On Sept. 24, 1994, Saturday Night Live welcomed a new face behind its Weekend Update desk: Norm Macdonald.
The segment — a weekly skewering of news headlines and current events — had existed, in one form or another, since SNL’s first show. There were name chances — SNL Newsbreak and Saturday Night News among them — and the formula had varied over the years. Cast members who sat in the anchor chair included Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Christopher Guest, Dennis Miller and Kevin Nealon.
Still, Macdonald brought with him a style and delivery that Weekend Update had never seen before.
“I wasn’t a very good writer and I wasn’t a very good performer, but I could be a writer-performer,” Macdonald explained of his role on the late night show in the book Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. “And the one place I could do that was SNL, because Lorne [Michaels] was always good with letting writers perform if they were funny.”
What made Macdonald so unique was his general indifference. With a sly smile, he’d happily dish sarcastic remarks and unexpected non sequiturs without caring whether the audience liked the jokes or not.
“I always thought Chevy was the best guy at doing Update,” Macdonald explained, referring to Chase, the original Weekend Update anchor. “Most people were not good at it, you know. So I didn’t think if I was bad I’d be singled out. Just basically Chevy and Dennis Miller were the only good ones, ever. So I wasn’t worried about that.”
Macdonald’s style, described by SNL writer James Downey as “deadpan, just very straight, no frills,” was not for everyone — which was exactly the way the comedian liked it.
“I didn’t care about the audience reaction at all,” Macdonald admitted. “I just like doing the jokes I like, and if the audience doesn’t like them, then they’re wrong, not me.”
Macdonald’s anchor debut would showcase many characteristics that would come to define his Weekend Update tenure. Decades later, his opening line proved downright prescient: “I’m Norm Macdonald. And now, the fake news.”
His first joke would be about the O.J. Simpson trial, a topic he’d regularly skewer over the next few years. From there, Macdonald would comment that Haitian general Raoul Cédras “held a hasty garage sale of some knick knacks he’d acquired in office,” while an image displaying a wall of human skulls was shown on screen. This elicited the first audience groans of Macdonald’s Weekend Update run, but all he did was smile. “You big fans of the Haitian strongman, are ya?,” the comedian quipped.
Macdonald’s further jokes would cover the Middle East, Anna Nicole Smith, the first deaf Miss America and a lawsuit regarding fast food giant McDonald’s coffee being too hot. “As a result, McDonald’s this week has put a warning label on its coffee cups that reads, ‘Caution: Do you think you can manage to avoid pouring it directly on your crotch this time, you senile old hag. Think you can manage that, huh?’”
The comedian later delivered the first of what would become a recurring Update gag, noting his theory that “Germans love David Hasselhoff.”
“Of all the other Update guys, the one who was the funniest to me was Norm,” Chase later declared, celebrating Macdonald’s “quality of ‘I don’t care.’” “He just came out and said it.”
Like his entire tenure behind the Weekend Update desk, Macdonald’s anchor debut was polarizing. Years later, NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer would point out how the studio audience rarely applauded after the comedian’s jokes, something he believed was proof that Macdonald wasn’t a popular host. What Ohlmeyer didn’t understand was that Macdonald was never playing for cheers.
“I hate applause,” the comedian admitted. “I don’t like an audience applauding because to me that’s like a cheap kind of high. They kind of control you. They’re like, ‘Yeah, we agree.’ That’s all they’re doing, saying they agree with your viewpoint. And while you can applaud voluntarily, you can’t laugh voluntarily — you have to laugh involuntarily. I don’t want to say things that an audience already thinks.”