Norm Macdonald’s dry, direct sense of humor and apparent indifference to audience whims have brought him success as Saturday Night Live’s greatest-ever “Weekend Update” anchor*; a stand-up comedian who inspires rabid devotion from other comics and comedy nerds; and, recently, best-selling author of Based on a True Story (a novel about a fictionalized version of Macdonald and not a memoir, no matter what your bookstore tells you).
“I am really sort of an isolated person,” the Canada native told us over the phone from Los Angeles, “but New York was perfect for me. Because, first of all, I can’t drive. And I could find anything. Any food I wanted. The museums were amazing, all these fantastic free places. There’s no other American city, if you want to talk about arts or anything interesting.”
Needless to say, Macdonald—who has an excellent new Netflix special, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery, out now—is excited that he’ll soon be staying in NYC for two months and performing at Carolines on Broadway June 1–4. In advance of his run, Macdonald kindly took a few minutes to speak with us about the City. He also let us know that he hates the New York Rangers, who knocked the Montreal Canadiens out of the NHL playoffs this season. We’re sure he celebrated when the Ottawa Senators successfully defended his nation’s honor and ousted the Blueshirts in the next round. On behalf of the City of New York: congrats, Norm! No hard feelings.
*This is the author’s opinion—nycgo.com does not have an official position on the best “Weekend Update” anchor of all time, but please feel free to argue with us on Twitter and Facebook.
First off, do you have a funny New York City story you’d like to tell?
Well, I don’t know if this is funny. But when I first got to New York, I was so afraid, because I was from this little town in Canada. And all you know about New York is from popular culture, so I was so afraid—oh, it’s so dangerous.
I was at Grand Central Terminal when I got off the train. And they had these signs that said “DO NOT GO INTO ANY GYPSY CABS.” I didn’t know what that means. I still don’t really know what it means.
So I was like, I can’t get into a gypsy cab. I have my suitcase and I’m walking down the street, and cabbies keep stopping, because they see me with two big steamer trunks, asking, “Hey, you want a ride?” And I’m like, “No, no.” So I took forever.
It was for Letterman. They put me at the Omni, right across from Central Park, and I was like, Oh, they put me in this horrible place. I thought everyone got mugged in Central Park. So I swear to God, I was afraid even to go down to the end of the hall to get a Coke. That’s how afraid I was of New York City.
What do you miss the most about the City?
I miss being able to walk, because I don’t drive a car. Here in Los Angeles, if you walk—there’s a building, then you walk a mile, then there’s another building, and there’s no one on the street. It’s just you and an occasional homeless guy. My favorite thing in New York was just to walk and to have the energy of all the people pushing me—I could walk hundreds of blocks, because everybody’s walking. And something interesting happens every block. The City’s in constant flux.
Construction guys. I always think about that when I think of New York. I think of construction guys surrounded by steam shooting out of something. I don’t really know what it is, but that’s what I always picture when I picture New York.
And I had to sleep at different times, so I liked the pulse and the energy of the City that goes 24 hours. In L.A., oddly enough, all the restaurants close at 10 even though the entertainment industry has weird hours. But for some reason it runs by Palm Springs time.
I swear to God, I was afraid even to go down to the end of the hall to get a Coke.
You’ve said that you’re not into “applause jokes”—you like the danger of being able to fail. Do you find that, when you’re trying risky material, audiences in New York are different from audiences anywhere else?
Yeah. Well, they’re smarter in New York, and more worldly and so forth. They’re more stand-up-savvy because they’ve seen the best stand-ups in the world. So they know what good stand-up is and what bad stand-up is. You can’t trick them. The applause thing—I think if they applaud you’ve kind of failed because you’re just telling them something they’ve already thought of. I think you should challenge the audience. I think they should be either against you or quizzical.
Do you remember a particular risky show in New York?
The worst thing I ever did was [laughs] when I was on “Weekend Update.” Jay Leno told me that he would take his monologue jokes down to The Comedy & Magic Club, which is a club here in L.A. He’d just read them off cards in a quiet way, not trying to sell them too much, just to see if people laughed. I’m like, Oh, I’ll do that with the Update jokes.
So I go to Carolines and say, “Yeah, I’m just going to read these jokes off of cards and you guys [tell me what you think].” So I read the first joke, and this guy says, “It [expletive] sucks. It’s [expletive].” And I’m like, Okay…. The next joke—“[expletive] that joke.” Okay, this isn’t going to work. I’m giving them way too much control. So I realized—I don’t know how Jay did it—but when I tell them it’s okay to yell at me, it’s not the greatest idea. [Laughs]
You were a big Letterman fan growing up. Did watching his show influence your idea of New York City?
Yes, it did. It seemed like the hippest place in the world. I didn’t really recognize that till you just told me. But I remember very clearly when I watched it, them cutting first of all to the cool pictures of Letterman just somewhere in New York. And then when he’d go down to Hurley’s or places that were around 30 Rockefeller Center, and it was really cool. I could go, Wow, that’s a cool-looking place, because there are so many people and they’re all different. I guess that’s what I like about New York the most. Everyone here in Los Angeles is all the same—I guess because it’s a one-industry town. But in New York, everyone’s different, and they dress way better. Everyone has a certain style. Not just rich people, but everyone. They’re just so individual.
I think the audience should be either against you or quizzical.
You talk about your dog in some of your stand-up. Did you have a dog when you were in New York City?
Yeah, I owned a dachshund.
What did you like to do with your dog in the City?
I spent most of my time in Central Park whenever I was outdoors and didn’t want to be just walking the streets. I was always amazed at how few people go to Central Park. You’d think it would be shoulder to shoulder. But you could be sitting in a big patch of grass, a quarter of an acre, all by yourself, with your dog, throwing him a ball in the middle of the City. I don’t really know the history of Central Park, but it was a brilliant idea, whoever did it. That real estate—I don’t know how expensive that must be in the City. I’m sure they could sell that for a billion dollars.
In the winter I would go skate. That’s another thing I love about New York, because I’m from Canada. I was lucky enough to work at 30 Rock, where there was a skating rink.
What’s the funniest thing in New York?
I think the funniest thing in New York is the guys in Central Park who draw sketches of you. I brought my son when he was a little kid, real cute, and there were like 14 guys who did sketches—so I got 14 different ones. They can’t do eyes. The kid always looks like the devil because his eyes are without soul or anything, you know? And whenever they do a picture of you, they go, “What do you like to do, my friend?”
You go, “I don’t know.…”
“Do you like to golf?”
“I guess a little….”
Suddenly you have a golf club in your hand in the sketch. [Laughs]
You got 14 caricatures of your son?!
I did, yeah.