Norm Macdonald, “Based On a True Story: Not a Memoir” (2016) (read by the author) – Norm Macdonald was probably the funniest motherfucker I have shared this planet with thus far. My roommate and I had tickets to see him perform in Boston when we learned about his death. Like everyone else, we had no idea that he was sick. From the cheap seats, Macdonald was what I think of as “pure comedian.” He wasn’t notably charming, or handsome or compellingly ugly, he didn’t push envelopes in terms of hot button content or naughty words, wasn’t from a fresh identity category (don’t think Canadian counts), didn’t have an angle to him other than being just extraordinarily funny and utterly committed to the bit, to making people laugh. I’ve known of a few people a bit like that, not as successful as Macdonald, naturally, and they can make the lives of the people around them hell, but it really is it’s own kind of art.
I don’t know whether the story that someone asked Macdonald for a celebrity memoir and he handed in this comic novel is true, but it would make sense that Macdonald would seize the opportunity such an opening would give him. Your pure comic, more even than most comics, relies on the absurdity of life in general for material. What’s a more compound absurdity than the celebrity tell-all memoir and the life it kinda-sorta depicts?
So, Macdonald tells “his” story, using one of his go-to joke modes, old-timey phrasing and anecdotes summoning up hardscrabble pseudo-wisdom, as a tone and even plot structure for the whole book. This version of Macdonald is both a wholesome son of the rural great white north and a deviant of the first order. He regales us with cliches of rural life at least as funny as Stella Gibbons’ in “Cold Comfort Farm” before bringing us to Star Search and Saturday Night Live, where he makes his way via threats of violence, strategic illegal morphine sales, and sheer delusional self-belief. There’s a brief stint in prison for stalking Sarah Silverman, then he gets caught up in gambling.
This is where “Based on a True Story” comes relatively close to living up to its name- Macdonald was a problem gambler. He talks about it as hinging on that one moment, after you’ve thrown the dice but before they land- the moment of hope. I’m not a gambler, but that made me relate. Macdonald decides to throw away the credit he had built in Las Vegas in one last gambling spree, either making millions of dollars and buying a ranch in Montana, or losing it all and killing himself with dilaudid. He forces his (irl friend and cohost) Adam Eget, depicted as a manchild gambling prodigy along for the ride, winds up in hock to a mysterious figure in the Salton Sea, meets God but doesn’t pay much attention to Him, and tries to kidnap his ghostwriter, a fallen intellectual who occasionally bursts in to tell his version of the story.
Macdonald read the story himself (except for ghost writer parts- I thought they were Judah Friedlander, but were not) and so nails the delivery on every line. Not everything is a laugh line, of course, but he masterfully builds the tension and plays bait and switch with expectations to lead to gut busting laughs throughout. Things never go to the place, emotionally, you’ll think they’ll go. He’s never sentimental — part of his genius was the way he played with sentimentality but never gave in to it — so it meant that when I felt nice hearing his voice after his death, there was no bullshit heartstring tug to cheapen it. It was just a hilarious, well-written comic novel that played with memoir, celebrity culture, and crime fiction. It was funny, the one thing Macdonald wanted to be, and the one thing he was more than anyone. *****