Sometimes you don’t know how widely beloved someone was until they die. That was the case last week with comic Norm Macdonald’s death.
Your columnist was a huge fan, frequently going down the rabbit hole for YouTube clips of his work that stretched back into the decades. The cliff-diver jokes. Kitchener Leslie. Being in the best shape of his life. Getting caught smoking by his dad. Jeffrey Dahmer seemed like a real jerk. So did Hitler. Why did the moth go to podiatrist’s office? Hours could pass.
Social media showed that it was a huge cult, much of which sprang from his time on “Saturday Night Live,” particularly including the Burt Reynolds impersonation, and his dozens of talk show appearances.
Steve Curtiss, a Roanoker who has done a ton of stand-up over the years, opened for Macdonald at Virginia Tech’s Burruss Auditorium in the early 2000s. When he got to the green room, he found an anxious Macdonald, pacing furiously.
“Just every now and then he’d take some water or something, but he is just pacing,” Curtiss remembered. “He’s out of his mind.
“I’m like, ‘Norm, what is going on?’ He’s like, ‘Curtiss, the stage is cursed. It’s a cursed stage, I’m tellin’ ya.’”
The week before the show, a violinist with a chamber quartet had, “just in the simple act of walking offstage,” tripped and broken his ankle. Another mishap previous to that had injured another performer, apparently. Someone backstage had told Macdonald about both incidents.
“And now Norm has got it in his mind that something’s going to happen to him,” Curtiss said. “The stage is cursed.
“He said, ‘Curtiss, you’re just sittin’ there. Just sittin’ there, eatin’ pizza. Aren’t you nervous at all?’ I’m like, ‘Norm, they’re not here to see me.’ He went, ‘Ah thanks, Curtiss! That’s a big help. That’s a big help.’”
Macdonald eventually calmed down. Curtiss warmed up the crowd, then hyped the headliner.
“Literally he came out just a minute or so after me,” he said. “And I went out and watched the show, and he did great. He did absolutely great!
“It was Norm, the way he is, with that kind of weird, slow, stammery [delivery], sounds like he’s going over here but all of a sudden a thought pops in his head and he’s way over here in left field. That’s the way his show went. Great crowd response, and he did not fall down. He did not break his ankle. Nothing bad happened.”
Curtiss and another comedian, Salem-based Melissa Douty, said that Macdonald brought a unique voice to stand-up.
“For me, it was about that dryness,” Douty said. “He had such a dry, deadpan kind of delivery almost.”
He was a comic who could draw huge laughs from stories and one-liners that, for most others, would most likely have fallen flat. Even the groaners could elicit chuckles.
“Two people can have the same joke, and it takes a special kind of person to deliver it,” Douty said. “I think you’re born with that talent. I don’t think you can train it. My very best friend knows my set inside and out. It is a very different set when she says it.”
For Curtiss, it was about the way Macdonald surprised audiences.
“Norm had this fantastic way he would tell his stories and his jokes, it was like he was always thinking of something, and at the same time thinking of something else,” Curtiss said. “And somehow it would always tie together in some loose way. It was never really obvious. But the way he did that, it was as close to brilliant with the misdirection. He was almost like a ventriloquist … without a dummy.
“It was misdirection at his best, I would think, just funny to watch.”
Getting back out there
Neither Douty nor Curtiss worked much during the pandemic. Douty, an often-touring comic, wound up getting a day job, though she hopes to resume some road work after she gets married today (congratulations, Melissa!). Curtiss fell back on his photography, and said he has been working a lot of auto racing tracks.
“I tried to do some online shows, and that’s about as painful as it gets,” Douty said. “It is terrible.”
She did have two offers last week, but had to turn them down due to the impending nuptials.
“Sixty-to-70% of the comics I know are probably not comics anymore,” after the pandemic shutdown, she said. “It was bad enough when it was good. And then they’ve been paying the comics that same pay for features, the same thing for 25 years, because we’ll take it, because there’s 5,000 other people lined up saying, yeah, I’ll do it for that. It’s just the way of the world, I guess.”
Roanoke Comedy Fest
In fact, Douty is gigging soon. She is scheduled Oct. 8 to kick off the Roanoke Comedy Fest with a happy hour set at Deschutes Brewery’s Roanoke Tasting Room. That festival, scheduled for multiple Roanoke venues, runs through Oct. 10 and includes such traveling acts as Tony Deyo, Rob Cantrell, Chris Alan, Winston Hodges, Genivive Clinton and Roanoke-based Rob Ruthenberg, Jefferson Rose and festival organizer Johnny Camacho.
Get more information and check out the (very reasonable) ticket prices at roanokecomedyfest.square.site.
Go to this column at roanoke.com/entertainment/music for more from Todd Snider’s recent show at Harvester Performance Center.