Norm Macdonald Had One Last Secret

From a Washington Post story by Geoff Edgers headlined “Norm Macdonald had one last secret”:

On the afternoon of June 28, 2020, Norm Macdonald had an idea. This was not a normal day. The next morning, he would have a stem cell transplant at the City of Hope Medical Center just east of Los Angeles. The cancer, in remission for seven years, had returned.

“Lojo, I want to shoot it tonight,” he said.

“Oh, boy. Really?” she said.

“Lojo” is Lori Jo Hoekstra, his best friend, neighbor — they lived in the same condo complex in Los Angeles — and producing partner for more than two decades. In 2013, after doctors diagnosed Macdonald, she temporarily moved with him to Arizona as he disappeared from public view for four months to undergo his first stem cell transplant. This time, the procedure would take place closer to home. But it would also make it hard for Macdonald to stick to his original plan for his next Netflix stand-up special.

He was stage-ready and planning to tape a pair of performances in Los Angeles. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, shuttering entertainment venues across the nation. At almost the same time, Macdonald’s monthly visit to the hospital revealed that the original cancer, multiple myeloma, had metastasized into myelodysplastic syndrome, which can often lead to acute leukemia. The diagnosis left Macdonald and Hoekstra spinning and unsure of the next steps. Except for one thing: Whatever happened, Macdonald wanted to make sure his material was shown.

And it will be. “Nothing Special,” which he named before he died this past September at 61, of complications from cancer, begins streaming Monday on Netflix. It includes footage of a group of friends and admirers — David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Molly Shannon, Conan O’Brien, David Spade, Adam Sandler — discussing the comedian on camera after watching his final creation together.

“I felt this kind of joy that Norm’s back, to be honest with you,” O’Brien said about the experience. “I felt like he’s here with us. Isn’t this a nice gift to get to be with Norm some more.”

People like to say there was nobody like Norm Macdonald, and they say that because it’s true. He worked in a business run by dealmakers and compromisers and yet could never commit to doing anything less than fully his way. His pattern was to have no pattern. In 1997, when he was anchor of “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” a top NBC executive told him to stop telling jokes about former football star O.J. Simpson, who had been acquitted in a high-profile murder trial. Macdonald told more jokes, until he was fired. A decade later, he arrived at a profane roast of comedian Bob Saget with a set of corny, G-rated Dad jokes that were so terrible, they were perfect. His appearances on late-night TV were legendary, as were his tweetathons.

Macdonald’s commitment to his craft extended to his personal life. He never explained his reasoning, but those closest to him think he kept his illness secret because he believed it would be bad for his comedy. Audiences would view him differently. Booking agents and TV producers might pause before giving him gigs. In a culture soaked in the confessional, Macdonald could have profited from the sympathy and inevitable publicity that would come from talking about his cancer battle. Instead, the only people he told were Hoekstra, manager Marc Gurvitz and his immediate family, including his older brother, Neil; mother, Ferne; and son, Dylan, who is 29.

“I wasn’t sure”

Hoekstra may have rolled her eyes or groaned when Macdonald told her he wanted to film that night before his transplant. This wasn’t the first time Macdonald threw out an idea that struck her as difficult or even irrational. But Hoekstra, as organized and meticulous as Macdonald was proudly shambolic, usually just shook off her initial skepticism and did her job, which was to make Macdonald’s ideas happen.

“I wasn’t sure which cameras we were going to use or where it would be shot,” she says now. “At first, I think we had him set up sitting on a chair like a little far away. And then we decided to move, for lighting and just to get closer. That’s why we shot it where we did.”

They set up in her condo. An HD camera captured Macdonald from the front, an iPhone from the side. For lighting, Hoekstra flipped on a bright lamp, and Macdonald, clean-shaven and wearing headphones and a blue sport coat over a pink golf shirt, sat at her kitchen counter. Her French bulldog, Aggie, let out a few barks.

“Hello, everybody,” Macdonald said as the camera rolled. “Norm Macdonald. And this is my comedy special. That’s right.”

And for the next 54 minutes, without stopping, Macdonald delivered his material.

For Hoekstra, working on the special in the wake of Macdonald’s death was a distraction. Now, after handing in the final cut, she struggles with how to talk about it.

She wrestles with whether the celebrity panel takes away from Macdonald’s performance. She also isn’t sure what to share of the comedian’s life. Macdonald didn’t want anything about his illness to get out, but there are things Hoekstra does want people to know about what he went through.

The rounds of chemotherapy in 2013 led to neuropathy that left him with constant pain in his feet, so bad that he described it as walking on shards of glass or through fire. It’s why Macdonald, who loved to play tennis and golf, went through long bouts of inactivity. It’s also why he wasn’t always just being flaky when he bailed on social commitments.

Then there was his physical appearance. Just over 6 foot 1, with blue eyes and dimples, the 1990s Macdonald had leading man looks and briefly dated supermodel Elle Macpherson. But after his cancer diagnosis, he had to go on dexamethasone, a powerful steroid that caused his face to swell.

“He pretended, ‘I’m a fat slob and I’m here eating fried chicken,’ during his [YouTube talk show], but it was complete bulls—,” says his brother, Neil, a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “He was doing it to come up with a reason for having put on weight.”

Hoekstra says Macdonald’s focus remained on comedy, often at the expense of all else. She saw him do hundreds of shows over the years without repeating the same material in the same order. If he seemed dysfunctional in so many other areas of life — whether losing his hotel keys or forgetting how to sign on to his email — it’s because of how much attention he gave to his work. It’s how, the night before a stem cell transplant, Macdonald was able to reel off almost an hour of material without looking at a single note.

“Nothing was important to him except for his stand-up,” she says. “Obviously, he had serious things in his life he was also dealing with, meaning the illness. But professionally and in life, it was all about the comedy.”

Bare by necessity

“Nothing Special” is unlike anything you’ve seen from Macdonald or, really, any stand-up. It has more aesthetically in common with an Instagram Live than the slick specials generally rolled out by Netflix. It’s also a strange sensation to watch a stand-up comedian do his entire routine without an audience. Drew Michael did this for his 2018 HBO special, but that was as stylized as an Absolut Vodka ad. “Nothing Special” is bare by necessity.

“The form is different,” Letterman says in the post-performance chat. “It’s not, strictly speaking, stand-up. It’s something else.”

Neil Macdonald says he worries about how the special will be received — not for Macdonald, but for Hoekstra, whose devotion to his younger brother has left his family in “awe.”

“You know, audiences can be merciless,” he said. “Norm didn’t give a f— if he bombed. But she does.”

Hoekstra and Macdonald had a friendship that ran deeper than many marriages. After meeting at SNL, where she was a writer’s assistant, Macdonald recruited her to be part of the “Weekend Update” team with him and veteran writer Jim Downey. When Macdonald was fired from SNL, she followed him to Los Angeles to work on sitcoms and then a series of projects, including his stand-up specials, his sports show for Comedy Central and his 2018 Netflix talk show, “Norm Macdonald Has a Show.”

“She became Norm’s sort of gal Friday and manager,” says Downey, the longtime SNL writer. “He just couldn’t have done it without her.”

“She was, by far, his most trusted sounding board on material, what to wear for a special,” says comedian Josh Gardner, who first worked with Hoekstra and Macdonald at SNL in the 1990s. “They really were kind of a left hand, right hand of a piano player.”

“Speaking of secretive”

In June 2020, Neil Macdonald had flown in from Canada to donate blood for his brother’s transplant. At first, things went well. Macdonald seemed to gain weight and strength; he punched out a rough screenplay for a movie adaptation of his critically acclaimed, best-selling comic novel, “Based on a True Story: A Memoir.” He began to book stand-up gigs. Then, in early 2021, doctors told him he needed another stem cell transplant. Neil donated again, and, in March 2021, Macdonald, checking in as always under his pseudonym, Stan Hooper, underwent the procedure.

He rented a place in Newport Beach and walked along the water. His health had plateaued, but there were hopeful days. He booked his normal run at Carolines on Broadway for November 2021. In June, he texted Gardner.

“Do you want to open for me for a private gig in Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “Nov. 5, baby.”

“Speaking of secretive,” says comedian Colin Quinn, “he booked a gig with me in August to do some casinos and we texted each other. ‘Hey, I can’t wait to do the gig.’ ‘Yeah, me neither.’ ”

Quinn could never quite figure Macdonald out. But he knew he loved being around him.

“I would have loved to have just filmed him and just interviewed him and not about anything personal, because he didn’t like that,” says Quinn, who replaced Macdonald as “Weekend Update” anchor. “When you watch little segments with him, he’s just one of those guys you want to hear talk.”

Voice-over from the hospital

In July, Macdonald went in for what would normally be an outpatient round of chemotherapy. But because of the pandemic, the doctors wanted him to stay overnight. That’s when he somehow got an infection. He would not leave the City of Hope again, spending his last six weeks there.

He never talked of dying. He thought he would recover. Late in July, Macdonald did a voice-over for Seth MacFarlane’s show “The Orville” while at the hospital — not that anybody on the other side knew. Hoekstra found a private room and turned off the beeping monitors and hospital intercom so that nobody could tell where he was Zooming from.

And a month before he died, Macdonald told Hoekstra he wanted to watch the special they had shot. So she raced home and searched through a box with about 50 unlabeled video memory cards, eventually finding the June 28 footage and hustling back to the hospital. Macdonald watched it from his bed and gave her notes.

No one else knew. It was left to Hoekstra, after Macdonald’s death, to tell Gurvitz and Netflix. Everyone had the same initial concern: How does Norm look? Nobody wanted to see a gaunt cancer patient out of breath, trying to tell jokes. But that’s not the Macdonald on “Nothing Special.”

“He looks fantastic,” O’Brien says. “The way it’s shot, it really features his secret weapon, those eyes and those dimples. And his inner light is beaming as strongly as it ever did. I mean, it just didn’t look like a man who was diminished in any way.”

Earlier this month, O’Brien agreed to MC a private celebration of Macdonald at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. About 250 people were in the room, including Dylan, Neil, Hoekstra, Bill Murray, Bob Odenkirk, Kevin Nealon and Judd Apatow.

O’Brien called Macdonald “the most completely original person I have ever met. He didn’t look like anyone else, talk like anyone else or follow many of the basic principles of comedy. He lived in his own strange world populated by hobos, French Canadians, cardsharps, trappers, a pig with a wooden leg, farmers, hooligans and, for reasons no one will ever understand, Frank Stallone.”

As he wound up his tribute, O’Brien looked out at the crowd and talked wistfully of how much he was going to miss seeing Macdonald do what nobody else could.

“Selfishly, I don’t feel badly for Norm,” he said. “I feel badly for all of us.”

Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post’s national arts reporter, covers everything from fine arts to popular culture. He’s the author of “Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever.” He is also the host of “Edge of Fame,” a podcast co-produced by WBUR Boston.

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