage I’m thinking a lot. It’s not the cadence of a comedian that they’re used to — a fast-talking salesman kind of guy. When they ask what I’m drinking and I tell them I’m not, they either don’t believe me or they’re very disappointed. Saying you don’t drink is like saying, “I’m not fun everyone! I’m not a fun guy at all!” But I don’t drink or do any drugs. I guess I’m just naturally lazy and incoherent.
You may be disinterested in political humor, but I have to ask for your thoughts on Donald Trump.
I’m interested in politics insofar as if Donald Trump were to become president. Then I’d become political. But Jesus, this guy I would never want as president. This is like Huey Long territory. You could really see him being a fascist — the inability to apologize and the way everybody is a "loser" or a "winner." Like when he says the thing about Rosie O’Donnell, I mean, I don’t know if I want a president who hates one person like that. Rosie O’Donnell must be petrified! It’s one thing if it’s a rich guy calling you all those names, but it's the leader of the free world and he hates your guts? Just for his anti-Rosie stance is enough for me to be afraid.
What accounts for his popularity, do you think?
I don't know. To me, it's weird — scapegoating Mexicans as a sport. That really resonated, you know? You’d figure if a guy said Mexicans are rapists that would pretty well knock him out instead of vaulting him up. Like, am I supposed to think if he went up 8 percent, then nobody is against the “Mexicans are rapists” stance and 8 percent are for it? It’s so bizarre. But he can win every debate by not being afraid to be apolitical and just being brutal. The other person can’t do that — they can’t strike back in the same way. He’s already said Hillary has broken the law and should go to jail. So that’s what he’ll say. So far everything has worked, and that will work, too. He says truthful things, and that’s what people like about him — but he just seems so terrible as a person.
You keep hearing about what a gift he is to comedy.
They say humor is the ray of light that illuminates the evil or whatever, but I was reading that in Germany and Adolf Hitler times, everybody was making fun of Hitler. Every cartoon was against Hitler, there were comedy troupes doing sketches about Hitler being an idiot with a stupid mustache and what a stupid little idiot he was. So anyway, there goes that theory about the power of comedy. It doesn't work at all. That's seriously how I feel about Trump. It sounds very cruel to say about a person, but when the country is responding positively to rough comments — and those are just the ones he'll say, kind of anti, everything is anti, against, stuff like that — well, all I know is that I’m going to make sure my kid has his Canadian citizenship.