Laughing Matters — Norm Macdonald on Late Show with David Letterman

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

When Norm Macdonald was booked as a guest during the closing days of David Letterman’s tenure as host of CBS’s Late Show, there was surely no expectation that he’d do anything more than come out and sit for an interview. Macdonald was one of the great panel guests on late night talk shows, whether it was his segment or someone else’s. Macdonald has a different idea. He wanted to do a standup set, partially, or so it seemed, as a way of commemorating that he’d made his network television debut on Letterman’s preceding late night talk show almost exactly twenty-five years earlier.

According to Late Show staff, Macdonald worked fervently on the set, coming into the studio hours early to sort through potential material to assemble the strongest few minutes he could muster. It’s also clear, and was clear at the time, that the material was shaped to suit the sensibility of the fellow over at the desk, the one who days away from stepping down. Any doubt of that is puffed away by Macdonald’s choice for a final joke. Wrestling with uncommon emotion, Macdonald recounted his seeing Letterman perform a standup routine on a Canadian talk show some forty years earlier. Sitting in that earlier studio audience was unmistakably formative for Macdonald, and he closed his last Late Show with David Letterman standup appearance with his favorite joke from that vintage set. The bit is delivered in Macdonald’s comic voice, but with Letterman’s precise phrasing notably intact (“Another of life’s simple pleasures ruined by a meddling bureaucracy, ladies and gentlemen” is as distinct a rendering of Letterman’s foundational style as you can get in a single sentence).

Today has brought an outpouring of stories about Macdonald’s generosity toward other comics and his general decency, a trait that isn’t often found in the wilds of showbiz and that he clearly worked hard at. I see those traits in this brief set. It’s a gift and a tribute to a personal icon, delivered with heartfelt care. When Macdonald summarized his place in the realm of entertainment, he declared, “I’ve been lucky.” In these few minutes, he expresses that feeling of being blessed by circumstance. He got to make his heroes laugh.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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