Ode To An Old Lump Of Coal

by Mike O’Brien

Some readers, having a particular taste in humour, will guess the subject of this piece from the title. “Just an old lump of coal” was a favoured expression of self-reference for the recently deceased comedian Norm Macdonald, who died on September 14th. It was typical of the archaic and self-deprecatory style that marked his career, a poetic and perfomatively (though not necessarily substantively) confessional body of work that seemed sparse in volume but rich in depth. I say that his confession was not necessarily substantive because I didn’t know him, and am not privy to the facts of his life and the contents of his heart. He may have been affecting an unaffected style for dramatic effect. Or he may have been baring his soul earnestly, while allowing his audience to laud him, mistakenly, for so artfully feigning candour. I don’t know which is the case. Nor, it seems, do many who did know him, if not intimately than at least closely and with ample time for exposure. A formidable trick, that, to keep secrets in a business where self-exposure is considered the primary means of production.

Much has been made of the fact that he had cancer for the last nine years, a fact he kept private for fear of polluting his audience’s reactions with sympathy, or worse, pity. Or maybe he just didn’t want to be bothered by well-wishers and news hounds. Or, more maybe still, he just didn’t think anyone needed or was owed any information about his life beyond what he chose to share or fabricate.

He is survived by an ex-wife and a son, about whom I know everything I ought or need to know, which is to say nothing at all. What little is known, or rather circulated, about Macdonald’s life is gleaned from stories told by his contemporaries, often with a certain mystical reverence suited to campfire legends. There is a veritable cottage industry of re-telling Norm stories on talk-radio shows, podcasts and copyright-agnostic YouTube clips, a hall of mirrors (prisms, more aptly) in which the persona which he created, wittingly or not, was refracted through the comedic sensibilities of his fellow, and even not-so-fellow peers. Many would be quick to reject the term “peer” as unjust, since Norm was revered for being unique both in his category of comedy and in the virtuosity with which he plied his trade. His peers lay in generations past, as is evident from the dustiness of many of his jokes (Vaudeville classics and hobo tall tales) and in the praise he eagerly heaped on such greats as Johnny Carson and Dave Letterman, piously genuflecting at the altar of comedic posterity.

I recall Norm’s performance on Letterman’s last show, where he declared that that host “does not go in for the mawkish, and has no truck with the sentimental”. There is little wonder why someone who prized such qualities so highly would want to give as little occasion as possible for premature eulogizing and celebrity shirt-rending. I myself am even a little embarrassed to be writing about him, knowing that it is quite possible the opposite of what he would have wanted. Of course, he never told me what he wanted, and I doubt he would care what goes on in the high-falutin’ world of literary web magazines such as this one. I excuse myself by saying that I don’t write this as a journalist, or as an entertainment industry hanger-on who feels obliged to comment on his death as a public event. Rather, I write about him because I am a fan and even a complicated admirer of his work, feeling not so much a “we could totally hang out” false connection with him as an “I like the cut of your jib” professional appreciation. Even if I had the opportunity to hang out with him, I fear that I would bore him. Not that I’m all that boring (perhaps in print, but I’m a subtle riot at parties), but how does one compete with great literature and compulsive gambling, two of his favourite pass-times?

Often we watch our heroes across an unfathomable divide, unable even to imagine how one might imitate their feats. I feel this way about many of my musical and artistic idols. However, I feel, no doubt presumptively and self-flatteringly, somewhat familiar with Macdonald’s craft, the way a fairly good minor-league player feels entitled to have opinions about a Gretzky or a Jordan. I read his book, “Based On A True Story”, a fictionalized memoir of sorts. It was very good, less so at the end but very much so throughout. I watched and re-watched his film appearances over the years, his Saturday Night Live appearances, his own too-short-lived talk show and various guest spots on others’ shows throughout the years. More recently, I enjoyed “Mike Tyson Mysteries”, a cartoon in which he voiced a sex-addict-turned-talking-pigeon, freeing him to incarnate pure, unabashed id even more so than usual. What a time to be a media consumer. Many fellow comedians, in the days following his passing, mentioned how the news had sent them into hours-long YouTube binges of his work. Being a long-time Norm fan, I had already been on such an excursion a few days before the news, and a few days before that, and so on and on stretching back years.

What the reflections of his friends afforded, beyond such samplings of his output, was a more crystallized and summarized account of what made him special and, to use a term he disdained, a “comic’s comic”. I am vain enough to draw some comparisons to my own style, and think that my admiration of his work was in part due to its enacting of certain virtues which I try to practice myself. The best (for my own tastes) reminiscence about Norm’s career that I’ve heard to date was between Conan O’Brien (no relation), Andy Richter, and their long-time TV producer Frank Smiley, on a recent episode of the “Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend” podcast. These three figure prominently in my own humour pantheon, alongside Monty Python and SNL as the architects of my comedic sensibility. I only recently was able to put this sensibility to work, writing two plays in 2018 and 2019, and performing in the latter. This is barely anything at all, compared to the experience of a working comic with decades of material and performance to their credit (or discredit, as the case may be). But it’s a quantum leap beyond what I had before, as a mere opinionated consumer of other people’s work, and it added a slight yet solid layer of “I did” to the vaporous vastness of “I would”s or “I could”s employed to measure oneself against cultural icons.

Chief among the defining qualities cited by those eulogizing Norm was an utter indifference to whether an audience appreciated a joke. Or as the kids call it, “DGAF energy” (honestly, though, I don’t know what the kids call anything these days). Many people adopt such a posture, precisely because they are not indifferent to how such an attitude will be received. One can speculate about how Macdonald’s health informed such an attitude, although he would probably hate such a reductive take, and it is probably wrong. I am not harbouring any secret deadly prognoses, and my former collaborators and creative advisors can attest that I too did not care if any actual or theoretically possible audience members got my jokes. It’s not a conceit that my tastes are better than other people’s tastes, but a recognition of the fact, plain as the nose on my face, that the internal logic of a joke demands that it find a certain final form, and that form is intelligible to me and nobody else because the proto-joke only exists in my brain. If my work went awry, and the badly-wrought joke pleased the audience immensely, they would be wrong, and the joke would still be a failure on its own terms. When the creative wheels really get spinning, it feels as if I’m merely a stenographer to the Muses, who know their business better than I.

A second quality, no doubt interacting with the first, was an archaic and idiosyncratic sense of language. No dummy he, Norm doubtless played this up to distinguish himself, but it was clear that this was as natural as much as it was deliberate when he would employ the same style in off-the-cuff remarks and improvised jokes. Self-educated in classics of literature and of comedy, he read the best that the English language had to offer, and absorbed it as one who reads for pleasure does. A disdain for contemporary fads and popular tastes certainly makes it easier to choose the best of posterity over the common tongue, and an indifference to being appreciated frees expression from the demands of reception. My own taste for archaic language comes primarily from philosophy, much of which was translated into English centuries ago and employs words in very peculiar but clearly defined ways, understandable to those who care to learn them and baffling to those who do not. Norm probably felt, before his strict humility censured him, that he was partaking in the great conversation of history when he crafted words in such a timeless way (“The Great Conversation” being a nickname for the philosophical tradition, a point that might be fruitfully taken by career monologists and academic insulas in the field. Norm also disdained cleverness employed to no useful end, save to demonstrate someone’s gift for cleverness. This, too, has strong parallels in philosophy, as I have read many papers and suffered many presentations in which it is clear from the outset that nothing will be learned, save for the fact that the author believes that they have done something very clever).

I can’t praise Macdonald without also touching on less laudable aspects of his work, however. He was, from the start and more conspicuously in recent years, a “problematic” figure. “Problematic” is a weasel-word employed by people who have passed judgment on someone or something, but wish to maintain an air of impartiality. So, let me clarify by saying that by “problematic” I mean misogynistic, homophobic and trans-phobic. Much to Andy Richter’s credit, this was a point that he did not shy away from in the fore-mentioned podcast, not because he was the butt of one of Macdonald’s running gay jokes, but because he is a vocal critic of both discrimination and of lazy comedy. The stubborn insistence on making jokes about homosexuality, feminine stereotypes, non-conforming sexual and gender identities, as well as kicking down on already unfortunate public figures, long after it became more widely acknowledged that such comedic bullying did real harm, ought not to be excused. Perhaps it is of a piece with his affection for old tropes. Perhaps it is a mere tribal signifier for those who, like Macdonald and a certain group of retrograde comedians, felt that well-meaning “progressives” were an over-reaching mob threatening free speech and good times. Perhaps it is merely a vice that an imperfect person was unable or unwilling to shake. I certainly share his contempt for historically illiterate atheist blowhards (Bill Maher being the worst, Ricky Gervais and David Cross being less execrable but still unbearable when left to speak their minds instead of someone else’s good writing). But he seems to have allowed himself to indulge in the same broad-brush demonization when speaking of Democrats (corrupt, war-mongering bastards, yes, but have you seen the other guys?) or, well, any woman who made the mistake of entering the public sphere. The gay jokes were less of a motivated attack and more of a pot-shot that was presumed to go unanswered.

As recently as a week ago, I wondered if I would have to step off the Norm Macdonald train, fearing that, as the years stretched on, he would fall into the pit of reactionary crankiness that claims so many “fearless” comedians, his increasingly unaccepted conduct consigning him to a circle of friends defined more by a shared passion for offence than by any kind of uniqueness. I’ll never know. I wrote off Joe Rogan last year, though perhaps I should have done that sooner; nobody who thinks that the world needs to hear more from Jordan Peterson is worthy of my time. I have the luxury of imagining a would-be future in which Norm tired of antagonizing those who dared to care about the targets of his lazier work, and turned towards more timeless and demanding work. Another book, perhaps. More Russian novels relayed over Twitter. A sermon on Tolstoy’s conception of Christian morality, which I would unironically love to hear and would expect Norm to knock clear out of the park.

There is one admirable quality, cited by Norm’s friends and fellow joke-smiths, that I don’t share. That would be a robust work ethic. His commitment to doing good comedy meant that, in order to do a lot of it, he would have to do a lot of hard work. Perhaps that explains some of his reluctance at taking on work; saying yes means committing to a task that must be done well and originally, out of vocational duty if not for professional pride. I am quite disposed to turning down projects (it’s a miracle of behavioural deviation that I am writing for this site), because I know that I will commit myself to a standard of output that my work habits struggle to fulfill. One of the greatest honours I ever received, unintentionally, was when a patron complimented me on how comfortable and effortless my ad-lib’d, improvised one-man-show appeared. It was, in fact, a tightly-scripted 45-minute monologue, written months in advance. Well, month in advance, anyhow (my then-director is a saint). I even printed out the text and taped it to the wall beside me, which many audience members took to be a rather droll gag. I was happy not to disabuse them of that notion, as it is funnier than the truth, which is that I am better at writing than I am at rehearsing. That incident taught me a lesson that Norm knew long before I; spontaneity, like sincerity, is not all that hard to fake. Especially to an audience eager to find it. I thought both versions of my show were funny, though; the one the audience saw, and the one they thought they did. The universe wrote that joke for me, all by itself. But you should’ve heard me tell it.

I didn’t have a good ending for that piece, either.