Also Florence Welch, the best of humanity, and Glee
STICK TO JOKES
Norm Macdonald, a comedy iconoclast if ever there was one, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 61, which is far too young, but it also took cancer eight years to finally drag him down. At best a draw, as he once put it.
It will likely surprise you not one bit to learn that Norm was — still is — the closest thing I have to a patron saint, and there’s a whole lot of acerbic 35-45 year-old men out there in the world who’ll tell you the same thing. He had an amazing gift, his wit; he was put on earth to be a comedian, and to this day I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who could claim his level of genius, unpredictability and impish charm. I’ve liked a lot of comedians over the years, but I always wanted to be Norm.
Sure, he got fired from SNL. Sure, he got banned from performing at the University of Iowa. Yeah, his hangups about queer people (gay men in particular) aged really badly. He’s nowhere close to the most successful comedian by any metric. He wasn’t even that reliable, as laughs from the crowd go; that never bothered him. But he had a brand of comedy, one that’ll never be replicated or replaced, indistinguishable from his own personality. He’s Norm.
There’s already been a bombardment of Norm clips shared across the social medias in the wake of the sad announcement. Please permit me a few more.
This clip has taken a sad surge in relevance, especially as the news of Macdonald’s passing included a characterization as a “nine-year, private battle” with the cancer that claimed his life. Doubtlessly Norm would have taken issue with that characterization — when this clip was recorded in 2011. What changed once it was his fight and not something he could hover safely above, even under the fog of hilarious self-deprecation?
The question, of course, will sit unanswered in our minds, which is probably exactly the way he would have wanted it.
Norm was the only comedian for whom no joke was out of bounds. “No joke out of bounds” is, of course, one of the tiredest cliches in comedy, and almost always a pleasant euphemism for “mild-to-moderate racial slurs in a punchline.” That’s not what I mean here (although, just to be clear, Norm loved off-color jokes — you’ll see very quickly why I can’t embed that video).
Norm was so fluent, so conversant in so many forms of comedy that convention only interested him as a medium to be manipulated. I’m sure there’s some “Norm/norms” wordplay waiting to be made here, and I’m also sure Mr. Macdonald would crawl out of the earth to strangle me if I even tried it.
Here, he pulls a triple deke of punchlines, each swerve so deft and audacious that no other professional comedian would even attempt it — as a matter of self-preservation. You don’t try to stick Simone Biles’ leaps, and you don’t try to mimic Norm’s jokes.
The Moth Joke. The one. I hope to god this is your first time ever seeing this, everyone deserves that experience. And yet somehow you might laugh even harder if it isn’t.
It’s Norm at his virtuoso finest, effortlessly floating between layers to the tale, grinning like a child behind the wheel of a stolen ice cream truck — all while he tells a story that’s half Franz Kafka, half Lars Von Trier to scattered, bewildered laughter from the audience.
And then the payoff tops it all.
Norm may have passed, but he will live as long as his legacy does. Comedy couldn’t have asked for anyone better. Rest easy.
I could have added about 20 more videos, but I’m more interested in what your favorite Norm Macdonald moments or jokes or whatever are. Leave a comment!
STICK TO MUSIC
NOTE: I had been planning to feature this video since well before Tuesday’s lousy news. I thought about scrapping it for the time being, since who writes a putatively fun and positive newsletter and then dips into cancer-related topics twice in a row, y’know? But this is so warm and so magical that I can’t help but keep it in. You’ll see.
Perhaps you’ve seen the video already — 15 million views on YouTube are hard to ignore. Florence Welch enters the room of a young girl, 15 years old, badly emaciated by a bone cancer fight that no child should have to endure. She’s in hospice at this point, and around her are family members and the familiar trappings of a hospital room with a long-term resident. Welch belts out a jaw-dropping rendition of “The Dog Days Are Over” to the (obviously) star-struck child, even sitting to hold her hand during the song. It’s truly amazing. I hope you’ve seen it already.
I’m writing about the next song.
Welch’s visit didn’t end after that one song (really, how could you only sing once?), even if that often-shared clip ends there. Welch then goes on to sing “Shake It Out” with the child, Karinya (“Yaya”) Chen, who offers her skills in duet. It’s by far the less-shared of the two videos, topping out at about a million views, but to me, it’s even more remarkable than the other.
There’s two things I want to preface this with, if you haven’t seen it yet. One: there’s a few seconds very early in the video where Karinya and Florence are both singing, and the harmony isn’t quite clicking right away. They’re feeling each other out; do not bail on the video, because Two: by the end, it’s Florence Welch who’s in legitimate disbelief at the beauty on display.
Okay one third, last thing: you might cry. Don’t watch this where you don’t want to cry.
I tell you, sincerely and without the exaggeration of sentiment, that this is a vocal performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what a miracle can be if its definition does not fit this moment.
That’s Florence Welch, who can lay credible claim to the throne of the world’s best living vocalist, whose microphone is plugged directly into heaven, who cannot believe the singing she heard from the other people participating. It is, in plain sight, nothing less than the greatest moment of her life. She walked into that room as a treasured guest, the center of gravity, phone cameras following her every step. Mere minutes later she was singing backup with the rest of the room.
Yaya would pass away, merely five months later. Cancer’s an awful, awful thing.
But the worst struggles in life don’t diminish our humanity; they amplify it. Welch came to that hospice room because Yaya was too sick to attend the Florence + The Machine show that was in town, so Florence made the amazing gesture of bringing the music to her. And if the story ended right there, that’s already enough to melt the iciest of dispositions.
But what’s the point of a concert — a Florence Welch concert — if you’re not singing along? There’s something elemental and pure about her music, her voice, that brings out everything you’re feeling too. And in that moment, between that young girl and Welch, there was magic. I’m so glad it happened.
STICK TO TELEVISION
Okay, one last thought. Same topic. Near the end of the video, Yaya mentions to Welch that she found her music through the show Glee, a high school drama populated almost entirely by actors in their late 20s, based around a glee club full of “misfits” and with a plot driven entirely by what song they’d be performing a universally inferior cover of by the end of the show. Naturally, it was a gigantic commercial success.
And as you can tell, I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it because, again, the music was not an improvement (and rarely even an approximation) of the originals. If there’s a favorite song of yours, just look up the Glee version of it. You’ll find it execrable. Also, I — a 30-ish childless alcoholic — was quite obviously not the target audience. And I also didn’t think of it from the perspective of the target audience.
The show was for kids, primarily. And it’s just kind of bogus to both be snobbish about music and how to get that music in front of unfamiliar audiences. So if a kid hears a song on Glee that they like, and that’s what gets them to listen to the real thing for the first time, and the real thing is WAY better every single time, then congratulations, the audience is learning about good music.
I still won’t watch Glee, mind you. The music is objectively bad. But I can respect its presence a little bit more. There.
STICK TO AFFIRMATIONS
Thanks for joining me today. We’ll always end on a kind word.
Here’s something Norm wrote a few years ago:
It seems a bit rich, that someone with Macdonald’s sense of humor could spend any breath decrying cynicism. It’s easy to be, well, cynical about this tweet. I’ll urge you not to do that.
Life is beautiful, and worth experiencing with one’s heart all the way open. Maybe not all the time — that sounds terrifying — but often, often enough to let the moment be bigger than you.
Norm was several years into his battle with cancer when he wrote that. Maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe it didn’t. But I’m glad he came to that understanding; may we all.
Take care, friends.
Thank you for sharing the Florence videos - so amazing!!!
I'm not going to watch that Florence Welch video for a while because I got weepy just at your writeup of it. Thank yo for sharing it. This whole newsletter, but especially that section, remind me a lot of Cat Valente's "Space Opera". I think you'd enjoy it a lot.