In 1998, Norm Macdonald was fired from Saturday Night Live, evidently for making too many jokes about a good friend of NBC’s west coast president: O.J. Simpson. Now we know that the longtime NBC executive, Don Ohlmeyer, tried—and thankfully failed—to get the comedian banned from the network’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
“Norm had the most unique comedic voice I have ever encountered and he was so relentlessly and uncompromisingly funny,” Conan O’Brien, who hosted Macdonald on his various shows at least 25 times over the past three decades, tweeted on Tuesday after news broke of his friend’s untimely death from a secret bout of cancer at age 61. “I will never laugh that hard again. I’m so sad for all of us today.”
But that was far from everything the semi-retired late-night host had to say about Macdonald. Without the platform of a nightly show, O’Brien used an emergency episode of his popular podcast Thursday night to reminisce about the time he spent with Macdonald, joined by his longtime sidekick Andy Richter and producer Frank Smiley.
And during their often emotional and sometimes hilarious conversation, O’Brien revealed that fans came a lot closer than anyone knew to missing out on some of the best late-night talk show guest segments of all time.
“One of his bosses was friends with a murderer,” Richter explained on the podcast, as O’Brien joked, “Alleged! I’ve seen no proof, Andy!”
Macdonald famously refused to stop making jokes about the O.J. Simpson trial, which ultimately “cost him his job” at Saturday Night Live, as O’Brien put it. After that happened, he said, “The word came down, ‘You can’t book Norm Macdonald anymore.’ And it came from the top, from Don Ohlmeyer.”
Because Ohlmeyer was responsible for installing O’Brien at Late Night five years earlier, the host said he felt feelings of “loyalty” towards him. So he was conflicted when he wrote a letter back saying, “I got this directive. You’ve hired me to do the best show I can and this is my best guest. So I need to do my job, which is the best show I can do.”
He said Ohlmeyer responded with something like, “I expected better from you.” But O’Brien stood his ground and won, hosting Macdonald as the lead guest on Late Night four more times between 1999 and 2009 and another four times during his very short tenure as host of The Tonight Show from 2009-2010.
It was on that show that Macdonald delivered the infamous “Moth Joke,” which has perhaps become his most-shared clip on YouTube in the days since his death. As the team explained, Macdonald had heard his friend and “Weekend Update” successor Colin Quinn tell a much shorter version of the joke and decided to extend it into a six-minute bit—complete with dramatic Chekhovian flourishes—on the fly when O’Brien “greedily” asked him to stick around for another segment.
As for O’Brien’s all-time favorite Macdonald joke, it was, of course, one of the many O.J. jokes he told on SNL. And it perfectly captures the comedian’s unique felicity with words:
“In a brilliant move during closing arguments, Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran put on the knit cap prosecutors say O.J. wore the night he committed the murders. Although O.J. may have hurt his case when he suddenly blurted out ‘Hey, hey, easy with that, that’s my lucky stabbing hat!’”
Unlike with Ohlmeyer, Macdonald’s dedication to mocking O.J. Simpson wasn’t personal. And it continued into the latter part of his career when he tried to book the former running back on his Comedy Central Sports Show. The joke was going to be that he would only ask the acquitted murder suspect about his football career.
He tried again to get Simpson on his Netflix talk show in 2017, telling me in an interview, “I thought I had O.J. and his lawyer said, ‘Oh yeah, O.J. will do it.' And then he came back and said, ‘Are you the Norm Macdonald that was on NBC? O.J. said you were a little tough.’”
Towards the end of the podcast, O’Brien said he’s had a “gnawing regret” that Macdonald will never get to experience all of the adulation that has been heaped on him following his death, even if he wouldn’t have been able to really take it in.
“He took so much flak in his career, he took so much shit,” he said. “And yes, he knew that he had fans, but I wish he had been able to read the stuff that’s being written about him. I wish he knew how beloved he is. And also how in awe comedians are of what he did and what he meant.”
When it’s his “time to go,” O’Brien said, “Someone can string together a couple of Norm Macdonald appearances and give me a really strong shot of morphine and I’ll just go out laughing, that would be nice.”
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