TORONTO — It's been nearly 14 years now since Norm Macdonald was fired from what he figured was the job of his lifetime.
The Quebec City-born comic had been in the midst of an acclaimed run as host of the venerable "Saturday Night Live" news segment, "Weekend Update," when he was abruptly dropped -- reportedly because one NBC executive in particular didn't like Macdonald, nor the way the comedian savagely joked about O.J. Simpson.
After being ousted from "SNL," he acted in a couple relatively short-lived sitcoms and took small roles in a variety of movies. But he says he's never felt as comfortable onscreen as he did while slouched in the anchor's chair of "Weekend Update."
"It was fun to do 'Weekend Update' because it was the closest thing to standup," Macdonald said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he now lives.
"So, man, I always wanted to do something like that. Like, I never wanted to act, or fall in love with a girl, or something like that. I was always trying to get back to some sort of a joke concept show."
It took him a while, but he thinks he's found what he was looking for with "Sports Show with Norm Macdonald," which premieres April 13 on the Comedy Network.
Macdonald calls the program a "'Weekend Update'-type show for sports." He says he settled on the idea because he doesn't know anything about politics but loves sports.
(He says he's still a passionate hockey fan even though he can't locate the NHL on TV in California, lamenting: "It's very hard to find on TV, (but) you can find people jumping their minibikes over dirt.")
The show will feature Macdonald's signature bone-dry comic take, this time applied to pro sports news. He says the show will feature guest spots from other comics and possibly some athlete interviews, though he's not keen on doing too many of those.
"That's a tough interview," he says. "First of all, athletes have nothing to gain by being interviewed, you know? It's not like entertainers where they come with some story and they all want to be loved. Athletes, they don't care.
"So you gotta find funny ones, you know?" he adds, noting that Los Angeles Clippers rookie Blake Griffin is "hysterical."
"Sometimes if you do a comedy interview with an athlete, they just laugh the whole time, like, 'You crazy!"'
In a happy coincidence for Macdonald, he will be on TV with another project this weekend -- a new comedy special entitled "Norm Macdonald: Me Doing Stand-Up," airing on Comedy Network on Saturday night.
The very existence of the special, in fact, is significant for Macdonald. It's only the second time he's consented to having his act recorded for his own TV special (the first was a half-hour HBO special he did early in his career).
With his goofy grin and slurred, sly delivery, it's been easy for some to miss Macdonald's subtly incisive wit. And given a string of film and TV appearances that even Macdonald himself has occasionally disparaged, it might be surprising to some just how seriously he takes comedy.
Unlike most other well-known stand-up comics, he resists recording himself onstage because he doesn't like the idea of other people editing his work.
And where most comics do a variation of the same act every night on the road, Macdonald likes to constantly shuffle the comedic deck.
"There's a couple reasons I can't do it. I don't have the memory. (And) I'm not a strong enough actor to pretend I'm still interested in something I thought up like a year earlier. 'Cause I've sometimes tried ... and I've lost all interest. I don't even remember why it's funny."
"To me, if you say the same thing all the time, over and over again, I think you'd go insane. It would be hard not to look at that as a completely wasted life."
While editing his special -- recorded in San Francisco at the beginning of the year -- Macdonald did notice a slightly morbid bent to the material.
"I am fascinated with death probably (the way) other people are fascinated with sex. ... Obviously, I don't talk about politics or religion or sex -- really, everybody yaps about that nonsense, but nobody wants to talk about death, ever."
Macdonald has now been performing stand-up for roughly 20 years, and he's evolved.
How? Well, primarily he no longer has any fear of bombing.
Of course, that was evident to anyone who saw Macdonald's courageous set at the "Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget," which aired in 2008. Typically, these roasts serve as a buffet of raunchy, unconscionably mean-spirited barbs aimed at both the guest of honour and an assortment of D-list celebs conveniently seated onstage (they may as well be floundering inside a barrel).
But Macdonald took a typically off-beat approach to the affair.
Instead of conjuring crowd-pleasing cruelty, he reeled off a series of intentionally unfunny, old-fashioned digs -- "Susie Essman is famous for being a vegetarian. Hey, she may be a vegetarian, but she's still full of baloney in my book!" -- that simultaneously earned him the scorn of puzzled audience members and the astonished admiration from viewers at home (and around the web) who got the joke.
"The thing about the roast is, I didn't wanna do the roast," he says with his typical deadpan delivery.
"I don't like insulting people and stuff. But Bob Saget is my friend, and he kept yapping at me to do it. So then finally, the night before, I agreed to it ... and then, I talked to the producer, and he said: 'You should be shocking.' So then I said, all right, I'll be shocking."
"It was an experiment for me, 'cause I was wondering if I could do a comedy without funny jokes, and without the delivery, and then all there'd be is context."
"So it made me laugh because I was staring into the angry eyes of Alan Thicke the entire time. The only thing that struck me odd about it was that afterwards people thought like I was ... crazy or something."
"They're so savage," he added of the roasts. "I remember someone telling me in the William Shatner roast, they had to warn the comics not to mention his wife who had drowned ... Oh my good lord, you had to tell them that? Aren't people like human beings who would know that?"
"(The jokes) that are strictly homophobic or strictly about how old a person is, or maybe they had some sickness, those things are to me offensive."
While April will mark Macdonald's return to television, he had hoped it would happen much earlier.
For years now, he's been trying to develop a series called "The Norm Macdonald Reality Show," wherein he plays himself as a desperate comic whose deteriorating job prospects inspire him to star in a reality series.
He initially hoped the series would air on FX. Along the way, the network asked him to work with another writer -- "which they always do," he sighs -- and the project fell apart. He now hopes it can get off the ground with the Independent Film Channel.
"I'm trying to find just some place that will give me complete creative freedom and I don't even care about the money."
It seems as though that's been the central struggle of Macdonald's career -- he won't waver from what he thinks is funny. If this flurry of activity from Macdonald -- who has also landed a new gig as host of "High Stakes Poker" -- amounts to a comeback from the comedian, it will have happened strictly on his terms.
But while Macdonald acknowledges that his stubbornness might have prevented him from making more money or building his profile in Hollywood, he says he wasn't really interested in those pursuits to begin with.
"I don't really need very much money, 'cause I don't do anything. I think up stupid jokes and that doesn't cost any money. I don't drink or do drugs, and I don't go to parties, I'm a bit agoraphobic and stuff."
"All my life's about is cracking up people and them cracking me up and trying not to think about dying. That doesn't cost very much money.
"With the computer and stuff, the difference between a rich guy and a poor guy, to me, is nothing. Because I don't like big houses, I don't drive a car, so you know, I just live in a small apartment and I have my computer, which is really cool."