Great Moments in Comedy: Norm Macdonald at the Bob Saget Roast

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It’s rare in this world to come across perfection, particularly in comedy. Yet there is some comedy that is perfect. Being There. Rodney Dangerfield’s No Respect. Norm Macdonald’s legendary performance at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget. Macdonald is a comic genius. His material wasn’t always great on “Weekend Update” but even when slotted in the Chevy Chase smarmy handsome guy slot he was never anything less than a true original. 

This was never more apparent than during what I consider the highlight of his career outside of Dirty Work: his legendary performance at the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget. The impulse when roasting someone is to go as hard and as dirty and as aggressive as you possibly can, to “win” by out-grossing everyone else, or, alternately, being super-clever. 

So there’s something brilliantly counter-intuitive about Macdonald traveling in the opposite direction. The audience expects, even demands, profanity and nastiness and gutter scatology. Then Macdonald shambles over genially and begins delivering dad jokes so exquisitely hokey and unfunny that they cross over and become devastatingly funny. You can watch it here

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At first the audience doesn’t seem to know what to make of Macdonald. They clearly expected him to make the kinds of jokes everyone makes at Comedy Central roasts (particularly since they’re all written by the same hungry, sometimes talented young comedians) and Macdonald opens by joking that people say Cloris Leachman is “over the hill”, to which he can only retort, “You’ll never be over the hill! Not in the car you drive!” 

They cut to a reaction shot of Leachman with a tight, pained smile. I’m not sure there’s even a joke in “not in the car you drive” beyond her car being so creaky that it’s incapable of making it up a hill, let alone down one. But it takes a fair amount of decoding to even process it as a joke, let alone the kind of joke anyone would make at a contemporary Roast. 

The crowd seems to be trying to figure out exactly what Macdonald is doing when he turns his attention to roast favorite Greg Giraldo, who he first praises for possessing the “grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle.”  He then pivots before delivering a punchline worthy of a second-grade jokester who’s just purchased his first joke book, “Ladies and gentleman, this man is for the birds!”   

Macdonald pauses an unusually long time after the “Ladies and gentleman, this man is for the birds!” line. You can pretty much see and feel the energy shift as the dais and honoree and audience all laugh long and hard, seemingly as much at their own reaction to Macdonald as his actual material. 

He has them now. They’ve figured out that he’s doing something very weird and very unexpected and very Norm Macdonald. They’ve begun to glean that this will be no traditional roast set but rather a bone-dry deconstruction both of the roast as a form of entertainment and joke structure.

Roasts are the domain of naughty adolescents snickering at their cultural betters. Macdonald subverts this dynamic by playing a role that’s half corny dad and half corny kid who’s just discovered jokes and is intent on punishing everyone around him for this new knowledge. 

There’s something poignantly formal about Macdonald’s presentation and word choices. He “roasts” his contemporaries and Saget so gently that his jokes come off more as genial compliments, like when he calls Gilbert Gottfried a “scoundrel” or observes that Susie Essman may be a vegetarian but she’s nevertheless “full of bologna in my book!” 

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Then he begins roasting Saget with the wonderfully wordy observation that he has a lot of “well-wishers” there tonight in the form of people who would like to “throw you down a well.”  

Macdonald then breaks his set’s tone of genial avunicularity when he spells out the full implication of his “well-wishers" quip, explaining, “They want to murder you in a well!” Is it worth ever-so-slightly breaking character? Oh fuck yeah. That line is funny enough to justify just about anything, even when Macdonald repeats it. 

Macdonald’s symphony of silliness reaches one of many apexes when he jokes of Saget that he has “Wavy hair” that’s “waving goodbye on account of he’s going bald!” My wife does not care for Anti-Comedy but there’s something about this particular performance that resonates with fans of anti-comedy and people who find anti-comedy insufferable. 

The set is a genius meditation on the nature of comedy and roasts and jokes that’s intentionally corny and child-like. Most comedians feel like they need to do their dirtiest material at roasts. In the greatest roast performance of all time, Macdonald absolutely destroys with Laffy Taffy wrapper jokes. He delivered a set for the ages with beginner joke book jokes. 

Macdonald breaks character once more in the set when he explains that a semi-quip about Saget resembling Rin Tin Tin (a reference suiting jokes that mostly appear to be a hundred years old or so) means that Saget is “a fucking dogface” but the hilarity of the line, and Macdonald’s enjoyment of it, more than justifies the break in character/tone. 

Then it’s back to Macdonald genially delivering zingers like, “Bob is not very worldly. He thinks the English Channel is a British TV station and not a body of water separating England from France.” 

The set ends as all must: with the veneer of good-natured contempt stripped away to reveal a core of genuine, mutual affection. Macdonald handles this as beautifully and awkwardly as he handles everything else. He seems genuinely choked up and sincere when he says of his bond with Saget, “One thing that binds us as comedians is that we’re bitter and jealous and we hate everyone else who has any success but Bob has honestly never had an unkind word for anyone.” 

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That’s not just what binds comedians to each other. That’s what binds all of humanity together but in just under six minutes of comic perfection Macdonald took a series of stale old jokes and a stale old joke of a format and breathed new life into ancient forms. In the process he created a high watermark both for his own erratic but something genius career and Roasts as a medium. 

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