Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald
Comedy (2016 - 240 pp.)
Based on a True Story is what happens when Norm MacDonald, the famous Canadian comedian, writes a memoir: it is full of laughs, reflects on some old shows and jokes in a memorable way, and contains a mountain of creative license. The book's events sometimes appear realistic, such as MacDonald's job interview with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. Events quickly become questionable, though, from the larger (entire stories), to the fact that MacDonald is born in 1963 in the book (33) but he is born in 1959 on his Wikipedia entry. MacDonald's brother Neil, a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, discusses in more detail.
The story zips back in forth in choppy, short chapters between:
- An embellished chronological account of MacDonald's life from birth until 1998;
- A fictitious present-day car ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which parodies MacDonald's gambling addiction; and
- The descent into madness of an alleged ghostwriter, Terence Keane, whose detached writing style is weirdly reminiscent of avant-garde science fiction.
Everything is written as though MacDonald is delivering it as a stand-up show, so the provisional rules are relaxed. Even the acknowledgments are notable; MacDonald says of publisher Julie Grau, "She believed in me and left me be, a fine gift." (239) May we all be so gifted when we write our own memoirs.
Running jokes include MacDonald attempting to win enough money on credit in Vegas to purchase a ranch in Montana, various comedians calling MacDonald "Einstein" (probably sarcastically), and constant consumption of Wild Turkey 101. The ranch joke gets surprisingly literary, as MacDonald's friend Gabe spends part of the Vegas trip looking at properties in Billings, MT; (79) when MacDonald meets with a man he suspects is the Devil slightly later in the book, the bartender is named Mr. Billingsly. (108) With all the themes that run through Based on a True Story, the one device MacDonald never repeats is that it only contains one footnote. (186)
Many of MacDonald's greatest jokes make appearances. The early parts of the books, about MacDonald's upbringing, are full of apocryphal family stories, including the rose joke. The moth joke, which you can see MacDonald telling Conan O'Brien here, is inverted so that in the book, a supposedly unfunny doctor tells it to MacDonald. (123-125) One chapter is nothing but a bullet-point list of MacDonald's 25 favourite SNL Weekend Update jokes, 24 of which are his. (156-160)
I hadn't expected to have a personal connection to Based on a True Story besides the obvious (I'm a Norm MacDonald fan, I'm Canadian), but there was a shocking coincidence. One of MacDonald's vignettes is of him meeting Slash of Guns N' Roses fame. (75) Later on, during an almost certainly fictitious funeral scene, one guest is wearing a Carolina Panthers jacket.* (139) Here's a picture of me wearing my Carolina Panthers hoodie to the Guns N' Roses show in Toronto a year ago yesterday. I really felt like a part of the story at that point.
My only real issue with Based on a True Story is that its plot points end so abruptly in 1998, with MacDonald's departure from SNL and the release of Dirty Work, despite the fact that the book was released in 2016. His 2000 movie Screwed deserved a chapter, in part so the reader could learn what it was like to work with Dave Chappelle and Danny DeVito. The Norm Show (1999-2001) is mentioned as a logo on MacDonald's T-shirt but the book never tells the reader what actually happened during the episodes. MacDonald voiced Lucky the Dog in Dr. Doolittle (1998) and its sequels, which deserved at least a page or two (MacDonald wasn't in as major a role), in part so the reader how MacDonald worked with Eddie Murphy. MacDonald's stand-up comedy album Ridiculous (2006) would have brought the book right back to stand-up, and it also saw MacDonald work with Will Ferrell. In a non-comedic context, but certainly relevant to the book's gambling theme, MacDonald placed 20th in the 2007 World Series of Poker's $3,000 No-Limit Hold 'Em event, yet this is never mentioned.
The book's 240 pages flew by. I was in stitches the whole time. If Based on a True Story can have a thesis, it's this: "A joke should catch people by surprise; it should never pander. Applause is voluntary, but laughter is involuntary." (152) My reaction was purely involuntary.
Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1
*MacDonald suspects the guest is there by mistake. That's not the joke, though. Listen to the scene here. (Carolina Panthers jacket mentioned at 11:57.) In the spirit of Based on a True Story, this review only has one footnote.