The following is excerpted from Norm Macdonald’s new book Based On A True Story: A Memoir. It is out now from Spiegel & Grau, and it is very, very funny.
Star Search was a show where they searched for stars. The show had different categories such as junior dancers, spokespersons, singers, and comedians. Once a year they would do a special International Star Search, where they would gather up a bunch of foreigners and try to make them stars. That’s why they contacted me. I was a foreigner. The good news was, if I won, I’d go from a nobody to a star.
Sam Kinison had told Dennis Miller about me—told him I was international—and Dennis, who is a very generous man, helped me, as he would many times in my career. Dennis passed my information on to the show’s host, Ed McMahon.
Ed was famous for sitting beside Johnny Carson and laughing his deep, genuine laugh at all that Johnny uttered. If you’re the best at something, you become a rich man. And Ed McMahon was very rich.
The show had four judges, one of whom was Robin Leach. The judges would judge you by giving you between one and four stars. These stars would be added together and divided by four, to yield your score. So if you were awarded four stars—that was the perfect score—that meant each of the judges gave you four stars, which I was pretty sure I would receive.
I was backstage with my agent and a bunch of dirty foreigners. I was one of them, but only technically, because I was from Canada. In Canada, everything we watch on TV and buy in stores is American, and also we speak the same language. I never felt like I was in a different country when I was in the United States.
My opponent’s name was the Bushman. He was very funny, and backstage he had us all in stitches. He was from Africa and wore a multicolored tribal robe with a matching hat. He couldn’t have looked more out of place in America, and I couldn’t have looked more in place. At first I thought this gave me an enormous advantage, but then I had a second thought.
Perhaps this out-of-placeness would actually work in the Bushman’s favor. After all, this was International Star Search, and Canada was well known as the least international of all countries. My other problem was that none of my jokes were remotely international. Every one of them dealt with a domestic issue of the United States of America. I told my agent I felt I was in big trouble, and he told me that I was being ridiculous, that I was sure to win. My agent often told me something positive like this right before a catastrophe happened. I was backstage in a room we all shared and I was hungry, but there was nothing to eat, because many of the performers hailed from third-world countries and had either ravenously devoured the food or placed it in their pockets. I struck up a conversation with a couple of Nicaraguan junior dancers, who were adorably cute but who began circling me in a way that had me patting my back pocket to see if my wallet was still there.
Things were making me extremely agitated, and that can be very bad for a performer. I decided to go outside and go through my pre-show ritual.
Since I started stand-up, I have used the following pre-show ritual as a way of controlling my nerves and centering myself. First I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then I create a picture in my mind. It is always the same picture. I am lying in a glade near a brook while a gentle breeze licks my face and makes me smile. Birds fill the sky with song as I lounge beside the brook with my golden Lab and watch the fish as they jump out of the water and back in again. I walk leisurely to the water and take a long, deep drink of it, and it is always clean and cold and slakes my thirst. Then I lie down again on the grass and let my golden Lab lick my face, and then I wrestle with him and laugh. Then I open my eyes. This part of the ritual takes about fifteen minutes. It never fails to clear my mind, as an eraser clears a busy chalkboard.
Then it is time for my body. I stretch, beginning with my calves, and then, without hurry, add to the stretch so that it spreads all the way up my body and finishes with the neck. This is crucial, since I hold most of my stress in my neck. I make sure each stretch is slow and deliberate, and as I perform the stretches I listen through head-phones to the calming strumming of the zither, the most relaxing of all musical instruments. With my mind in a state of cheerful slack and my body loosed, it is then time to work on my soul. I take out six two-milligram bars of Xanax and slowly swallow them. Then I reach into my back pocket to find my flask, which is always filled with Wild Turkey 101. I upend it into my mouth and drink until I have to stop to gasp for breath. Then I vomit. Then I close my eyes again and think about the dog and the stream and all that shit. Then I end my pre-show routine by punching my agent in the stomach.
If you want to become a performer in show business—and that includes modern dance—I strongly advise this pre-show ritual.
I was instructed that on International Star Search I was to perform for two minutes, not a second more or a second less. To make sure I stuck to my time, there was a large digital clock in front of me that counted down from two minutes to zero. Whenever I performed my stand-up, I had one ironclad rule: I always made sure to begin with my strongest joke, my surefire laugh-getter, my answering-machine joke, and so I came right out with it. It got no laughs.
This was a big problem. When I had chosen my two minutes of material, I had taken into account the laughter of the audience. But there was a complete absence of laughter, and as I completed my final joke I saw, in horror, I still had a minute and fifteen seconds left to perform. I was sweating hard and my throat was as dry as kindling. I could hear dangerous mutterings from the crowd, much of it in a foreign tongue, and I looked over in a panic to Ed McMahon, who was also not laughing, unless you consider an angry glare a type of laughter. Ed McMahon, the man whose job was to laugh. Ed McMahon, who was put on this earth to laugh. Ed McMahon, who was paid exorbitant amounts of money to laugh. Ed McMahon was not laughing.
But I was a pro and I still had a little over a minute to win the crowd back. That’s the beauty of stand-up comedy. One moment the audience may hate you and the next you are on its shoulders. I looked out at them. “So, you’re saying you don’t have an answering machine? None of you? I find that very hard to believe. I think you are liars, and I implore the judges to ignore the boos and jeers and hisses that are filling this auditorium and drowning out my voice. These people are filthy foreigners and wouldn’t know funny if it bit them in the ass. Show some guts, for once in your life, and don’t be swayed by this transatlantic mob. Robin Leach, I’m sure you have an answering machine and agreed on many of the points I have made tonight.”
I had plenty more to say but my time came to an end, so I trundled offstage, where I encountered a very confident Bushman and I wished him luck.
My agent was in the wings. “I thought it went great!” he said.
“What? They never laughed. Not once.”
“You don’t understand. You’re used to clubs and this is TV. The studio audience never laughs, because they are too intimidated. These things are all sweetened in the editing. Trust me, I’ve been at this awhile and ...”
I didn’t hear anything else my agent said, because the Bushman had done his first joke, and the audience laughed loudly for two straight minutes. When the Bushman exited, walking past us, my agent stopped explaining to me how studio audiences never laugh at anything and ran down the hall, business card in hand, calling out to the Bushman.
Now, usually after a bad set, you can just leave and buy yourself a steak and a woman and forget the whole thing, but on this show you had to wait until the end, when they announced the winners in all the categories. I wandered around and saw the Nicaraguan junior dancer team, who must have had a bad set too, judging by the way they were sobbing. I told the mother that they should stop, but she explained that her family was very poor and this was their ticket out of the slums of Managua but that her son had dropped his sister during their routine and now their dream was dead. I told her not to worry, that there was no such thing as a junior dancer in real life, that it only existed on this one television show, so it was all for naught, anyway. What’s more, I said, not a single thing in life mattered. That seemed to cheer the mother up.
It was finally time for me to go back onstage. First the international spokesmen were judged, then the international singers. Then it was time for the comedians. I walked out with the Bushman and we received a standing ovation as well as a chorus of boos. Never had I felt so much hate for me mixed with so much love for someone other than me.
Ed read from the teleprompter: “And now in the comedy division, another hard decision for the judges.”
This brought the house down. I’ve been in comedy for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bigger laugh, before or since. Ed did his best not to join in the laughter—I gotta give it to him—and he continued on.
“The Bushman receives ... FOUR STARS.” The perfect score. Each judge had given him four stars.
“And Norm Macdonald receives ... THREE QUARTERS OF A STAR.”
I could not believe it. As I left the stage I did the math. It meant that three of the judges had given me one star and one judge had given me zero stars, and I bet dollars to donuts it was that sonofabitchofaRobinLeach.
Norm Macdonald is a stand-up comedian, writer, and actor who lives in Los Angeles. He is the proud father of Devery.