It’s often tempting to immediately canonize the deceased. But it’s never just: Heaping undue praise on a dead man can be even more insulting than speaking ill of his memory.
Consider the case of Norm Macdonald. The comedian, who died Tuesday after an unpublicized, nine-year battle with cancer, was best known in life for his O. J. Simpson jokes, a Comedy Central anti-roast, and a shaggy dog story about a moth. In his last decade, he developed a fervent cult following as he churned out ever more bizarre material, often touching on his faith, death, and the afterlife. Now that he’s gone, some of his fans are turning to that late work and recasting him as a Christian apologist.
The impulse is understandable. Macdonald counted himself, in a vague way, as a Christian. And he held no quarter for those who mocked religion. In 2015, he was a judge on the NBC show “Last Comic Standing” when a contestant delivered a joke trashing the Bible as pathetic in comparison to the Harry Potter series. One of the hosts called that performance “brave.” Macdonald was not impressed.
“I think if you’re going to take on an entire religion, you should maybe know what you’re talking about,” he said. “J.K. Rowling is a Christian, and J.K. Rowling famously said that if you’re familiar with the scriptures, you could easily guess the ending of her book.”
Macdonald later told the Hollywood Reporter that ripping on faith is passé these days. True bravery, he said, is for an entertainer to do the opposite: “If a guy went up and said, ‘Jesus Christ is our lord and savior,’ I’d say, ‘Damn, that guy’s brave!’ Or, ‘The infidels must die under the sword of Allah!’ I’d go, ‘Goddamn, that’s a brave comic.’”
Macdonald would often make these sorts of statements himself. During an interview with Larry King, Macdonald needled the longtime TV host for the “God-shaped hole” in his heart. He did the same thing to Jerry Seinfeld a few years later when the sitcom legend voiced doubts about the afterlife. For his own part, though, Macdonald admitted only to being “on a spiritual journey.”
Macdonald may have only been dabbling in Christianity, but his criticisms of the post-Christian world were often incisive. He had no tolerance for scientism and laughed at atheists. He frequently lampooned the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher. And he wasn’t afraid to make dark predictions about a future dominated by their successors.
“The Enlightenment turned us away from truth and toward a darkling weakening horizon, sad and gray to see,” he tweeted in 2018. “The afterglow of Christianity is near gone now, and a Stygian silence lurks in wait.”
But that was always the terminus of Macdonald’s insight. Like many of the best comics, he saw the enormity of the world and, since he was unable to do anything about it, decided to laugh rather than weep. It’s no wonder that Macdonald excelled at 9/11 jokes.
And it’s unsurprising that he had a soft spot for Russian literature, particularly the work of Vladimir Nabokov, whose style he aped throughout much of his memoir, Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir. Nabokov, Macdonald said later, was practicing the “highest form of parody,” and was the sort of comic whose work he hoped to imitate. And in his way, Macdonald succeeded: Many of his best bits are essentially Pnin, but slurred out the mouth of a drunken hockey fan. He never took himself too seriously.
“I always bristle when people say, ‘The comedian is the modern-day philosopher,’” he told New York in 2018. “There are modern-day philosophers.”
Maybe that humility helped him as Macdonald met his end. Toward the end of his life, it seemed like he was working toward more coherency in his faith, at least to many of his Twitter followers. It’s hard to say what was going through his mind—and probably irresponsible to guess.
“Like everyone, I am in search of the true faith of course,” he tweeted in 2019. “It’s been a rather long tough journey, for me at least.”
Now that his journey’s over, we can only pray that he found it.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, DC.
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Image taken from a video of Norm Macdonald.