Weekend Watch: Norm Macdonald’s anti-roast

News & Politics

A few anticipatory titters greeted Norm Macdonald as he stepped up to the podium to “roast” his dear friend Bob Saget. What filth and transgression was the famously irascible comic about to unload on his victim?

As is the custom, Macdonald began by targeting the roast-master, John Stamos. “John has a reputation for being a swinger,” he began. Oh boy. Here we go. Then came the punchline.

“Do you know that instead of an umbilical cord he was born with a bungee cord?”

Confused silence. Reading from what turned out to be a 1940’s joke book, Macdonald aimed a few more ancient zingers at Stamos before moving on to Saget. He continued in this vein for 20 largely laugh-free minutes (the network cut it down to seven), before telling Saget he loved him while choking back tears.

When Macdonald died unexpectedly in 2021, many cited this
2008 performance as a piece of brilliant anti-comedy. And it’s true that Macdonald’s bravura “failure” remains one of the most memorable examples of the form. But his ultimate motivation was personal, not professional. Reminiscing about it four months before his own untimely death, Saget recalled Macdonald warning him, “Uh, Saget, I can’t say mean things about you; you’re my friend.”

Macdonald knew then what is even more apparent almost 15 years later: Gratuitous public nastiness is no longer shocking, and therefore no longer funny. Much of our humor today pretends to strain against a propriety that no longer exists.

Snobs vs. slobs? We’re all slobs now. How then to surprise? (Surprise being, after all, the essence of humor). The best way is to follow the lead of a consummate pro like Macdonald: Just tell the truth.

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