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Not the Norm

Whether Macdonald deserves a break or not, NBC is giving him one–pulling up the anchor on his SNL “Weekend Update” gig.

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To paraphrase Norm Macdonald, here’s the real news: In what has to qualify as the most neck-wrenching cancellation of the TV season, Macdonald’s almost four-year run as the anchor of Saturday Night Live’s ”Weekend Update” ended when he was fired with no apparent warning and summarily replaced by cast mate Colin Quinn.

Waiting for the punchline? So is Macdonald. Arguably the most consistently amusing member of the current SNL cast, the 34-year-old comedian was dumped from his main gig because the man he most needed to laugh at his quips, NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer, didn’t seem to get it. ”Ohlmeyer told me he didn’t find me funny,” says Macdonald, who will now work only in sketches. ”If that’s true, then I don’t think there has to be any other reason.” (Ironically, in his sole appearance on the Jan. 10 show, just three days after his demotion, Macdonald provided the single funniest moment of the show, appearing in a pre-taped skit as both Quentin Tarantino and Burt Reynolds.)

The unusual move raises some intriguing questions: Why was it Ohlmeyer who fired Macdonald, and not SNL overlord Lorne Michaels? After all, notes Macdonald, ”I find it odd that the president of a network [who] has important decisions to make would worry about a tiny part of a fringe show.” Adding to the intrigue, Macdonald claims Michaels was opposed to the demotion. So why did the powerful producer roll over for Ohlmeyer? Was Michaels simply letting Ohlmeyer do his dirty work?

Neither Ohlmeyer nor Michaels is talking. But NBC insiders say that the decision was most likely made solely by Ohlmeyer. Despite Michaels’ power over SNL — for the most part, the network gives him carte blanche on the show — those close to Ohlmeyer say he would have no qualms about overruling the producer. And despite Michaels’ support, Ohlmeyer, according to industry sources, never thought that Macdonald’s deadpan delivery worked on ”Update.” ”Ohlmeyer thought he was too smug,” says one Macdonald backer. (The comedian’s constant, barbed jokes about O.J. Simpson, a close friend of Ohlmeyer’s, surely didn’t help matters.)

The abrupt, mercurial action is not at odds with Ohlmeyer’s abrupt, mercurial management style. Clearly, the timing of the move indicated a sudden decision: Rather than make a quiet switch while the program was in repeats, which it had been for much of December, Macdonald was fired only 72 hours before the first new show of 1998. In fact, according to one source, Ohlmeyer made the change only because he was furious to learn recently that next month Macdonald would be hosting ESPN’s ESPY Awards, the sports-awards show produced by Michaels that will air on both the cable network and rival ABC. (According to one TV sports executive, Ohlmeyer declined an invitation to attend the ESPYs, saying ”I’ve seen enough of Norm Macdonald.”)

Replacement Quinn’s ”Update” debut was an understandably rough, nervous performance; his naturally gruff, man-in-the-street style doesn’t fit the SNL news-desk tradition of tart-tongued snideness, from Chevy Chase to Dennis Miller to Macdonald. For his part, Macdonald seems resigned not only to the demotion but also to the conclusion that his days at NBC are numbered. The star certainly had no qualms about burning bridges. On the day of his firing, Macdonald appeared on CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman, where he mocked NBC and joined Letterman in enthusiastically calling Ohlmeyer (Letterman’s former boss) ”a fat guy.” Macdonald then went on Howard Stern’s radio show the next morning to say that while he had nothing personal against Ohlmeyer, he hoped the exec would ”take up skiing real soon.”