Conan: NBC Tried to Ban Norm Macdonald as Guest

O'Brien also explains the origins of the late comedian's famous 'moth joke'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 17, 2021 1:11 PM CDT

Fans of Norm Macdonald will want to catch up with a special episode of Conan O'Brien's podcast dedicated exclusively to the late comedian. O'Brien talks with Andy Richter and longtime producer Frank Smiley about Macdonald's legendary appearances on O'Brien's talk show over the years. The 61-year-old Macdonald died this week after a nine-year, extremely private battle with cancer. O'Brien, for one, said he was unaware Macdonald was sick. Two standout moments from the podcast:

  • NBC's hard line: Macdonald was fired in 1998 from Saturday Night Live, reportedly because he refused to stop making jokes about network exec Don Ohlmeyer's friend OJ Simpson. Afterward, "the word came down: 'You can't book Norm Macdonald anymore,'" recalls O'Brien, per the Daily Beast. "And it came from the top, from Don Ohlmeyer." O'Brien wrote Ohlmeyer a letter saying he wouldn't obey the order, and the exec responded with something along the lines of "I expected better of you," he says. And Macdonald continued appearing as a guest.

  • The moth joke: One of the videos in wide circulation in the wake of Macdonald's death is a looong joke he told on O'Brien's show in 2009. You can see the "moth joke" for yourself here. O'Brien said it wasn't planned. He had asked Macdonald to stick around for an extra segment, though the comedian had no material ready. When they went to break, producer Smiley recalls that Macdonald mentioned a joke once told by Colin Quinn. "It was a 20-second joke," says Smiley, per Uproxx. "And he asked [Conan], 'How long is the segment?' and he was hoping [Conan] would say '20 seconds.' But [Conan] said seven minutes. So it became a seven-minute joke."
  • Moth, II: Here's O'Brien talking about the joke: "This has to be understood: he's doing this on the fly," he says of Macdonald. "His way to slow it down, that he came up with on the fly, is that he invents a Chekhov play with Russian names and there's an ineffable sadness in life weighing on the character’s soul. I've never met anybody who would take that chance and make that chance, and I'll [never] meet anybody like him again."
(More Norm Macdonald stories.)

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