Norm Macdonald, the acerbic, sometimes controversial comedian familiar to millions as the “Weekend Update” anchor on “Saturday Night Live” from 1994 to 1998, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 61.
His manager, Marc Gurvitz, confirmed the death. Lori Jo Hoekstra, his longtime producing partner, told the entertainment news outlet Deadline that the cause was cancer, something he had been dealing with for some time but had kept largely private.
Mr. Macdonald had a deadpan style honed on the stand-up circuit, first in his native Canada and then in the United States. By 1990 he was doing his routine on “Late Night With David Letterman” and other shows. Then, in 1993, came his big break: an interview with Lorne Michaels, a fellow Canadian, for a job on “Saturday Night Live.”
“I knew that even though we hailed from the same nation, we were worlds apart,” Mr. Macdonald wrote in “Based on a True Story: Not a Memoir” (2016), a fictional work with occasional hints of biography mixed in. “He was a cosmopolite from Toronto, worldly, the kinda guy who’d be comfortable around the Queen of England herself. Me, I was a hick, born to the barren, rocky soil of the Ottawa Valley, where the richest man in town was the barber.”
In any case, he got the job, and by the next year he was in the anchor chair for the “Weekend Update” segment. In sketches, he impersonated Burt Reynolds and Bob Dole and played other characters.
Mr. Michaels, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, said that Jim Downey, the show’s head writer at the time, had first brought Mr. Macdonald to his attention.
“Jim just liked the intelligence behind the jokes,” he recalled.
And Mr. Michaels saw it, too.
“There’s something in his comedy — there’s just a toughness to it,” he said. “Also, he’s incredibly patient. He can wait” — that is, wait for a punchline.
That, Mr. Michaels said, made Mr. Macdonald different stylistically from other “Weekend Update” anchors.
“I think it took some getting used to for the audience,” Mr. Michaels said. “It wasn’t instantly a hit. But he just grew on them.”
In early 1998, however, Mr. Macdonald was booted from the anchor chair, reportedly at the behest of Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC Entertainment, West Coast, who was said to have been annoyed by Mr. Macdonald’s relentless mocking of his friend O.J. Simpson.
Mr. Macdonald stayed on for a few more episodes but didn’t return for the 1998-99 season. His post-“S.N.L.” television ventures were a mixed bag.
“Norm” (originally called “The Norm Show”), a comedy about a former hockey player, ran from 1999 to 2001 on ABC. “Sports Show With Norm Macdonald,” on Comedy Central, lasted only a few months, in 2011.
“The dedicated fan will identify two patterns in his television work,” Dan Brooks wrote in a 2018 article about him in The New York Times Magazine. “It is invariably funny, and it is invariably canceled.”
But Mr. Macdonald said he didn’t think of himself first as a TV performer, and he continued to work as a comedian throughout his career.
“In my mind, I’m just a stand-up,” he told Mr. Brooks. “But other people don’t think that. They go, oh, the guy from ‘S.N.L.’ is doing stand-up now.”
Though known for “Weekend Update,” Mr. Macdonald did not do much topical material in his own routines. He liked jokes that would still be funny years in the future.
Among his most famous is one he told on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” in 2009, about a moth that goes to a podiatrist. After a setup that rambled on for minutes, in which the moth pours out various emotional troubles, the podiatrist asks the insect why it came to a podiatrist rather than a psychiatrist. Mr. Macdonald’s punchline: “And then the moth said, ‘Because the light was on.’”
Mr. Macdonald’s sense of humor sometimes got him in hot water. In 2018, for instance, he drew criticism for remarks that seemed to defend the comedian Louis C.K., who had been accused of sexual misconduct, and Roseanne Barr, who was under fire for a racist Twitter post. (Louis C.K. had written the foreword to Mr. Macdonald’s 2016 book, and Ms. Barr had hired him as a writer on her 1990s sitcom, “Roseanne.”) In apologizing for those comments, Mr. Macdonald made a remark that mocked people with Down syndrome.
Missteps aside, Mr. Macdonald was always good for an unpredictable few minutes, or more, on a late-night talk show.
“I’ve been interviewing Norm for 18 years, and he has consistently broken every talk-show rule,” Mr. O’Brien told The Times in 2011. “He tells anecdotes that are blatantly false. His stories have always been repurposed farmer’s daughter routines that he swears happened to him.”
Mr. O’Brien added, “When Norm steps out from behind the curtain, I honestly don’t know what is going to happen, and that electrical charge comes through the television.”
Norman Gene Macdonald was born on Oct. 17, 1959, in Quebec City, according to IMDB.
In 1998, his brother Neil told The Record of Ontario that Norm had had a flirtation with the newspaper business as a young man but that he had deliberately botched an interview for a job as a copyboy because he wasn’t that serious about the profession.
“He once said he was interested in discovering the truth, but he hoped it would be within walking distance,” Neil Macdonald told the newspaper.
He also recalled finding his brother hyperventilating in the washroom at Yuk Yuk’s, an Ottawa comedy club, before going onstage for his first stand-up gig. But he got it together and, as comedians say, killed.
By 1984, Mr. Macdonald was skilled enough to spend four months opening for the comedian Sam Kinison.
He eventually made his way to Los Angeles, and in 1992 he was hired as a writer on “The Dennis Miller Show” and then “Roseanne.”
“I never wanted fame at all, I just wanted to do stand-up,” he told The Ottawa Citizen in 2010. “I found when I came to Los Angeles to do more stand-up comedy that people wanted me to do other things, which I really didn’t want to.”
“Stand-up,” he added, “is an odd kind of job where, if you’re good at it, they figure you’ll be good at other stuff in show business, which is usually not the case.”
Mr. Macdonald wrote the 1998 film “Dirty Work,” in which he starred with Don Rickles, Chevy Chase and others. Among his other credits were the “Dr. Doolittle” movies, in which he provided the voice of a dog named Lucky.
His survivors include his mother, a son and two brothers, his manager said.
“He was an original,” Mr. Michaels said, “and he didn’t compromise in a business that’s based on compromise — show business.”
Dave Itzkoff contributed reporting.