Earlier this month, I went to a wedding and saw a bunch of people I hadn’t seen for 3 1/2 years. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was a regular at Tompkins Square, an old-school bar near Loyola Marymount with a weekly trivia night (for a brief time, it was two, until your fearless scribe killed the sports game by winning enough that nobody else showed up). I started going with a friend who got married in Mammoth Lakes a few weeks ago, and in turn made several new friends I hadn’t seen since moving to Northern California in early-2018.
That intro had a purpose, trust me. Also at those trivia nights, sitting in a corner booth with a small circle of friends and fellow trivia competitors, was Norm Macdonald. LA is full of random celebrity sightings, so seeing the former “Weekend Update” host indulging an urge for friendly competition wasn’t anything too unusual.
What WAS unusual was how accessible he was, to everyone. He’d hang around after the games and chat with anyone about anything. He wasn’t the former SNL cast member, or the guy who headlined stand-up shows everywhere in the world. He was just Norm.
We had a few really good conversations, especially once he realized I worked in horse racing. One of the first things he brought up was the story of Sylvester Carmouche, who famously hid in the fog at Delta Downs and came out of it a city block clear of the rest of the field. It was funny, and our conversation was interrupted a few times by cheers at the nearby television. There was an NBA game going on, and he had the “over.”
“Norm’s a great guy who’s very approachable and has a significant gambling itch,” I’d tell friends and family members. “In other words, he’s my kind of human being.”
Well, he was. Norm passed away Tuesday morning after a nine-year battle with cancer very few people knew about.
I’m not going to pretend we were super close. We saw each other once a week for about two and a half years. After I moved, we still followed each other on Twitter and we exchanged direct messages a few times. We briefly talked about working on a book together, and while I’m not sure Norm was totally serious, it sure made my day when he brought it up.
Time passes way too fast. Many of my friends from Tompkins Square moved to Alaska. The bar closed not long after I moved, the longtime trivia host passed away in early-2020, and other than a few very brief trips (most recently for a funeral in late-2018), I haven’t been back to Los Angeles.
I didn’t see Norm in-person between when I moved and when he died. I certainly never knew he was sick.
A lot of people have their memories of Norm as a comedian, and for good reason. Much of his stuff stands the test of time, including his recent work for Netflix (which, as we now know, came when he was fighting a secret battle with cancer). This tribute wouldn’t be complete without a video of my favorite bit of his, so here you go.
All of that being said, though, I won’t remember Norm, the comedian. I’ll remember Norm, the person, who was incredibly kind to many people when he didn’t have to be.
I remember one night after trivia, everyone congregated by the bar. Someone walked up to Norm and asked if he wanted to play golf that Friday at Westchester, a golf course just down the road. Norm paused, and looked genuinely downtrodden as he responded.
“I don’t think I can,” he said. “I think I’m in New York with Sandler.”
Norm Macdonald was a kind, gentle, decent man, and the world’s a lesser place without him in it. Some trivia bar in the sky somewhere, though, got itself a heck of a competitor and someone who’ll hang around to watch whatever game is on the big screen.
Rest in peace, Norm. We’ll miss you.