Macdonald was born in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, He has a brother, Neil Macdonald, who is a journalist with the CBC. Their parents, Percy (died 1990) and Ferne, were teachers.
Macdonald's first performances in comedy were at stand-up at clubs in Ottawa. He appeared at the 1987 Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal.
Macdonald joined the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live (SNL) television program in 1993, where he performed impressions of Larry King, Burt Reynolds, David Letterman, Quentin Tarantino, Charles Kuralt and Bob Dole, among others. Following Kevin Nealon's departure from SNL, Macdonald anchored the segment "Weekend Update". Current "Weekend Update" anchor and head writer Colin Jost named Macdonald as a primary influence on Jost's own work behind the "Update" desk, explaining that Macdonald's tone was one that Jost grew up with in high school.
Macdonald's version of "Weekend Update" often included references to prison rape, crack whores and the Germans' love of Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. Macdonald would occasionally deliver a piece of news, then take out his personal compact tape recorder and leave a "note to self" relevant to what he just discussed. He commonly used Frank Stallone as a non sequitur punchline. Macdonald repeatedly ridiculed public figures such as Marion Barry, Hillary Clinton, Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson. Throughout Simpson's murder trial, Macdonald constantly pilloried the former football star, often heavily implying Simpson was guilty of the brutal slaying of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. In the broadcast following Simpson's acquittal, Macdonald opened "Weekend Update" by saying: "Well, it is finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California."
During the February 24, 1996, episode, Macdonald made a controversial joke about the sentencing of John Lotter, one of the two men who committed the notorious murder of Brandon Teena: "In Falls City, Nebraska, John Lotter has been sentenced to death for attempting to kill three people in what prosecutors called a plot to silence a cross-dressing female who had accused him of rape. Now this might strike some viewers as harsh, but I believe everyone involved in this story should die."
After the announcement that Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley planned to divorce, Macdonald joked about their irreconcilable differences on "Weekend Update": "She's more of a stay-at-home type, and he's more of a homosexual pedophile." He followed this up a few episodes later with a report about the singer's collapse and hospitalization. Referring to a report that Jackson had decorated his hospital room with giant photographs of Shirley Temple, Macdonald remarked that viewers should not get the wrong idea, adding, "Michael Jackson is a homosexual pedophile." The joke elicited audible gasps from some audience members. He responded to this by saying, "What? He is a homosexual pedophile."
On the April 12, 1997, show (host Rob Lowe, musical guest The Spice Girls), during a "Weekend Update" story about Tabitha Soren, Macdonald accidentally coughed in the middle of a sentence and muttered, "What the fuck was that?" The audience applauded, and Macdonald laughed the error away (saying at one point "My farewell performance" and, in closing, "Maybe we'll see you next week").
In early 1998, Don Ohlmeyer had Macdonald removed as "Weekend Update" anchor, citing declining ratings and a dropoff in quality. Macdonald and others believed that the real reason for his dismissal was his series of jokes calling O. J. Simpson a murderer during and after the trial; Ohlmeyer was good friends with Simpson and supported him during the proceedings. After being removed from the role, Macdonald went on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman and Howard Stern's syndicated radio show accusing Ohlmeyer of firing him for making jokes about Simpson. The jokes were written primarily by Macdonald and longtime SNL writer Jim Downey, who was fired from SNL outright at the same time. Downey pointed out in an interview that Ohlmeyer threw a party for the jurors who acquitted Simpson. Macdonald was replaced by Colin Quinn at the "Weekend Update" desk beginning on the January 10, 1998 episode. Ohlmeyer claimed that Macdonald was mistaken, pointing out that he had not censored Jay Leno's many jokes about Simpson on The Tonight Show. Ohlmeyer stated that he was concerned that ratings research showed people turning away from the program during Macdonald's segment, and network insiders told the New York Daily News that Ohlmeyer and other executives had tried several times to get Macdonald to try a different approach on "Update". Media watchers pointed out that if Macdonald had been viewed as unfunny by Lorne Michaels his removal would have occurred at the end of the season, without any media attention. Matters intensified when Ohlmeyer caused NBC to refuse to play MGM's advertisements for Macdonald's movie Dirty Work out of retaliation for what he saw as disparaging SNL and NBC with Letterman and Stern. Ohlmeyer's boss, Robert Wright, later overturned the decision not to show ads for the movie on NBC, but did leave in place the ban on playing it during SNL. Macdonald continued to insist that he did not personally dislike Ohlmeyer but that Ohlmeyer hated him.
Macdonald remained on SNL as a cast member, but he disliked performing in regular sketches. On February 28, 1998, in one of his last appearances on SNL, he played the host of a fictitious TV show called Who's More Grizzled? who asked questions of "mountain men" played by that night's host Garth Brooks and special guest Robert Duvall. In the sketch, Brooks's character said to Macdonald's character, "I don't much care for you," to which Macdonald replied, "A lot of people don't." He quit shortly thereafter.
Macdonald complained about the NBC advertising removal for his film to the New York Daily News, calling Ohlmeyer "a liar and a thug". He said he never badmouthed SNL or Michaels, who he said always supported him. Macdonald pointed out that he had only taken issue with Ohlmeyer, while the people taking shots at NBC and SNL were Letterman (who wanted Macdonald to come to CBS) and Stern (who wanted him to join his show opposite SNL). Macdonald also asserted that Ohlmeyer's influence had caused his promotional appearances for his film to be cancelled on WNBC's Today in New York, NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the syndicated Access Hollywood (a joint venture between 20th Century Television and NBC). The shows Macdonald named denied being influenced by Ohlmeyer. Macdonald said Ohlmeyer was "about a thousand times more powerful than I am. It's difficult for anybody to take my side in this. This guy should get a life, man."
It was felt that there was some irony in the situation as Dirty Work was a revenge comedy. When an interviewer pointed this out Macdonald said "It would be good revenge if everybody went and saw this movie if they want to get revenge against Don Ohlmeyer for trying to ban my ads."
In a Late Show with David Letterman interview, Macdonald said that after being dismissed from anchoring "Weekend Update" and leaving SNL, he could not "do anything else on any competing show."
In later years Macdonald came to the conclusion that Ohlmeyer had not removed him from "Update" for his Simpson material. He told an interviewer that he felt he had been removed because people on the show stopped seeing him as funny: "I think the whole show was tired of me not taking marching orders. Lorne would hint at things...I'd do Michael Jackson jokes. And Lorne would say, Do you really want a lawsuit from Michael Jackson? And I'd say, 'Cool! That'd be fuckin' cool, Michael Jackson suing me!'" Elsewhere Macdonald said, "In all fairness to him, my Update was not an audience pleasing, warm kind of thing. I did jokes that I knew weren't going to get bigger reactions. So I saw [Ohlmeyer's] point. Why would you want some dude who's not trying to please the audience?"
Soon after leaving Saturday Night Live, Macdonald co-wrote and starred in the "revenge comedy" Dirty Work (1998), directed by Bob Saget and co-starring Artie Lange and featuring Chris Farley in his last movie; the film was dedicated to his memory. Later that year, Macdonald voiced the character of Lucky the dog in the Eddie Murphy adaptation of Dr. Dolittle. He reprised the role in both Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001) and Dr. Dolittle 3 (2006). Macdonald voiced the character of Death on an episode of Family Guy. Because of a conflict with his standup comedy schedule, he was unavailable to voice the character for his next appearance; Death has since been voiced by Adam Carolla. In 1999, Macdonald starred in the sitcom The Norm Show (later renamed Norm), co-starring Laurie Metcalf, Artie Lange and Ian Gomez. It ran for three seasons on ABC. Macdonald also voiced Hardee's restaurants' (Carl's Jr. on the U.S. west coast) costumed mascot. Macdonald appeared on several Miller Lite commercials that year. He appeared on the September 1999 Saturday Night Live primetime special celebrating the program's 25th year on the air.
Macdonald returned to Saturday Night Live to host the October 23, 1999, show. In his opening monologue, he expressed resentment at being fired from "Weekend Update", then concluded that the only reason he was asked to host was because "the show has gotten really bad" since he left, echoing a perennial criticism of the show. The next episode, airing November 6, 1999, and hosted by Dylan McDermott, featured a sketch wherein Chris Kattan, as the androgynous character Mango, is opening letters from celebrity admirers and, after opening the last one, says "[The letter is from] Norm Macdonald—who is that?" Earlier in 1999, Macdonald made a cameo appearance in the Andy Kaufman biographical drama Man on the Moon. When Michael Richards refused to portray himself in the scene reenacting the famous Fridays incident in which Kaufman threw water in his face, Macdonald stepped in to play Richards, although he was not referred to by name.
In 2000, Macdonald played the starring role for the second time in a motion picture, Screwed, which fared poorly at the box office.
On November 12, 2000, he appeared on the Celebrity Edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, winning $500,000 for Paul Newman's Charity Camp. Macdonald continued to make appearances on television shows and in films. In 2003 he played the title character in the Fox sitcom A Minute with Stan Hooper, which was canceled after six episodes.
In 2005, Macdonald signed a deal with Comedy Central to create the sketch comedy Back to Norm, which debuted that May. The pilot was never turned into a series. Its cold opening parodied the suicide of Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania politician who, facing decades of incarceration, committed suicide on live television in 1987. Rob Schneider appeared in the pilot. Later in 2005, Macdonald performed as a voice actor, portraying a genie named Norm, on two episodes of the cartoon series The Fairly OddParents, but could not return for the third episode, "Fairy Idol", owing to a scheduling conflict. In 2006, Macdonald again performed as a voice actor, this time in a series of commercials for the Canadian cellphone-services provider Bell Mobility, as the voice of "Frank the Beaver". The campaign was extended through 2008 to promote offerings from other Bell Canada divisions such as the Internet provider Bell Sympatico and the satellite service Bell TV.
In September 2006, Macdonald's sketch comedy album Ridiculous was released by Comedy Central Records. It features appearances by Will Ferrell, Jon Lovitz, Tim Meadows, Molly Shannon and Artie Lange. Macdonald was a guest character on My Name Is Earl in the episode "Two Balls, Two Strikes" as "Lil Chubby", the son of "Chubby" (played by Burt Reynolds), similar to Macdonald's portrayals of Reynolds on SNL.
In the 2007 World Series of Poker, he came in 20th place out of 827 entrants in the $3,000 No Limit Texas Hold 'em event, winning $14,608. He made it to round two of the $5,000 World Championship of Heads-Up No-Limit Hold'em. On the comedy website Super Deluxe, he created an animated series entitled "The Fake News". Macdonald has filled in during Dennis Miller's weekly O'Reilly Factor "Miller Time" segment, and guest-hosted Miller's radio show, on which he was briefly a weekly contributor.
On June 19, 2008, Macdonald was a celebrity panelist on two episodes of a revived version of the game show Match Game. On August 17, 2008, Macdonald was a participant in the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget, performing intentionally cheesy and G-rated material that contrasted greatly with the raunchy performances of the other roasters. In AT&T commercials around Christmas 2007 and 2008, Macdonald voiced a gingerbread boy in a commercial for AT&T's GoPhone. In 2009, Macdonald played a fictional, down-on-his-luck version of himself on FX's The Norm Macdonald Reality Show. On the May 16, 2009, episode of Saturday Night Live, Macdonald reappeared as Burt Reynolds on Celebrity Jeopardy!, and in another sketch. On May 31, 2009, he appeared on Million Dollar Password.
Macdonald became a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien during its 2009 and 2010 run. He has made frequent appearances on the Internet talk show Tom Green's House Tonight, and on May 20, 2010, was guest host.
In September 2010, Macdonald was developing a series for Comedy Central that he described as a sports version of The Daily Show. Sports Show with Norm Macdonald premiered April 12, 2011. Nine ordered episodes were broadcast. Macdonald's first stand-up special, Me Doing Stand-Up, aired on Comedy Central on March 26, 2011. On February 26, 2011, he became a commentator and co-host (with Kara Scott) of the seventh season of the TV series High Stakes Poker on Game Show Network.
In June 2012, he became the spokesperson for Safe Auto Insurance Company. Along with television and radio commercials, web banners and outdoor boards, the effort included a series of made-for-web videos. As part of the campaign, the state minimum auto insurance company introduced a new tagline, "Drive Safe, Spend Less."
On March 26, 2013, Macdonald premiered his new podcast, called Norm Macdonald Live, co-hosted by Adam Eget, streaming live weekly on Video Podcast Network, and posted later on YouTube. It received positive notices from USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and the "America's Comedy" website, while the Independent Film Channel stated that while Macdonald remained "a comedy force to be reckoned with", and "did not quite disappoint", the show was "a bit rough around the edges." The second season of Norm Macdonald Live began on May 12, 2014. The third season began in September 2016.
On an episode of the Rob Breakenridge Show airing February 6, 2014, Macdonald said he was writing his memoirs. In 2014, Macdonald unsuccessfully campaigned on Twitter to be named the new host of The Late Late Show after then host Craig Ferguson announced he would be leaving.
On May 15, 2015, Macdonald was the final stand-up act on the Late Show with David Letterman and included in his set a joke Letterman had told the first time Macdonald had ever seen him, during his appearance on a Canadian talk show, 90 Minutes Live, in the 1970s, where a teenaged Macdonald had been in the studio audience. Also in 2015, Macdonald was a judge for the ninth season of NBC's Last Comic Standing, joining the previous season's judges, Roseanne Barr and Keenan Ivory Wayans and replacing fellow Canadian Russell Peters from 2014.
In August 2015, he succeeded Darrel Hammond as Colonel Sanders in TV commercials for the KFC chain of fast food restaurants.
As of May 2017, Macdonald has continued to evolve in his standup, moving towards a more reserved, deadpan style. On stage he has claimed to have "no opinions" and the minimalist delivery has been described by The A.V. Club as "reduc[ing] gesture and verbiage down to an absurd minimum."
Macdonald says his influences include Bob Newhart, Leo Tolstoy, Bob Hope, Sam Kinison, and Dennis Miller.
Speaking about Canada's homegrown comedy industry, Macdonald reflected that he would have liked there to have been more opportunity for him to stay in the country early in his career, stating:
Now I know there's more of, like, an industry there. Like I was happy that Brent Butt got Corner Gas. Because he's a really funny guy. But there wasn't that opportunity when I was there. I remember Mike MacDonald had one short-lived series, but that was about it. Otherwise there was nothing to do. But it was great with standup. It was way, way better with standup than in the States. Like, I think the standups are generally much better in Canada. Because, like, when I was in Canada, none of us had any ambition to movies or TV because there were no movies or television. So it was all standup and we just assumed we'd be standups for our whole lives and that was what was fun. And then when I came to the States, I realized, whoa, they don't take their standup very seriously here because they're just trying to do something other than standup and using standup as, like, a springboard to something else that they're generally not as good at.
Reflecting on the state of modern comedy, Macdonald bemoans the influx of dramatic actors into comedy and comedians into dramatic acting:
What young, handsome person is funny? I remember on Saturday Night Live hosts would come in. You know, like handsome hosts. They'd be dramatic actors generally. And the publicist would always be like, "This is a big chance for this guy because he's really a funny guy and people don't know it. He's hilarious!" And then he'd just suck, you know?...I always liked Steve Martin when he was crazy. Because dramatic actors know how to be likeable and stuff. To me, if you've got a guy like Steve Martin or Jim Carrey or something, who are unbelievably funny, I don't know why they'd want to be dramatic actors when they have no chance. They're completely outclassed by actual dramatic actors. How many funny comedy actors are there? There's like a million great dramatic actors. I don't know why they'd want to switch. I guess to get respect or something, I don't know.
Despite referring to himself as apolitical, Macdonald has made controversial statements regarding politically charged issues. At the end of the last Weekend Update segment before the 1996 presidential election, Macdonald urged viewers to vote for Bob Dole (of whom Macdonald frequently performed a comic impersonation), though hinting that he had solely said it so that he could continue impersonating him.
On the November 16, 2000, episode of The View Macdonald said that he thought George W. Bush was "a decent man" and he called Bill Clinton a "murderer" (regarding the Vince Foster case). Macdonald later stated in Maxim magazine that he is completely apolitical, and that he was joking when he said Clinton "killed a guy" (he further explained on The Adam Carolla Show that the comments were simply designed to anger Barbara Walters). In a phone interview, he later clarified his views on George W. Bush and the Iraq War thus: "I wish there was another president, a different president engaging the war, since we're in the war because I don't think Bush did a very good job with it. The war itself, you know, if it works it was worth it. But I don't know if it's going to work, so I don't know".
In December 29, 2003, Macdonald again appeared on The View and jokingly renounced his Canadian citizenship over his home country's decision not to participate in the Iraq War. He furthermore stated his belief that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president ever and said he would become a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 2006 he affirmed he was joking about renouncing his Canadian citizenship, stating:
I'm not an American citizen. I'm a Canadian citizen. I just keep renewing my green card. ... I don't want to be American. ... I can vote in Canadian elections ... [but] I never did when I was in Canada... I never voted because I don't want to make a mistake. I'm so uninformed that I don't want that on my hands, you know?
He is divorced from wife Connie, with whom he has a son, Dylan, born circa 1993.
Macdonald said his past gambling addiction had been initiated by a six-figure win at a craps table in Atlantic City.Ridiculous (2006, Comedy Central Records)
Me Doing Standup (2011, Comedy Central Records)
Hitler's Dog, Gossip & Trickery (2017, Netflix)