The unlikely but enduring bond between Norm Macdonald and O.J. Simpson

The unlikely but enduring bond between Norm Macdonald and O.J. Simpson


As helicopters hovered over Brentwood to see how O.J. Simpson celebrated on the first weekend since his acquittal in October 1995, Norm Macdonald took his seat at “Saturday Night Live’s” Weekend Update desk and delivered his opening line with a half-smirk.

“Well, it is finally official,” he said. “Murder is legal in the state of California.”

For Macdonald, the former football star accused of killing his ex-wife and a friend was more than a one-off joke. During his 1990s run as SNL’s fake anchorman, the comedian homed in on Simpson in his relentless pursuit of the perfect punchline — one that likely cost him his dream gig.

“He said he would stay in that job forever,” said Lori Jo Hoekstra, Macdonald’s longtime producing partner and closest friend until his death in 2021. But “as much as he would have loved to, he wasn’t willing to negotiate what he thought was funny.”

Even when the topic was as macabre and polarizing as that of a former American golden boy implicated in the grisliest of crimes.

“Everybody was insane to do jokes about him,” said Tim Herlihy, head writer at SNL during some of Macdonald’s Weekend Update reign. “But Norm, I mean, he just couldn’t let it go. Especially as the trial started.”

Oct. 15, 1994: According to retailers, the most popular Halloween mask this year is O.J. Simpson. And the most popular Halloween greeting is, “I’ll kill you and that guy who’s bringing over your glasses, or treat.”

Macdonald’s role model was SNL’s first true star, Chevy Chase, who first occupied the fake-anchorman seat. But still, it was a surprise when Macdonald was tapped to take it over from Kevin Nealon in 1994. Jim Downey, the comedy writer who oversaw Weekend Update at the time, recalls that superagent Bernie Brillstein was pushing client Bill Maher for the role, while Warren Littlefield, then the president of NBC Entertainment, favored longtime writer Al Franken. Downey — an SNL legend who joined the show the same week as Bill Murray in 1976 — pushed for Macdonald and got his way.

“Norm was dry and deadpan. And more than anyone who’s ever done Update, he looked and sounded like an actual newsman,” Downey said. “And that’s the way the jokes were written … to sound more like news stories than jokes. We never got angry or screamed or, you know, ‘wake up, you people, the man is a murderer!’ We would just comment on what happened in court. ‘Was O.J. Simpson high on drugs the night of the murders? Absolutely not and a simple test of any of his blood found at the crime scene will prove it.’”

From the start, there were more than hints that a Simpson fixation could prove a problem for Downey’s small Update crew. Don Ohlmeyer, the NBC executive who oversaw SNL and its creator Lorne Michaels, was a longtime pal and golf buddy of the accused football star.

Downey remembered an SNL meeting when Ohlmeyer had to leave early. He needed to get to the Los Angeles County Jail during visiting hours to see his friend.

Jan. 14, 1995: O.J. Simpson’s lawyers say they don’t want the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in the courtroom during the trial. They’re afraid the presence of the family members will just remind O.J. of how much more killing he still has to do.

As the Simpson jokes piled up, Ohlmeyer never spoke directly to Downey about it. But Downey knew Michaels was absorbing his boss’s furor.

“And I always felt kind of bad,” Downey said. “In order to protect us and also his independence at the show, he had to fight for something that he really didn’t personally believe inasmuch as other things. He certainly liked some of Update, but O.J. jokes were never his favorite thing because it was, after all, a murder.”

The Update writing crew was aware that Macdonald’s O.J. obsession was causing friction at executive levels. But Downey gave them license to keep writing the jokes.

“If there was any pressure, Jim would take it on,” remembered writer Frank Sebastiano. “If you thought something was really funny, he mostly didn’t care about the ramifications.”

Nor did Macdonald particularly care what the audience thought. He often seemed to relish when a joke got a tepid or bemused response in Studio 8H; Macdonald would pause, stare down the camera, soak up the awkward silence. He didn’t need clapping and cheering. In fact, he didn’t want it.

“I don’t like an audience applauding because to me that’s like a cheap kind of high,” Macdonald told the authors of an oral history about SNL. But that sensibility may have undermined him with the NBC higher-ups. Weekend Update “was never a big party” during his tenure, he acknowledged. “So I think the network started going, ‘It doesn’t seem like as much fun as it should be.’”

It all collapsed midway through the 1997-98 season. A fed-up Ohlmeyer decided to get Downey off Weekend Update, though he told Macdonald he could stay if he made peace with a new team. Macdonald declined to stick around without Downey.

So as it turned out, he had already told his last O.J. joke on SNL.

Dec. 13, 1997: After a Los Angeles restaurant refused to seat him, O.J. Simpson demanded, and got, $500 in compensation. In addition, the restaurant must now offer separate “Murderer” and “Non-Murderer” sections.

But his connection to Simpson endured.

In the late ’90s, Macdonald and Hoekstra crossed paths with the acquitted star while golfing. They kept a distance, particularly for the sake of the third member of their party — none other than Kato Kaelin, the shaggy-haired prosecution witness who had stayed at Simpson’s guesthouse on the night of the murders and was launched to a peculiar fame by the trial.

In 2011, when Macdonald was hosting a sports show on Comedy Central, he tried to persuade Simpson to sit for an interview with him. There was one stipulation that perhaps could only have come from the mind of a comedian as darkly ironic as Macdonald: The lone subject off-limits would be … the murders.

For reasons still unclear, Hoekstra said, the interview never happened.

And then, in 2019, Macdonald made an appearance on David Spade’s short-lived Comedy Central talk show. There, he listened as another former Weekend Update host, Dennis Miller, praised his fearlessness in mocking Simpson in the face of executive annoyance.

With a straight face, Macdonald delivered what may have been his final O.J. joke.

He said he had changed his mind about Simpson.

“He was found not guilty by a jury of his peers,” Macdonald said. He noted that Simpson was “the greatest rusher in the history of the NFL,” then paused.

“Maybe,” he added, “I was the greatest rusher to judgment.”

Was it a joke? If so, not everyone got it.

Shortly thereafter, Hoekstra told The Post this week, Macdonald got a text thanking him for his gentler commentary about the disgraced football star and inviting him to go golfing sometime.


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