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Lexicon Late Night: 3 Lessons in Storytelling from the Late Great Norm Macdonald

Hey, I’m here today in the Lexicon Studios with my colleague Justin for a little bit more informal video today. We’re here today at our digital marketing agency in Bangkok to discuss a very sad and momentous event. 

Norm Macdonald has recently passed away just last month.  

Norm was one of the greatest storytellers of all time and not just of the modern age. He had a unique way with words and a very unique persona. We’re taking this opportunity to shoehorn in some brand storytelling messages into the life of Norm Macdonald. 

Justin. 

Yeah, that’s right. So this is basically just an excuse for David and I to make a video about Norm Macdonald. We’re both huge fans. He’s been a huge influence on us. 

But, like David said he is first and foremost – or was I’m sad to say – was first and foremost a storyteller. And so, what we are going to do today is have a look back at some of the most iconic moments from Norm’s career and then shoehorn in some lessons about storytelling.  

But it is true you can take these principles from Norm’s comedy and apply them to your own brand, your own personal brand, your own corporate brand, whatever.  

Absolutely. 

Yes.

So, first up we have? 

Okay so first off here, from his SNL … from his time as the host of the Weekend Update, we’re going to play a little clip here.

Well, it is finally official murder is legal in the state of California.

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 it out, “Hey! Hey! Easy with that, that’s my lucky stabbing hat.”

Lucky stabbing hat. 

Okay, so just for a little context. 

So this was the mid-1990s. The trial of the century, the O.J. Simpson trial. Super infamous and Norm was absolutely relentless in the wake of that. O.J. Simpson was the butt of his punchline week after week after week to the point where it almost got on the audience’s nerves. Some people were getting tired of the O.J jokes, other people loved it. And some people suspect that this actually led to Norm being fired because the president of NBC at the time was actually good friends with O.J. Simpson. So here’s the lesson: Make O.J. Simpson jokes and get fired. 

That’s not the best lesson for a social media agency in Bangkok to teach, Justin.  

It’s not? Okay. 

But authenticity is the lesson here.  

So, Norm’s persona, he was anti-authoritarian at his core. And you know a lot of comedians and a lot of people claim to be anti-authoritarian. But for Norm, you’ve got to remember it’s the 90’s right, this is pre-internet.  Possibly even like pre-cable as it is now. There was only a few options. He had one of the best jobs a comedian could ever have on TV. But he was passionate about his craft. He wanted to tell the jokes he wanted to tell. He wanted to do it his way. And it’s General Electric, right? NBC. General Electric tried to stop Norm telling jokes about a murderer. So, he said “Nah, I’m going to keep doing what I do. This is my art. I’m authentic.” 

So, it didn’t end up working out so well for him. But that only led for his aura, his mystique to grow even further.  

Right, I will add here that he was fired from SNL but only about a year and a half later was invited back on the show to host it.  And he did eventually get the last laugh because in his opening monologue he said, like, “It’s only been a year and a half. I haven’t gotten funnier in a year and a half so it must be that this show has gotten really bad.” 

And so to have the courage to call out your former employers, like, on the air, it’s just a tremendous, like lesson in authenticity.  So, when I said, you know, make jokes and get fired from your job. That’s not at all the lesson. But the real lesson here is never pander. And so like you were saying, If Norm thought something was funny, he did it. 

He didn’t really care what the reaction was going to be, or if anything, he kind of relished the reaction of people being a little horrified by his jokes. And that just made him so much more appealing to the people like at a creative agency in Bangkok us who loved it.

Exactly. He knew his niche. That’s a lesson for all of us business people. Like, Norm definitely could never be a mainstream guy. It was amazing that he ever got to the mainstream, but he got there because he was so unbelievably talented at what he did. 

As his career evolved, he spoke to a particular group of people, purists, people who really love that style of comedy, that kind of punk rock mentality. He’s the ultimate punk rock comedian, I think. So, this is not a good lesson to take if you are a major global corporation. 

But if you’re a niche SME or an upstart business and you want to really stand out from the crowd, it’s okay to alienate some people. It’s okay to not be everyone’s cup of tea because the people who really do love you will love you even more.

And even if you are a giant global corporation, just staying true to yourself. I mean, you don’t have to be outrageous. So we’re not really saying here that you should put out ridiculous jokes about murderers into your, you know, branding on LinkedIn, that’s not the lesson here. 

But really, what is important though, is developing a core audience. And if you have that core audience, you shouldn’t pander to them. 

You should put out content that respects their intelligence, and then challenges them to think and that’s the kind of content that’s really going to engage them. If you put out boring stuff and you’re trying to please everybody, you risk alienating the very people that made you successful in the first place.

Absolutely. Great point there. So the two key points of any good marketing strategy is the brand persona. No one had a better brand persona than Norm. Even just hearing the tenor of his voice you can know it was him and he had a really clear sense of his audience.Put those two things together and you can’t fail.

Absolutely. And that point on tone of voice brings us nicely to our second Norm clip.

A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office. 

A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office. 

You are correct.  

A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office and the podiatrist’s office says, “What’s the problem?” 

And the moth says, “What’s the problem? Where do I begin, man?”

He goes, “I go to work for Gregory Illinivich, and all day long I work.”

“Honestly doc, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.” 

“I don’t even know if Gregory Illinivich knows.”

“He only knows that he has power over me, and that seems to bring him happiness.”

“But I don’t know, I wake up in a malaise, and I walk here and there…”

The podiatrist says, “Oh yeah?” 

The moth goes, “Yes.”

He goes, “At night I … I sometimes wake up and I turn to some old lady in my bed that’s on my arm.”

“A lady that I once loved, doc. I don’t know where to turn to.”

“My youngest, Alexendria, she fell in the … in the cold of last year.”

“The cold took her down, as it did many of us.”

“And my other boy, and this is the hardest pill to swallow, doc.”

“My other boy, Gregarro Ivinalititavitch … I no longer love him.”

“As much as it pains me to say, when I look in his eyes.” 

“All I see is the same cowardice that I … that I catch when I take a glimpse of my own face in the mirror.”

“If only the cowardice was stronger then perhaps … perhaps I could bring myself to reach over to that cocked and loaded gun that lays on the bedside behind me.”

“And end this hellish facade once and for all.”

How long a drive was this? 

Do you live in the Valley? Where do you live? 

Please sorry.  

He says, “Doc … sometimes I feel like a spider, even though I’m a moth.”

“Just barely hanging on to my web with an everlasting fire underneath me. I’m not feeling good.”

And so the doctor says, “Moth, man, you’re troubled.”

“But you should be seeing a psychiatrist. Why on earth did you come here?”

And then the moth said, “Cause the light was on.”

See there you have it. Classic. The moth joke.  

The moth joke. There’s never been anything like that. 

Yeah, just, I mean, really what it comes down to it’s it’s a dad joke. It’s almost a one-liner. Okay, so if a normal person, like me, tried to tell this joke, this is what it would sound like: 

A moth walks into a podiatrist office, says “Hey, I’m feeling really depressed right now.”

And the podiatrist says, “Well, why did you come to see me? You should go see a psychiatrist.”

And the moth says, “Because the light was on.”

Yeah and that’s the joke he heard, right? 

That is the joke, yeah. In essence. 

I actually heard pretty recently that he didn’t plan to do this at all on the show. 

So, what happened was Conan was enjoying Norm so much in the first segment where he was doing kind of planned material that he told the producers he wanted Norm on for another segment. And then the producers told Norm, “We need you on here for seven minutes.” 

And he goes, “Well, I don’t have any material.”

And then he thought of that joke. 

And he goes, “How long is it going to be?” Hoping that it would be 20 seconds, which doesn’t make any sense. But then they told him it’s going to be seven minutes. So, he had to stretch that joke into that crazy thing that you just heard.

I love it so much. 

Yeah. 

It’s a masterful performance. 

It’s so unbelievable that as you said, it was a 20-second joke made into seven minutes with existentialist Russian literature thrown in, the depths of despair. There’s such a beautifully visual image that he tells.His storytelling skills, his performing arts, his working under the pressure, you know, all of those things. Absolutely, unbelievable.

He turns this dad joke into like a Leo Tolstoy novel. You’re laughing the entire time but you actually get kind of sad for his, his daughter, who fell in the cold. Yeah, it’s just brilliant. And like, the courage again to just try something like this. 

And I think that’s part of the reason, like I’ve heard Conan say that that’s why he loved Norm as a guest because he was just blown away that this guy. It’s like, “I can’t believe that somebody has the courage to do something like this, and is actually pulling it off and making it funny.” 

Like, it’s almost like he put himself into a corner in a no-win-possible situation, and just trusted his comedy instincts to carry it and make it funny. And I mean, it’s like one of the most memorable moments in talk show history, at least for me.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s the only one I can even think of that comes to mind constantly. But what’s the lesson for a web design agency in bangkok?

Yeah, the lesson here is all about tone of voice. So, nobody can pull off the moth joke the way Norm did. But everybody can have a unique tone of voice. So it’s not something that’s just going to … you can’t just turn the cameras on and start talking and then it’s going to work. It’s something you actually do have to work at and develop over time. 

But as you grow an audience, and as you refine your voice, people will start responding to it. So really, you need to find out what’s unique about you, and your brand. So your unique selling points, what makes you different, what’s your core? And then if you can, if you can develop that into a good persona and tone of voice, then you’re going to stand out. It’s just as simple as that.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. 

Whether by accident or not, his persona was so strong.

Like I’ve got a theory on this that I think I’ve mentioned to you before. Is he like the Chinese guy from The Prestige? Like, was his whole life a persona, an act or was that really him? Because we always saw him … that style of speaking, random dad jokes, and just the weirdness. Do you think his life was the persona and we never really saw him?

I mean, it could very well be because like he always has this look on his face, where he’s smirking. You know, he’s got that, like, impish grin. And he’s, it’s like, he’s got this thing that he knows that nobody else knows. And so, I mean, I don’t know if that’s an act or if that’s just genuinely who he was. I suspect, probably the latter. 

But I mean, I’ve seen this YouTube comment pop up in plenty of his videos. And it’s like, “Norm is the smartest guy in the room, pretending that he’s the dumbest guy in the room.”

Absolutely. Yeah. 

To bring it back to the more serious point Justin made earlier, working with a branding agency in Bangkok to develop a persona is really key. So you’ll have 10 people or agency partners communicating on your behalf. Without a clear sense of your brand persona, it’s going to be schizophrenic, it’s gonna be inconsistent. So you really need to spend time delving deep into who your brand is as a character as a person as a persona. It has its own unique way of communicating, its own turn of phrase, so, you might not ever get to Norm levels of persona, but it is important to figure that out if you do want to resonate consistently over time with your target audience.

Or so the Germans would have us believe. 

Yeah, we don’t have an audience here to laugh awkwardly at me staring at the camera. 

Norm did and they didn’t laugh either, so that was the beauty of him. 

Yeah, he actually would stare down the camera until he would get another laugh. 

And that’s another thing that he did that was so genius. He would get like three additional laughs out of something just by like staring at either the camera or the audience, going like, “I’m gonna look at you until you laugh.”  

Didn’t he do that German thing like six weeks in a row? 

Yeah, he did. Yeah, he did. 

Like it wasn’t funny the first time.  

He started committing harder and harder to it.  And then it actually started kind of getting laughs because people recognized it. 

And then the like … we’re not going to show this to the folks at home. So he does like six of those, “Or so the Germans would have us believe.” 

And then he’s got “German Shepherds were voted as the best police dogs, sniffing out millions-worth in cocaine and other drugs … or so the German Shepherds would have us believe.”

So it’s like, did he do this whole thing for himself? 

And that’s again, that’s what’s like, was so genius about him is that, like, he did jokes for his own amusement first and foremost, and then a lot of people were willing to go for the ride. 

But then, sorry, go ahead. 

Yeah, that ties back to the first point, right? 

He clearly loved what he was doing. And it was so authentic. And you combine that with the talent. Anyone who’s authentic is going to draw an audience like, and he was on live TV making those jokes by himself. 

Right. 

Who would do that? 

Yeah, only Norm really like and that brings us kind of to our third and final clip. Norm didn’t really care if he bombed. Or at least he didn’t show it or he even seemed like he was enjoying it, which is ridiculous for a comedian. But yeah, so not laughing, he would kind of relish in that, which brings us to our third clip here.

No, there are times when Bob has something on his mind when he wears a hat. 

He thinks the English Channel is a British TV station and not a body of water separating England and France.

Yeah, so for a little bit of context. Comedy Central’s Roasts, you’re supposed to say the meanest yet cleverest thing that you can possibly say. And each of the roasters are trying to outdo each other to see who can land the cruelest, most memorable joke. 

And what does Norm do here? He goes up and tells the softest like 1930s-style dad jokes that he could possibly think of. And as you can see, the result was mixed. Like, the audience was mostly just going, “What the hell is going on here?”

Yeah, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know Norm as well when that first came out. And that was my first impression of him. And I was like, “Okay, this guy doesn’t know how to do comedy.” But years later, now I see the genius of it 

Yeah.

It’s performing arts. It’s like, as you said, you’re comedian, of course, right? Sorry to. Spoiler alert. 

Sure.

But the idea of going on stage for 10 minutes, and not caring if anyone doesn’t laugh or even responds to you like, again, who the hell could ever do that? Who would? Who would have the cojones to do that?

Yeah, first of all, he’s a seasoned pro. He’s got impeccable comedic timing. But also, he’s just got supreme confidence in his own comedic abilities. And I think he also has a lot of foresight, like, I mean, he might have just been like, this will be funny. Because I mean, I’ve heard of a quote of his where he goes, “Comedy is about surprises. So if you’re trying to make them laugh, and they don’t, that’s funny. It’s a surprise.” 

But he was doing it on purpose. And so maybe, and this is what ended up happening is that, it became one of the most memorable moments that the Comedy Central Roasts have ever produced. Because I mean, yeah, the cruel jokes that are original and clever, and just mean, they land. And then they’re funny, in the moment, but who really remembers any of these? And we all remember Norm’s ridiculous bombing-on-purpose set. 

The CEO of Hollywood that’s the only other one I remember. Uh, anyway.  

But for Norm on that, so yeah, he went against type, he bombed, people watching it at home probably hated it. The comedians, like the three or four guys who got what was going on, they loved it. 

But playing to such a niche audience like that, the lesson seems to be here, that you know, often in marketing or in business, people kind of huddle together doing the same kind of thing, the same approach to marketing, the same products, the same type of communication. Sometimes, you have to do a 180. Sometimes, you have to go completely against type in order to stand out and resonate.

Mm hmm. 

Yeah, absolutely. 

And again, like we’re not saying, go up there and put out boring content on purpose. Don’t try to bore your audience on purpose. But we are saying that originality and subverting expectations is oftentimes a very winning strategy, because as David was saying, if you work in a given industry, chances are all of your competitors are going to be putting out the exact same kinds of videos, the exact same kinds of blogs, to the point where it doesn’t even matter who put it out. Like they’re interchangeable. 

So if you’re in an industry like that, why not take a chance and do something that your audience has never seen before? So you know, just do something original, maybe not exactly what Norm did. But I think the lesson here, like David said, is sometimes to stand out, you do a 180.

Absolutely. 

Look what your competitors are doing in a nice little matrix, and you pick the other side.

So I mean, I’m sad to see this video coming to an end, really, because I could talk about Norm all day.

Yeah, yeah, this is basically just what we do off camera when we’re supposed to be working. But yeah, or after work.

Yeah, well, can I give a shout out to his podcast? Because most people don’t even know we had a podcast and it’s because, even that, he didn’t do it properly. 

Right. 

He had his own Netflix show, which was okay, but he had a podcast for about 10 years that never really took off because he didn’t take it seriously at all. He mocked his own sponsors, and lost his sponsors. 

He made the guests … He kept saying, “Explain to the folks at home.”  The first time it was funny, after the 10th time, the guest was infuriated by him. 

He was just the kid enjoying doing what he wanted to do. And for those who loved him, they would watch everything he ever did, buy everything he ever put out. He built a loyal fan base. 

I’m gutted that we’re never going to see him get old because his style would only have got funnier and funnier, as he got more cranky as he got more long-winded.

Yeah, yeah. 

You mentioned that right after his passing. And that actually, like really hit me. I was like, that’s true. His persona would be so perfect for an old man. So we’ll never get to see the old chunk of coal really get old. 

But I mean, I saw a comment on Facebook from a fellow comedian. Vinay is his name. And he goes, “Ever since Norm died, I’ve been constantly watching his videos on YouTube. So basically no change.” 

Haha same.

So like the videos that we watched today as part of this, like I watch his stuff, at least once a week I go on a little Norm binge. So it is really, really sad and tragic that the world has lost this guy, but his stuff is really going to live forever.

Exactly. 

So just from an entertainment perspective, check out Norm’s videos on YouTube. There’s days and days worth of funny content. 

And lessons that we can learn as business people are: Authentic. Strong persona. Understand your audience. Understand your place in the market and tell great stories. 

If you need any help doing any of those things, reach out to me and Justin here at Lexicon, we’ll help. 

Explain to the folks at home what our website is.

lexiconthai.com

Alright, thank you. 

Thank you. 

 

Lexicon is a digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We use branded storytelling to connect our clients with their ideal audience through social media marketingwebsite designvideo productionbranding, copywriting, and a full range of Bangkok creative agency services as well as our Bangkok translation service. All work is done in-house by our talented internationally-minded team of creative storytellers and every project is created bespoke to suit our clients’ needs.

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