Letterman has proven to be a key figure in the career of Macdonald, a champion of stand-up work (the talk show host said no one was funnier) who booked the comic for the past week. of his show. Macdonald, breaking away from his characteristic acerbic style, ended with a surprisingly moving tribute, displaying an emotional side that usually only lurked beneath the surface of his comedy.
In a 2017 column, I argued that what set Macdonald’s comedy apart was its sensitivity to language, its particularly poetic language. He made elegant turns and folk flourishes seem conversational and casual. A lover of Bob Dylan, Macdonald was also a sponge for influences, borrowing and reusing figures of speech or unusual words to create fun phrases.
But to describe him as simply a joke-writing master lacks his speed, unflinching delivery, and, most importantly, a unique level of engagement. He didn’t give up on jokes and never flattered. We see it in his roast Bob Saget: the conviction to pass despite the confusion of the answer. It pleased the crowd without pleasing the crowd. And no one had a more nimble and assertive sarcastic voice, which he used to find humor in ambiguity. A few years ago, there was a wonderfully weird moment on David Spade’s talk show when Macdonald told Jay Leno he was perhaps the best talk show host ever, and no one , including Leno, couldn’t seem to tell if he was being sincere.
There is a lot of fun to be had in this liminal space between seriousness and jokes. One of Macdonald’s most impressive feats is to write an entire memoir that stays there. It is one of the greatest memoir of comedians, but also a conspicuously frustrating mix of fact and fiction, cliché and originality. It’s very funny, sometimes tedious, sometimes wise. The title “Based on a True Story” is not just a joke. It’s rooted in his faith that, as he puts it, “there is no way to tell a true story. I mean really true, because of the memory. It’s just not good.
Just because you can’t say one that’s really true doesn’t mean that art can’t come close to the truth. In an interview with New York magazine, Macdonald opposed the trend towards denominational art, saying he believed art was meant to be about cover-up. This was revealing.
The fact that he had battled cancer for a decade was something he certainly hadn’t advertised in his work. His death was a shock to many. But the clues were everywhere. Death has been one of his favorite subjects in recent years. In a big viral moment, he delivered one of the first and best coronavirus comedy club sets. It was at the Los Angeles Improv in March 2020 just before theaters closed. “It’s funny that we all know now how we’re going to die,” he said. “It’s just a question of what order.”