Point of View

Neil Macdonald on brother Norm's confessions of a cult leader

A look at some of the stories in the comedian's strange new memoir, some of which may be true.

'Being a standup ... with a cult following just means that most folks hate your guts,' Norm writes in memoir

Norm Macdonald's new memoir is called Based on a True Story, because, as he declares in the first chapter, human memory precludes a truly true story. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

I have an aunt named Ida. She's the widow of my late Uncle Basil, nearly 100 years old, and very religious, and has managed to live her extremely long and virtuous life out of the pitiless public spotlight.

At least until now.

Because she's also my brother Norm's aunt. And Norm has just written a strange meta-memoir in which Aunt Ida and Uncle Basil make a cameo appearance, along with most of the rest of my relatives.
Norm Macdonald's first day of school in Valcartier, Que., circa 1964. Norm was five in this photo, and his brother Neil, on the right, was seven. (Macdonald family)

They appear (well, actually, they don't appear, which is the point) in a chapter where Norm and one of his comedy confederates have a bad car accident, and Norm finds himself facing the "white, white light," being entreated by his deceased Uncle Bert and Aunt Barbara and his old dog Tracker, and his first girlfriend, Anna, to let go of life and join them in the hereafter.

At the last moment, though, Norm cries "Hey, where's Uncle Basil, and Aunt Ida?"

If this is the gateway to heaven, they would for sure be here, too. Even though Aunt Ida is, you know, still with us.

At that point, Uncle Bert and Aunt Barbara and Tracker and Anna fall silent, and Norm begins to recall that they were all suspected of hideous crimes while they were alive, and they turn into a snarling, fanged "circle of the damned," and Norm barely makes it back to the blood-soaked snowbank beside his wrecked car.

I'm not really sure how Aunt Ida will take all this once the book is published next month (I have an advance copy), but I thought it was pretty funny.

Then again, I've always thought Norm was pretty funny. I got him.

'Hello, Mr. Becker'

I got it when he, at age 11, was summoned to our living room along with me and my other brother by our father, the school vice-principal, to be introduced to Mr. Becker, the new Grade 6 teacher who moved his lower lip so weirdly when he talked.

There we stood, in our short pants and clip-on ties after Sunday church service, as Mr. Becker, his lower lip moving weirdly, greeted us, one by one: "Hello, Neil. Hello, Leslie. Hello, Norman."

"Hello, Mr. Becker," replied Norm, his lower lip moving weirdly, a perfect Becker impression. My father's upper lip twitched, showing his gold tooth, which was always a bad sign, and I knew it would be bad for Norm later.

But I was in awe. While both of us had already mastered the Becker impression, Norm actually went for the laugh in front of a hostile audience.

Comedy, he writes in the memoir, must always surprise, never pander.

Mr. Becker didn't get it. I'm not sure our father did, either, until much, much later. In fact, a lot of people don't get Norm, which is the point of his memoir.

It's titled Based on a True Story, because, as he declares in the first chapter, human memory precludes a truly true story. (Meaning he made up a lot of it; there was no Uncle Bert or Aunt Barbara or Tracker or Anna.)
(Penguin Random House)

It's the tale of a kid who starts in a basement comedy club in Ottawa (true) and climbs all the way to Saturday Night Live (true), then sinks into relative obscurity, because for some reason, he just doesn't catch on (somewhat true).

"I quickly developed a cult following," he says, which, he adds, is fine if you're an actual cult leader, because people worship you and give you their wealth and do whatever you tell them and have sex with you whenever you want, but "being a standup comedian with a cult following just means that most folks hate your guts."

What follows is what the cultists will understand, but may leave others puzzled: anecdotes from the life and rich imagination of an aging ingenue who stumbles through life failing to understand the world's venality, or even his own.

Imprisoned for drug possession (didn't happen), he launches into a disquisition about prison rape, which he thinks is rude and intrusive and absolutely the worst thing about prison.

Silverman story 

Falling in love and lust with Sarah Silverman (might have happened), who also makes rape jokes and started with him as a writer at SNL — "she made exactly the same salary as I did, minus the thirty per cent they automatically took off on account of she was a woman" — he asks her out to dinner: "And then I will take you to my bed and we will be like swine."
Actress Sarah Silverman, a fellow SNL alum. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

Silverman gets a restraining order (don't think that happened), then quits the show after a year because she'd attracted a stalker.

"This caught me completely by surprise, as I had taken to hanging around Sarah's apartment, hiding in the bushes, watching her come and go, and I had never seen any signs of a stalker."

On Rodney Dangerfield, a friend and personal hero (quite true): "The ugly little secret in Hollywood is that Rodney Dangerfield never got any respect."

Funniest jokes

He provides the 25 funniest jokes ever uttered on SNL's Weekend Update, 24 of them his. Including the one about O.J. Simpson's lawyer donning in court the knitted cap prosecutors said Simpson wore the night of the murders: "Hey, hey, careful with that," blurted O.J. "That's my favorite stabbing cap."
Colin Quinn, Chevy Chase and Norm MacDonald speak during The Comedy Awards 2012 at Hammerstein Ballroom. All three are former hosts of SNL's Weekend Update. (Theo Wargo/Getty)

Cultists will also enjoy his bizarre reverse account of his famous firing from SNL; it wasn't for the O.J. jokes, as everyone assumed, he explains, but rather because he accepted the jury verdict and realized O.J. was innocent and that his O.J. jokes were unconscionable, and he refused to keep doing them, despite the urging of NBC vice-president Don Ohlmeyer, a pal of O.J.'s: "While O.J. Simpson had proven himself to be the greatest rusher, I had proven myself to be the greatest rusher to judgment."

If that sounds strange, remember who's writing it. I thought the explanation was brilliant.

Oh, and he provides the long version of the moth joke … nearly two pages long. Cultists will rejoice.

Anyway, I doubt Aunt Ida will think much of this book.

I also know for a fact he hasn't really been reduced to snagging bad standup gigs: "I am old and I am fat and … they stand beside me and take pictures, the way you would with a donkey at the side of the road."

'Rolling them bones'

Actually, I've known Norm for nearly 57 years, and still can't say I know what he really thinks.

But there's one line in this book that distills it all, and it's in the language of the compulsive gambler, which Norm is. His friends say he won and lost $1 million in a single Vegas night.

"If you're at the table and you're rolling them bones," he advises, "there's no money in playing it safe."

Most of us have. He hasn't.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.