The truth behind Macdonald’s Based on a True Story

gallery-1474902769-norm-macdonald-bookI just read Norm Macdonald’s memoir “Based on a True Story.” Read every word of it. Cover to cover. Could not put it down.

Actually, no, I’m half-way through it, but if Macdonald can stretch the truth, so can I. He’s fudged his age for so many years I’m not sure even he knows exactly how old he is; I might have to get the true number from his older brother Neil, the legit newsman (and, to quote Neil, “funniest brother”) in the family.

Macdonald was already working on his sort of made-up memoir two summers ago when I interviewed him at Just for Laughs in Montreal. He was candid about the process, about how the book would take occasional detours into novelization. I have no doubt Macdonald could go on to write a series of pulp fiction detective novels based on this funny and fanciful first effort.

“I’m trying to write it but trying to write good,” he told me. He claimed to be putting in up to three or four hours a day on the project. “Usually it’s stories from my life.”

The key word is “usually.” Macdonald likes to make shit up. Sometimes it gets out of hand. When he got to the part where he was getting raped in prison – after plotting to rape someone else – I got a little less interested in the narrative. This was supposedly happening during his first season on Saturday Night Live! Pure Macdonald though – just daring you to laugh.

Funnier are the passages about his real life friendship with Rodney Dangerfield. Macdonald uses his deadpan, “Weekend Update” dumb guy voice to great effect, Speaking of Dangerfield:

Rodney finally grew and became a man, but things didn’t improve. One time, he recalled, a hooker informed him, “Not tonight, I have a headache.” Imagine hearing that from a prostitute.

Macdonald has become something of a Twitter savant, dishing stories 140 characters at a time. Diary-like in nature, many just allow readers to share cool moments in his life. He wrote about the star-studded Saturday Night Live 40th anniversary special and after-party as well as his final appearance on Letterman. He also snuck up a fascinating series of about 20 tweets describing a meal he shared with Bob Dylan. Followers had to be in front of their Twitter feeds live for that one; he took down all the tweets within minutes.

He says being constrained to write in 140 character bursts helped his book writing. “I don’t know who picked that number but it seems like the perfect amount.”

He’s fun to read in 100,000  word bursts, too. Based on a True Story is peppered with real showbiz stories, with Macdonald telling backstage stories about SNL compadres Adam Sandler, David Spade, Chris Farley, Sarah Silverman, Jay MohrDave Attell Colin Quinn and others. He jokes that he was the guy turning up “in bit parts in Ellen Cleghorne sketches” until “Weekend Update” changed his life.

He writes about how he became “that idiot who turned down Carson.” The impact of some of these stories is diminished, however, because you start to suspect Macdonald is pulling out leg. There’s a lot of what’s real, what isn’t in the tome. If this really did happen, however, you marvel how this guy was able to get past that.

He even changes voices at times, with short chapters in italics as if penned by a ghost writer Random House hired to really write Macdonald’s book. “I was a fan of his back in the nineties and was curious as to what had befallen the man.” The ghostwriter finds Macdonald repugnant and even a bit racist. “Mr. Macdonald appalled me. The way a harmful child appalls me.”

Macdonald also writes about his first encounters with Lorne Michaels and David Letterman and if they’re not word-for-word true they should be.

There’s a whole, twisted plot running through the book involving a road trip to Vegas and a mad plan to win a million dollars or die. It sounds preposterous but it is probably uncomfortably close to the truth. Macdonald is candid about his gambling addiction and when Louis C.K. writes in the introduction — “Please buy this book. He probably needs the cash. He’s really bad with money” — he means it.

Louis C.K. also calls Macdonald one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time — so buy his book even if he doesn’t need the money.

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