Norm Macdonald, the acerbic, sometimes controversial comedian familiar to millions as the “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live” from 1994 to 1998, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 61.
His manager, Marc Gurvitz, confirmed the death. Lori Jo Hoekstra, his longtime producing partner, told Hollywood news outlet Deadline that the cause was cancer, something he had been dealing with for some time but had kept largely private.
Mr. Macdonald had a deadpan style honed on the stand-up circuit, first in his native Canada and then in the United States. By 1990 he was doing his routine on “Late Night With David Letterman” and other shows, and then in 1993 came his big break: an interview with Lorne Michaels, a fellow Canadian, for a job on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I knew that even though we hailed from the same nation, we were worlds apart,” Mr. Macdonald wrote in “Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir” (2016), a fictional work with occasional hints of biography mixed in. “He was a cosmopolite from Toronto, worldly, the kinda guy who’d be comfortable around the Queen of England herself. Me, I was a hick, born to the barren, rocky soil of the Ottawa Valley, where the richest man in town was the barber.”
He got the job, and by the next year he was in the anchor chair for the “Weekend Update” segment. (In sketches, he impersonated Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole and played other characters.)
But in early 1998 he was booted from that same anchor chair, reportedly at the behest of Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC Entertainment, West Coast, who was said to have been annoyed by Mr. Macdonald’s relentless mocking of his friend O.J. Simpson.
Mr. Macdonald stayed on for a few more episodes but didn’t return for the 1998-99 season.
“I was never bitter,” Mr. Macdonald said in the oral history “Live From New York,” released in 2002. “I always understood that Ohlmeyer could fire me, because he was the guy who owned the cameras, so that didn’t bother me. I was always happy that ‘SNL’ gave me a chance.”
He went on Letterman’s show to announce that he was fired. During a commercial break, Letterman asked him, “This is like some Andy Kaufman thing with fake wrestling, right?” Mr. Macdonald recalled. It wasn’t.
Letterman was a fan who made Mr. Macdonald one of the guests in the CBS “Late Show” host’s final run of shows.
In 2016, Letterman told The Washington Post, that the show would have had Mr. Macdonald on every week “if we could.’’
“He is funny in a way that some people inhale and exhale, " Letterman told the Post. “With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered. With Norm, he exudes it ... There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”
His post-“SNL” television and ventures were a mixed bag.
“Norm,” a comedy about a former hockey player, ran from 1999 to 2001 on ABC. “Sports Show With Norm Macdonald,” on Comedy Central, lasted only a few months in 2011.
“The dedicated fan will identify two patterns in his television work,” Dan Brooks wrote in a 2018 article about him in The New York Times Magazine. “It is invariably funny, and it is invariably canceled.”
But Mr. Macdonald said he didn’t think of himself first as a TV performer, and he continued to work as a comedian throughout his career.
“In my mind, I’m just a stand-up,” he told Brooks. “But other people don’t think that. They go, oh, the guy from ‘SNL’ is doing stand-up now.”
Though known for “Weekend Update,” Mr. Macdonald didn’t do much topical material in his own routines. He liked jokes that would still be funny years in the future.
Among his most famous is one he told on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” in 2009 about a moth that goes to a podiatrist. After a setup that rambled on for minutes in which the moth pours out various emotional troubles, the podiatrist asks the insect why it came to a podiatrist rather than a psychiatrist. Mr. Macdonald’s punch line: “And then the moth said, ‘Because the light was on.’”
Mr. Macdonald’s sense of humor, though, sometimes got him in hot water. In 2018, for instance, he drew criticism for remarks that seemed to defend the comedian Louis C.K., who had been accused of sexual misconduct, and Roseanne Barr, who was under fire for a racist Twitter post. (Louis C.K. had written the foreword to Mr. Macdonald’s 2016 book, and Barr had hired him as a writer on her 1990s sitcom, “Roseanne.”) In apologizing for those comments, Mr. Macdonald made a remark that mocked people with Down syndrome.
Missteps aside, Mr. Macdonald was always good for an unpredictable few minutes, or more, on a late-night talk show.
“I’ve been interviewing Norm for 18 years and he has consistently broken every talk-show rule,” O’Brien told the Times in 2011. “He tells anecdotes that are blatantly false. His stories have always been repurposed farmer’s daughter routines that he swears happened to him.”
O’Brien added, “When Norm steps out from behind the curtain I honestly don’t know what is going to happen, and that electrical charge comes through the television.”\
Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.