The Complicated Legacy of Norm Macdonald
Norm Macdonald, who passed away at 61 from cancer, was a comedy legend. But these women say he sexually harassed them, and comedy clubs took measures to protect women from him.
The news of Norm Macdonald’s death caught everyone off guard—the legendary Saturday Night Live comedian had been privately battling cancer for the past nine years.
An outpouring of tributes followed from comedians and fans alike, sharing anecdotes and reminiscing about their favorite Macdonald bits. But as many in the industry were mourning Macdonald’s passing, some women were bracing themselves, for they too had a story to share about Macdonald.
To many, Macdonald was part of the old guard of stand-up comedy. His cracks came fast and unexpected, often met with delayed laughter from the audience as they tried to keep up with him. He was a comic’s comic, known for his deadpan delivery and often rambling storytelling.
And he never shied away from ruffling feathers; if he thought it was funny, he would say it, those who may be offended be damned. Case in point: his firing from SNL in 1998 was reportedly because he wouldn’t let up on O.J. Simpson, who happened to be a close friend of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer.
But while Macdonald was being memorialized, many glossed over some of his not-so-funny faults, save Slate. Perhaps one of the most dumbfounding pieces was an opinion column that ran in The New York Times that lauded Macdonald’s comedy for being “quite Christian,” because he admitted he was anti-abortion and pushed back on another comedian’s quip that compared the Bible to the Harry Potter books.
Yet Macdonald made a number of transphobic remarks, including that Brandon Teena “deserved to die”; continually dismissed and disparaged women, both on stage and off; voiced his disdain for the #MeToo movement; and stuck up for comedy pals who were accused of sexual harassment.
In 2018, he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter and griped about the #MeToo movement. “I’m happy the MeToo movement has slowed down a little bit,” he said. “It used to be, ‘One hundred women can’t be lying.’ And then it became, ‘One woman can’t lie.’ And that became, ‘I believe all women.’ And then you’re like, ‘What?’”
In that same interview, he expressed sympathy for his friends Roseanne Barr and Louis C.K., the latter of whom had admitted to sexual misconduct in 2017 after five women came forward with accusations against him, including that he would masturbate in front of them. Barr’s reboot of Roseanne was canceled by ABC in 2018 after she went on a shockingly racist Twitter rant about former President Barack Obama’s ex-adviser Valerie Jarrett, comparing her to an ape.
As one woman who worked with Macdonald during his time as a judge on Last Comic Standing in 2015 framed it to The Daily Beast, “If he’s comedy’s sweetheart, then that is a scathing indictment of the comedy scene, not a compliment to Norm.”
It was always hard to pin down exactly where Macdonald stood; if he was telling the truth, exaggerating a story to spin it into a half-truth, or flat-out lying. As Slate’s Lili Loofbourow points out, even his own “memoir” Based on a True Story wasn’t fully accurate. He wrote that he chose the title “because it comes to me that there’s no way of telling a true story. I mean a really true one, because of memory. It’s just no good.”
It wasn’t only Macdonald’s jokes that seemed to blur the line between fiction and reality. Many fans paying tribute to him noted, in frat-bro adulation, how Macdonald seemed drunk while performing, praising him for landing his jokes despite how impaired he appeared to be. But Macdonald didn’t drink, or at least that’s what he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015.
“I’ve never drank, no,” he said. “But people think I’m drunk all the time because for some reason my voice is all slurry, and when I’m talking onstage, I’m thinking a lot… When they ask what I’m drinking and I tell them I’m not, they either don’t believe me or they’re very disappointed… But I don’t drink or do any drugs. I guess I’m just naturally lazy and incoherent.”
Still, he leaned into this perception, admitting he would down booze-free shots to impress his crowd, especially if he was bombing. In that same interview, unprompted, Macdonald admitted he often pretended to be drunk to get away with groping women.
“I’d be in a bar and for some reason when you’re drunk, girls will put up with it if you try to grope them or whatever,” he bragged. “(In a high-pitched voice) ‘What are you doing? Ha-ha.’ If you’re sober, they’re like, ‘Hey! Just what do you think you’re doing?’ So, I’d just garble my words. I have used being a drunk to my advantage many times.”
These admissions from Macdonald’s own mouth struck a nerve with numerous women who came forward on Twitter to claim it wasn’t just another joke—that Macdonald had a reputation of harassing female comedians and comedy club waitresses.
One woman, whom The Daily Beast is identifying as Molly, claims when she asked Macdonald for a photo after a show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he shoved his hand down the back of her pants and groped her behind. Molly later uploaded the photo to Facebook with the caption, “Molestation taking place at this moment.”
Another woman, who worked as a waitress at Portland’s Helium Comedy Club, and whom The Daily Beast is identifying as Sofia, says she was serving Macdonald in the green room when he suddenly backed her up against the wall, put his hands in her hair, and yanked her head back, as if he was going to kiss her, leaving her shaken and terrified.
Macdonald’s behavior was no secret to comedy-club managers, according to sources. Sofia says The Helium Club implemented policies about who could serve Macdonald in the green room when he performed, while Cap City in Austin refrained from booking him after he allegedly made fellow performing female comedians and the venue’s wait staff uncomfortable.
The Daily Beast reached out to Macdonald’s team for comment. The Daily Beast also reached out to Cap City for comment multiple times but did not receive a response. Rich Miller, who oversaw booking at Helium Comedy Club and now Cap City, declined to comment for this story.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the women who voiced their experiences, and even those who simply reshared their posts, were dogpiled on. They were branded liars, subjected to trolls who made disgusting comments about their appearances, and ultimately questioned as to why they would dare tamper with Macdonald’s legacy after his death.
Molly questions why so many people are eager to protect his reputation, looking past some of his unsettling comments, when she believes Macdonald didn’t hold his legacy in too much esteem in the first place.
“This isn’t me messing up his legacy,” says Molly. “This was something he owned; this is something he did to me. He didn’t hide this—he bragged about it. I’m not messing with his legacy. I’m backing up his own claims that he didn’t care.”
“I walked up to him, I said, ‘You are my favorite comedian, when I was a kid, I loved the movie Dirty Work. I saw it in the theater 10 times.’ He didn’t care about his legacy, because he looked a person in the eye who would have carried on his legacy, showed those movies to their kids when they were older, laughed with him, and kept the things he worked for present in people’s mind—he just stomped on it for a momentary satisfaction of his impulses,” Molly adds.
“He didn’t care about his legacy, he didn’t care about me, he didn’t care about anything but what he wanted. So, I don’t know what I’m supposed to care about when it comes to him.”
Sofia claims that Macdonald appeared to be drunk when she was working as a waitress at The Helium Club in the fall of 2011, while Macdonald was performing at the club with Kevin Farley—the brother of the late comedian Chris Farley.
“He always acted like he was drunk, he was a pretty weird guy,” Sofia recalls. “I went in [to the green room] to see if they needed anything. [Macdonald] backed me up against the wall and put his hands in my hair and pulled my head back, like he was gonna kiss me. It was really terrifying… I don’t even remember how I actually got out of there. I think I blocked it out or whatever. I didn’t know what they were gonna do to me. Kevin had a weird look on his face, so I don’t know if he was in shock at what Norm was doing.” (The Daily Beast reached out to Kevin Farley for comment.)
Others are wrestling with their feelings about Macdonald, including fellow comedian Nancy Norton, who shared a telling anecdote about Macdonald and how he “personally offended” them after a particularly “magical” performance.
“He took the stage [and] he asked the audience, ‘yeah, you liked Nancy? Yeah, I’ll tell you who else liked Nancy, my hard cock. Yeah, my hard cock really liked Nancy,’” Norton wrote. “True to his original style, he repeated this over and over and over with different phrasing for like what seemed several minutes. God, I felt humiliated and reduced, but I didn’t say anything to him.”
Norton tells The Daily Beast that Macdonald trying to reduce them on stage after they had such a successful set made them feel “like shit.” So, when Norton finally saw Macdonald again a few years later, they approached him about the comment and said how uncomfortable it made them feel.
“Norm simply replied, ‘Yeah, that sounds like something I would do.’ Well, somehow that acknowledgment helped clear that wound and not take it personally. Well, that and watching him bomb his ass off for repeatedly calling kids r----ds. (That was how nervy he was, in front of an audience full of parents and friends of kids with brain cancer.) He bombed so hard a man in the audience finally yelled, ‘Leave!’”
Norton says they grappled with whether to post their story, because they don’t necessarily agree with “cancel culture,” but think there should be a dialogue opened up. Plus, they believe as comedians, the “priority is to speak the unspeakable truth sometimes,” and maybe that was Macdonald’s uncensored and raw view that “women are just something for his cock.”
“I don’t like the tokenism or like [to say] that’s all on Norm,” Norton explains. “It’s not all on Norm. He was the voice, and he had the courage to be the voice of the maybe unpopular. Is he just the voice of the patriarchy?”
A recurring theme of Macdonald’s jokes involved dismissing women—how they can’t do math, can’t drive, and while on SNL, he was especially vicious toward Madonna. In fact, a Macdonald fan account uploaded a nearly 20-minute video simply titled “Sexist Jokes Compilation” in 2019. Macdonald also wasn’t fond of too many female comics, although he had soft spots for Barr and Sarah Silverman, one of the few female comedians who paid tribute to him after his passing.
It was his treatment of women that altered the viewpoint of a longtime fan who worked on the set of Last Comic Standing when Macdonald served as a judge in 2015. “If you say, ‘Norm Macdonald,’ I think, ‘Hates women,’” she explains. “May not be his whole person, but that was my takeaway from Last Comic Standing.”
“Norm was just extremely disappointing, unfunny, and uneven in his temperament toward comedians, and themes emerged—he was especially hostile and degrading toward younger women and alternative comics,” she says. “His critiques of male comics would be about their comedy, but he would get very personal and condescending to the women, whose sets would be identical to ones he just praised.”
For Molly, she says that Macdonald has been dead to her since the incident at the theater more than 10 years ago. “I couldn’t watch him on TV anymore,” she says. “I feel sick every time I see him and just knowing there’s hundreds of women [who] feel that way, I will definitely say something because that’s when people stop questioning you or telling you that you’re lying, is when women in unison say the same thing.”