Norm Macdonald Was the Hater O.J. Simpson Could Never Outrun

There was nothing inherently funny about the late O.J. Simpson‘s nearly year-long trial on two murder charges. His ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, had been brutally stabbed to death, and the prosecution was arguing that Simpson’s history of domestic abuse in his marriage had culminated in this act of deadly violence.

But Simpson’s celebrity as a football and movie star, his high-powered “Dream Team” of lawyers, the bizarre Ford Bronco chase before his arrest, and the sense that Los Angeles could once more explode as it did during the Rodney King riots all combined to make the case the most topical subject in the country — if not the only one. And, by design, a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live has no real choice but to address such an event in its “Weekend Update” news segment. How on earth could they make light of this tragedy?

It so happened that weeks before the “Trial of the Century” got underway, SNL had welcomed a replacement anchor for “Weekend Update” who would prove extraordinarily well-equipped for the task: Norm Macdonald. The comedian took the chair for Season 20 and, in no time at all, became one of the most crucial Simpson commentators of the day precisely because the rules of journalism did not confine him. He didn’t have to say “allegedly,” and he didn’t have to wait for a verdict, instead operating as if Simpson’s guilt was axiomatic, bluntly stating it as a settled fact while he stared into the camera, daring you to disagree.

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Macdonald was relentless in his insistence that Simpson committed the grisly crime, but he also managed to satirize the media frenzy around the story. His apparent disinterest in anything else served as a joke in itself. “Well, that covers the main developments in the O.J. Simpson case this week, and after all, other important things are going on in the world,” Macdonald said in one episode. “Now, more O.J. Simpson.” One recurring bit saw Norm announcing a new book by some unrelated public figure — Prince Charles, or Pope John Paul II — then revealing a fake title like Of Course O.J. Did It, I Mean, C’mon.

If the studio audiences sometimes feared to laugh as much as they might, it appeared to play to Macdonald’s advantage, or at least his amusement: he’d smile at an especially divisive punchline and even remark on the mixed reactions, knowing the crowd was stuck with him. Perhaps he retained the upper hand because of an unsettling truth, difficult for anyone watching to deny: ordinary people across America were making their own tasteless jokes about O.J. every day, and they weren’t funny at all. Macdonald’s mordant quips paved right over that hack water-cooler material, not to mention the monologues of lesser late-night hosts, making an impossible job look effortless.

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Legend has it that the Simpson material eventually cost Macdonald the “Weekend Update” desk, with NBC’s west coast president Don Ohlmeyer — a friend of Simpson’s — firing him in 1998 after he continued to take jabs at Simpson following the shocking acquittal. In an interview with David Letterman that confirmed his departure, Macdonald only said Ohlmeyer had told him he wasn’t funny, and in later years, he would speculate that he was canned for general insubordination. Either way, the Simpson theory enshrined Norm’s trial coverage in the SNL pantheon, and his deadpan summary of the verdict, “It is finally official: murder is legal in the state of California,” remains a one-liner for the ages.

Macdonald seemed to know, too, that a joke pushed past its natural lifespan becomes hilarious all over again, and when he wound up the host of the 1998 ESPY Awards, he seized a chance to make things awkward. In a thorough opening roast of the athletes assembled for the show, he shouted out Charles Woodson, who at the University of Michigan had become the only defensive player in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy. “That is something that no one can ever take away from you,” Macdonald said. “Unless you kill your wife and a waiter, in which case… ” The room, as ever, was split between groans of disbelief and wild cackling. “All bets are off,” Norm added.

As the decades passed, Macdonald’s Simpson dunks turned into a touchstone for social media, and he continued to entertain questions here and there about “The Juice” — whether he would play golf with him, for example. (Macdonald seemed game but acknowledged that Simpson is no fan of his.) In 2019, a couple of years after Simpson completed a prison sentence for a 2007 robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas, he joined Twitter, uploading a video in which he said he’d be sharing his thoughts on the platform and had “a little getting even to do.” Macdonald, a longtime Twitter user himself, was there to greet him, sardonically proclaiming that Simpson’s account would be the “coolest thing ever.” He also casually threatened to dox Simpson in what appeared to be an allusion to Nicole Brown’s claims that Simpson stalked her after their divorce.

We’ll never know what Norm would have said on the occasion of Simpson’s death at 76 from prostate cancer, with the comedian having died of leukemia in 2021. No doubt he could have landed a direct hit about a notorious accused murderer living to old age and dying peacefully, surrounded by his family. But it was more than fitting that Macdonald’s name trended alongside O.J.’s as the internet reacted to the news, a heckler who followed Simpson all the way to the grave, unwilling to let go of the gruesome past even when others had come to regard him as a grandpa with goofy catchphrases and worthwhile takes on the NFL.

Looking back at the O.J. Simpson trial, it can feel that the culture was remarkably cruel in how it turned the slaying of two human beings into a farce, a circus, an entertainment. This is also what, in retrospect, gives Macdonald’s jokes a surprising moral heft. When so much humor of the era focused on petty and lurid details, Norm practically never strayed from the horrific crime itself, confronting us over and over with sharp reality. It was so absurd that you had to laugh in self-defense.