Norm was a risk taker. Now we have a better understanding why.
Everyone has a gun to their head, but Norm’s was cocked and loaded — and none of us knew it. To think he was so sick with cancer for so long and didn’t tell even his closest friends makes me so sad. (He did tell one of our close friends recently that he’d also had cancer as a kid.) I can’t help but wonder if all this is, at least in part, what made him so fearless in his work.
He started doing standup on Letterman in 1990. He was the only guy I’d run home to watch when he was on. I didn’t want to miss him. I knew he’d say something so sharp and singular that I could laugh about with my other comic friends for days.
I remember once when the actress Courtney Thorne-Smith was on Conan promoting a movie starring Carrot Top called “Chairman Of The Board.” Norm jumped in and asked, “Hey, is “board” spelled “b-o-r-e-d?” He didn’t care about pissing-off the movie studio or the host or the publicists. He always went for the laugh.
When the O.J. jury was still deliberating, Norm said on Weekend Update: “Now they have to decide whether to free him or get all their heads cut off.” That was the joke that probably got him fired from SNL even after he’d been warned. But he didn’t care — or if he didn’t he didn’t show it. Nothing ever seemed to matter to Norm except telling the best possible joke.
Of course being risky doesn’t always mean being edgy. At the very bawdy roast of our friend Bob Saget, Norm went up late in the line-up and took the gigantic risk of not really insulting anyone at all. He delivered old-fashioned farmers’ almanac type jokes, which he read off cards, with complete sincerity. “Greg Geraldo has the grace of a swan, the wisdom of an owl, and the eye of an eagle. Ladies and gentlemen this man is for the birds.” I remember that Greg just shrugged and said “Jesus” with a slightly slightly confused look.
It took us all a minute to figure out that Norm was basically bombing on purpose. I sensed something building right away but didn’t really start laughing hard until about five jokes in when Norm looked at the eighty-something-year-old Oscar winner Cloris Leachman and said, “If people say you’re over the hill . . . don’t believe ‘em. Well, you’ll never be over the hill, not in the car you drive.”
By the time he was done a thousand people were roaring at his purposely soft jokes. Norm’s risk paid off this time and roast fans still talk about that performance.
Norm seemed to relish bombing as much as killing. My first ever legitimate comedy club gig was emceeing Norm’s eight shows over six nights at Catch A Rising Star in Princeton, New Jersey. He was gaining momentum in Canada but nobody really knew him yet in America. Imagine a young, skinny Norm at his most raw and natural performing a clean, well-crafted routine for an hour in a thick Canadian accent to a drunk New Jersey crowd that would have much rather been watching Andrew Dice Clay recite dirty nursery rhymes in an arena. Not everyone got him yet.
His bits were long and weird and sometimes he would bomb. When he did, he would stand by the exit door and awkwardly say goodbye to every single person as they left. This was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. He purposely made people so uncomfortable.
When Norm killed, he would walk off stage and pull out of a deck of cards and force me to gamble with him in the green room. Every night after the show we played poker in the hotel lobby with the middle act, Rich Vos, and and whatever business travelers we could find passing through. In the middle of one hand Vos asked me, “So, Jeff, how long have you been doing stand-up?” Norm looked up, curious. I was so happy these two pros had finally taken an interest in my career. I proudly declared: “It’s almost been eighteen months!” Vos waited a perfect beat and said, “Then go get me a Diet Coke.”
Norm laughed so hard. He was the best audience a fellow comic could have. When the Princeton run was over Norm asked me for a ride into Manhattan. He was heading in to appear on Letterman for the first time. I still lived in Jersey and it was hours out of my way — but I couldn’t resist a chance to drop him off at such an important event in his life. He killed. Letterman loved him so much he even called back Norms’ big punchline, “It’s me, Bob!” after the commercial break when Norm was already gone. That was it. Everyone knew Norm’s name after that.
He became a legend but he was never complacent. At the afterparty for Bob’s roast, Norm mentioned to me that he wanted to ask Cloris Leachman the secret of staying funny as one gets older. (She, like him, was also willing to say anything. That night she opened her set by saying, “I’m not here to roast Bob Saget. I’m here to fuck John Stamos.”) I ushered Norm closer to her and suggested they sit together. An hour later I noticed Norm and Cloris still talking. Sadly, whatever her advice was he’ll never get to use it. What a loss.
Comedians are supposed to tell the truth no matter the consequences. That’s what Norm did on stage. I wish he’d also told us the truth about his health. We all would’ve been able to tell him how much we loved him.
Jeff Ross (@realjeffreyross) is the executive producer of the Comedy Central Roasts. He also stars in “Bumping Mics” and “Historical Roasts,” both on Netflix.