“…I come up with a title for my book. I’ll call it Based on a True Story, because it comes to me that there’s no way of telling a true story. I mean a really true one, because of memory. It’s just no good.”
-Norm MacDonald (from Based on a True Story: A Memoir)
The first time I saw Norm Macdonald perform stand-up was on a Just for Laughs TV special in the 1980’s. I liked his dry, ironic wit, and cool, regular-guy, matter-of-fact delivery, instantly becoming a fan. Since then he has developed a cult following (something considered by many to be more a curse than a blessing) and the reputation of being a comedian’s comedian (also more a curse than a blessing). Despite being on Saturday Night Live for several years, starring in a movie (which he co-wrote), having his own eponymous sit-com, and hosting numerous televised award shows, real commercial success has eluded him.
Now Norm MacDonald recounts the tale of how he became all of the above in his new book Based on a True Story: A Memoir. Well…sort of.
I couldn’t wait to tear into this volume, hoping for interesting, raw, honest behind-the-scenes show biz yarns, like how he was unceremoniously dumped as the Weekend Update anchor on SNL. I was not prepared for what awaited me. Instead I was treated to a very unserious biography whose plot is structured like a movie (this book would make a better flick than Dirty Work) and centres on the author’s futile attempt to win enough to retire to a ranch in Montana by gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos with a crony while borrowing heavily from a dangerous loan shark, peppered throughout with the inner thoughts of a mysterious ghost writer (that served only to confuse and distract me while grinding the narrative to a halt, until the two worlds converge later on and it starts to make sense). I have never read anything like this before.
Here and there in the text there are a few anecdotes that may or may not be true or embellished, but because of MacDonald’s style I was never quite sure what was real, which was frustrating, (maybe the truth lies somewhere between the lines, like the title suggests?). And on more than one occasion he goes into way too deep detail about different ways to use morphine. The book doesn’t have an ending as much as it just ends (like his aforementioned film, which also does not have a third act), that for me ultimately soured a lot of what preceded it.
That being said, numerous sections of Based on a True Story did make me laugh, often out loud. (There is a bit about Rodney Dangerfield that made me groan, but a similar bit about Don Rickles a few chapters later for some reason had me floored…I’m still not sure why.) And the author is a good writer; it is a smooth and fun read. But I believe only authentic devotees of Norm Macdonald would get this book.
So, was I disappointed? Yes. Did I enjoy Based on a True Story: A Memoir anyway? Yeah. I guess I did.