3 Lessons in Storytelling from the Late Great Norm Macdonald

“I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure if you die of cancer, the cancer also dies at exactly the same time. So that, to me, is not a loss. That’s a draw.” 


– Norm Macdonald, Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery 

Last month, the world lost an absolute titan of comedy in Norm Macdonald. The legendary Canadian comedian died of acute leukemia at the age of 61. He was diagnosed with the disease nine years ago, but never told the public, opting instead to only inform close friends and family members. 

Although his life was cut short, Norm left an indelible mark on the world of comedy. Known for his deadpan humor, folksy mannerisms, and willingness to take (what many would call ill-advised) risks, Norm’s legacy will live on through his stand-up specials, his work on Saturday Night Live, his movies, and, perhaps most-memorably, his appearances on late-night talk shows. 

Norm was, first and foremost, a storyteller. Whatever form his storytelling took, audiences – whether they were laughing hysterically, horrified, or some combination of the two – couldn’t help being utterly enthralled. 

And that’s the focus of this blog: storytelling. We could continue trying to wax poetic about Norm and what his comedy meant to the world, but others have already done that far better than we can. Instead, we focus here on three key lessons from Norm’s comedy, and how our digital marketing agency in Bangkok can help you incorporate these principles into your marketing and brand storytelling. 

Lesson 1: Never pander 

As the host of the Weekend Update segment on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which is one of the biggest platforms in comedy, Norm was fearless. He routinely had the audience in stitches with his clever, politically-incorrect takes on current events. He also had a penchant for making obscure references, veering into non-sequiturs, and returning time and again to inside-joke punchlines. Sometimes, he constructed elaborate recurring jokes, seemingly more for his own amusement than for the audience’s. 

If Norm thought something was funny, he committed to it. In the wake of the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial in the mid-1990s, Norm was ruthless: 

Norm’s relentless use of O.J. Simpson as a punchline ruffled many feathers, including those of NBC’s West Coast Division President Don Ohlmeyer, according to rumor. Ohlmeyer was a friend of Simpson’s and had supported him throughout the lengthy court proceedings. Norm was eventually fired from SNL, and many, including Norm himself, believed the O.J. jokes were the main cause for this. Ohlmeyer has since denied the O.J. Simpson connection, stating that a drop in ratings was the true cause for Norm’s dismissal. 


Despite all of this, Norm returned to host the show in 1999, only a year and half after his firing. Here, Norm got the last laugh, saying that the reason for him being invited back was that “the show has gotten really bad.”  


Of course, we’re not saying that the lesson here is to intentionally upset your audience or publicly ridicule your former bosses – especially in today’s climate where an online backlash can be disastrous. And, we’re not saying that you should publish edgy content for its own sake. But we are saying that one of the best ways to gain a loyal following is to always stay true to yourself. 


If you put out content that appeals to the lowest common denominator, you risk alienating your core audience. They don’t want pablum. They want content that respects their intelligence and challenges their assumptions. To be sure, it also helps if you can deliver that content in an original and distinctive manner, which brings us to the next lesson. 


Lesson 2: Develop a unique voice 


Throughout his long career, Norm was a frequent and favorite guest on the late-night talk show circuit. Guests on these shows usually share amusing anecdotes about their lives. Despite the appearance of spontaneity, the segments are generally highly prepared. 


But sometimes, the host and the audience are enjoying a guest so much that the host and the producers decide on-the-fly to add an additional segment. This is exactly what happened during one of Norm’s most famous appearances on Conan. The first segment, where Norm delivered his planned material, went so well that host Conan O’Brien told producers he wanted to keep Norm on for another. When producers informed Norm, he was a little flustered because he didn’t have any more planned material. But then he remembered an old joke. Told in its usual form, the joke would be about 20 seconds long, which isn’t nearly long enough for a segment on a late-night talk show. But here’s what Norm did: 

Norm turned a 20-second dad joke into a 4-minute Dostoevskian tale of existential woe, getting huge laughs in the process. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Norm was probably the only person on Earth who could have pulled this off. 


He was able to successfully walk the tightrope of that joke for many reasons: He was a seasoned pro, he had impeccable comedic timing, and he had the self-confidence to take such a massive risk. But crucially, his idiosyncratic, folksy way of talking just made everything he said hilarious. 


No one can pull off the moth joke like Norm did. But everyone can have a unique voice. It may take a long time to find and develop, but as you continuously work on refining your voice, you’ll find that more and more people will respond to it. 


Once you’ve developed your voice, and grown your audience, they’ll naturally come to have certain expectations of you. That’s when you can pull another classic Norm move on them.  


Lesson 3: Subvert expectations 


Comedy Central’s roast specials are a who’s-who of celebrities and comedians, where each performer tries to top their fellow panelists by landing the most outrageous and cruel jokes. The outcome is often hilarious, but the format can get somewhat predictable. 


When Norm appeared on the Roast of Bob Saget in 2008, he threw conventions out the window: 

Norm intentionally bombed his set, telling the softest, most old-timey jokes he could think of. The audience and his fellow roasters were nonplussed. Norm’s run-of-the-mill jokes, which were in the vein of what one would hear at a vaudeville show in the late 1800s, resulted in small smatterings of laughter and groans from the audience. 


But Norm’s performance remains one of the most memorable moments that the show has ever produced. To stand out, sometimes you have to do a 180. 


Again, we’re not suggesting that you should intentionally put out boring content. But we are encouraging you to take risks and break from the conventions of your industry. For example, if you work in professional services, chances are that all of your competitors will be putting out similar content on the same subjects, to the point where all the blogs and videos essentially become interchangeable. So why not get creative and give your audience something they haven’t seen before?  


Of course, if producing creative content isn’t in your wheelhouse, our digital marketing agency in Bangkok can help. 


A legacy of laughter  


Starting out his career in small comedy clubs in Ottawa, Canada, Norm Macdonald made it big in the US, gaining worldwide recognition and acclaim along the way. 


Despite carrying the monumentally heavy burden of a leukemia diagnosis for the last nine years of his life, he never stopped doing what he did best: making people laugh. 


We’ll never get to see the old chunk of coal – as he often referred to himself – truly grow old, which would have only made his homey persona all the more hilarious. But he left us with timeless lessons on storytelling, humor, courage, and integrity – not to mention, hours upon hours of comedy gold. 


And while he was here, he did indeed serve a youthful porpoise: 


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