Iowa Hawkeyes

The night Norm Macdonald mortified the University of Iowa

Longtime comedy star wasn't for everyone at UI athletics dept. event

Norm Macdonald (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Norm Macdonald (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Many were disgusted. Some were delighted. University of Iowa athletic department people were mortified.

But time heals some wounds, so let us observe Thursday’s 20-year anniversary of a night that has lived in infamy with more amusement than ire.

On June 22, 1997, then-“Saturday Night Live” cast members Norm Macdonald, Jim Breuer and Darrell Hammond performed stand-up comedy in the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. Macdonald was the anchor on SNL’s “Weekend Update” segments. He also did popular impersonations of Bob Dole, Larry King and Burt Reynolds in sketches.

A November 1997 Rolling Stone feature on SNL included this passage:

On the walls of Norm Macdonald’s lived-in office — along with the portrait of Richard Nixon and a photo of Macdonald with Howard Stern — there’s a bulletin board. On that board is a cute snapshot of Macdonald’s young son, Dylan, and two tacked-up letters.

One is a note from Bob Dole, written in the fall of 1995: “If you’re ever in Washington and want to see the real article,” Dole writes, “please feel free to stop by my office. With two terms of a Dole presidency, I can keep you employed until the year 2004!”

The other letter comes from Rick Klatt, assistant athletic director for external affairs for the University of Iowa, and was apparently written on June 23, 1997: “This letter is to inform you that the invitation to you and a guest to participate in the golf event on the University of Iowa campus later today has been formally withdrawn. Your performance last night at the Hancher Auditorium was inconsistent with values and morals of the staff of the University of Iowa Men’s Athletic Department and the University of Iowa and Iowa City community as a whole. You insulted the intelligence and decency of a great many people with a monologue which was, at minimum, irresponsible.” …

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For several years, AEGON (now operating under the Transamerica brand name in the U.S.) held the AEGON Advantage Golf Tournament in Iowa City to raise money for the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame and the renovation of Finkbine Golf Course.

In addition to golf, an entertainment program the night before the tournament was part of the event. In 1997, the show was open to the public as well as the tournament guests. Hancher had a seating capacity of about 2,000, and a capacity crowd came to see the three SNL men.

Few might normally have vivid memories of a comedy show they attended 20 years ago, but this was one many recall vividly. Parents who brought their children walked out in anger during the final act of the night, Macdonald’s. Some who were and remain fans of Macdonald recall it giddily.

Here are excerpts of The Gazette’s review of that Hancher show, and its news story (both written by John Kenyon) about the university athletic department’s apology for Macdonald’s performance:

The humor ran the gamut Sunday: Darrell Hammond offered impersonation-driven political satire, Jim Breuer wowed with wacky, physical comedy and Norm Macdonald closed with a raunchy set of deadpan observations.

Hammond crafted humor around myriad impersonations. Breuer spent much of his time ruminating on marijuana and alcohol. MacDonald kept the audience in stitches in spots, but his reliance on swearing and sexually oriented material drove many from the auditorium.

University of Iowa Athletic Department officials were teed off enough about Norm Macdonald’s Sunday night comedy act that they yanked his golf invitation for Monday.

Several members of the audience left during Macdonald’s act, which contained references to sex acts, AIDS and homosexuality. The comic alluded to the stream of people leaving the auditorium, but continued his set. “What do you want to talk about? Losing your luggage at the airport?” he asked as people left.

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U of I Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby said Macdonald’s act “would be considered to be in very bad taste in nearly every venue in America.” Athletic Department spokesman Rick Klatt said the U of I was assured during contract negotiations that Macdonald could meet guidelines. “We were very explicit about the details of the event, and about the type of people who would be there,” Klatt said.

What it apparently boiled down to was this: The belief was the threesome would give performances similar to what they gave on SNL.

This being a family-friendly website, I’ll not detail the jokes/observations Macdonald told that offended a considerable portion of the crowd. But an accompanying video of Breuer describing the evening could be considered NSFW.

Klatt, now the UI’s Director of Special Communication Initiatives in the university’s Office of Strategic Communication, declined to be quoted for this story. I tried to reach Macdonald on multiple occasions over the last several weeks, to no success. Here is a sampling of people who directly responded to me by emails or phone interviews (big thanks to all of them), as well as comments from Macdonald and Breuer that came from other sources:

Pat Baird, AEGON’s chief operating officer at the time: “It was a University of Iowa function. The University of Iowa had taken the time to put into the contract of each of the three to make clear there would be kids there (and adjust their content accordingly).

“Two of the three lived up to that and one did not. One was really a long way away from the spirit of the contract and the language of the contract.”

Mike Bridenstine, Los Angeles-based comedian/writer who grew up in Muscatine and attended the show as a teen:

“The joke that got the biggest/worst reaction was about bestiality porn. Old people and little kids were filing out. My mom felt so uncomfortable that she walked into the lobby, but complained, ‘They piped the sound out there too.’

“I physically hurt from laughing.

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“I heard he was disinvited from a golf outing the next day at the University. And (Brian) Duffy did a political cartoon about it in the (Des Moines) Register, where he’s getting yanked offstage by a shepherd’s hook.”

Ryan Driscoll, former Hawkeyes quarterback from Marion who now lives in Roscoe, Ill.: “I was there with my now-wife and a bunch of other old teammates and spouses or girlfriends. We all walked out.

“What a terrible experience. He was so offensive that nearly the entire auditorium walked out.”

Jeff Buhr, Houston: “I was only 20, in between my sophomore and junior year at Iowa, so from my perspective it was absolutely hysterical. It is easily the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I was literally crying from laughing so hard.

“People were filing out in droves, but there was a small group of college-aged kids there that were going crazy. I actually tried to get a video or tape of it in the days after the show, but no luck. ... Bowlsby probably had them destroy the tape.”

Teresa Stueck, Cedar Rapids: “My husband and I were there and as it has been forever ago (1997!) I cannot recall the exact jokes which alienated the audience but more than half left the auditorium.

“We stayed mostly out of curiosity since the mass exodus made the show less of what it could have been. We are fans of Norm’s SNL comedy and offbeat humor. What I recall from the show was an apparent intent to piss as many people off as he could after people began to leave.

“People had brought their children and young teens to the event which, unless that comedian is like (Jim) Gaffigan or Heywood Banks, it is irresponsibility on the part of the parents to not do the research ahead of time to assure their kids are mature enough to handle the humor.”

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Eric Richmond, Iowa City: “We were 19 years old and a bunch of friends and I bought tickets as soon as we could since we were SNL nerds and especially Norm fans.

“I see in that video that Breuer said they were told to keep it PG but I distinctly remember that Hammond let a few words fly that aren’t safe for broadcast TV. Then Breuer upped it slightly by dropping maybe a couple of f-bombs and did some mild drug humor. I remember thinking that even he was pushing it a bit because some people brought their kids.

“After the show we weren’t sure if the planners had really understood exactly who they were hiring. This is an exaggeration, but it made us wonder about people going to see Eddie Murphy in 1982 based solely on SNL and what a shock they might have gotten.

“When Norm took the stage he immediately launched into a bit that was intentionally supposed to be offensive to most of the audience. As it went on, people got up and left in large numbers. Each time a new group would leave, he would make a remark like, ‘Did you think I was going to do airline jokes?’ or ‘Did you think I was going to hold up a picture of the Ayatollah and make a joke?’ Then he would double down on the dirty material to see how many more people he could drive out. It was clearly a game to see if he could empty out the place and after some time probably over two-thirds of the crowd had left.

“We stayed for the whole time because right away if you were a comedy nerd you could tell he was working from the Andy Kaufman playbook. After he got rid of the majority of the audience I felt that he backed off the offensive material and just started seeing where he could take the crowd. ... In hindsight I don’t blame anyone for leaving or being offended, but we were a bunch of 19-year-old guys at the time and this was the kind of thing I’d only read about or heard recounted by comics in some sort of Broadway Danny Rose-style setting on TV and we were watching it happen live.

“On the one hand, some of the material I saw Steve Martin and Martin Short do last fall at the new Hancher would have upset some of that crowd in 1997 who brought their families thinking they were going to see broadcast-friendly entertainment. On the other hand, some of Norm’s material would be considered even more offensive today than it was 20 years ago. However, we were just surprised to see these guys in Iowa City and then even more amazed that we were getting a Norm performance so off the rails that it was mesmerizing to watch.”

Tim Sullivan, professional comedian who lives in Cedar Rapids: “I was 21. I’ve always been a Norm fan. That’s the main reason I went, even back then.

“Darrell Hammond did his Bill Clinton impersonation. He was perfect for that audience. Jim Breuer was a little risque, did a bit about pot-smoking. But he was so animated everybody liked him.

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“Then Norm came out. I don’t know what was funnier, Norm telling jokes or people getting more and more offended. It was a long show, and at one point I really had to go to the restroom. But I didn’t want to be seen as one of those who were offended and leaving. Finally I sprinted to the bathroom and ran back.

“I remember there might have been 200 or so who stayed for the whole thing. They were enjoying it.”

Breuer from a 2010 video of him doing stand-up in Des Moines, describing that night in Iowa City: “It was ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Norm Macdonald!’ and the place goes nuts. And I’m not exaggerating.

“Norm gets to the podium and he goes ‘Let me ask you something.’ (Breuer then paraphrased Macdonald’s comments.)

“People are leaving in packs of 30s and 40s like a fire broke out. It’s ‘Take the children and let’s run!’ ”

Nate Soesby of Aurora, Ill, who managed Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids at the time and was the onstage host at the Hancher event: “I was told to work clean. It was an all-age show. Darrell was clean. Breuer was not so clean.

“When Breuer was finishing up, Norm was pacing around in the back. ‘They’re gonna hate me,’ he said.

“‘No, man, they’re gonna love you.’

“‘No, they’ll hate me.’

“They bring out Norm and the crowd’s going crazy. Breuer and I were friends before then. We go back to the green room where there were monitors so you could hear the show. Five or 10 minutes later, we can kind of hear he’s telling the pig joke.

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“Whoever booked the show comes in the green room all sweaty with his tie askew. He looked like he had seen a ghost. He says ‘You gotta go get him.’ Me, pull Norm off the stage? I’m not getting him. Breuer was laughing. He says ‘I’m not getting him.’

“Me and Breuer knew something special was happening. He and I got chairs and sat on the side of the stage where nobody could see us. It was one of the most-brilliant shows I’ve ever seen.

“Anybody who thought Norm would change his act was sorely mistaken. Norm just didn’t care.

“He’s revered in the comedians’ world. He doesn’t bother with pretenses or correctness. He’s probably the original politically incorrect comedian. It’s not for a shock factor. It’s just who he is.”

Baird: “I’ve talked with people who thought he was really funny. Typically, those were folks who had been to Las Vegas, who had seen comedy acts on either coast. Those who were from Iowa and hadn’t been to Vegas or Atlantic City were shocked.

“The University of Iowa tried to do it the right way.”

Macdonald, from an interview with Howard Stern not long after the 1997 Iowa gig: “It paid exactly $15,000.”

Asked when he got the vibe things weren’t going well, he said “I guess about 15 minutes. But they weren’t like yelling, they weren’t mean. They just like quietly left.

“All I heard was at one point I heard a guy say, I guess he was telling his wife, he said ‘Get your coat.’

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“I think there were like 2,000 people and 1,800 of them left. The other 200 liked me. They were really happy at the end.

“I didn’t even know anything was wrong. And then the next day these guys ... from some radio station or something, like I was sleeping, and they start asking these questions, you know. I didn’t know what to do, so I just tried to be funny. They go ‘Do you think your act is obscene?’ So I said ‘No, I think what’s obscene is there’s like kids dying in Vietnam, you know?’

“He goes ‘There’s no war in Vietnam!’ He like got all mad at me.”

The comedians had been invited to participate in the next day’s golf outing, but Macdonald’s offer was rescinded.

Breuer, during his 2010 standup performance in Des Moines: “(Before the Hancher show) the governor was like ‘I’m gonna personally take you out and welcome you to Iowa’ . ... next day, it was ‘Where’s Norm?’

“‘He got kicked out of the state.’ So I was like ‘I was with him, so maybe I should wait a decade to come back.’ ”

Macdonald to Stern: “They had a golf tournament the next day and I didn’t want to do it. And then they said ‘Please do our golf tournament,’ so I said ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ So then I had to stay like an extra day.

“I go to the golf tournament ... and this old guy goes ‘What are you doing here?’ I go ‘Remember, you invited me to the golf tournament.’ Then the guy goes ‘You can’t be in our golf tournament!’ So then I was ‘Oh my God, I can’t even be in the golf tournament.’ I didn’t even want to be in the stupid golf tournament.

“So then I said ‘Oh well, I might as well just play golf. So I went to the starter’s thing and the guy said ‘OK, I’ll shotgun you out to the 10th hole.’ The old guy heard it and he goes ‘I will not have him on the golf course!’ ”

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Here we are 20 years later. No one got seriously injured from Macdonald’s fateful appearance in Iowa City, and most of us can laugh about it all this time later. Some never stopped laughing about it.

Macdonald has maintained a successful career in show business, in stand-up appearances, television and films. In May his stand-up special “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery” debuted on Netflix. His 2016 book is called “Based On a True Story: A Memoir.”

He was the last stand-up comedian David Letterman had appear on his CBS talk show. “I think Norm Macdonald is without peer,” Letterman recently told GQ.

Macdonald’s appearance at the Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget is the stuff of legend. Much like his show in Iowa City.

Sullivan: “That crowd, most had never been to a comedy show to begin with.

“I’ve talked to Norm about that night. He had forgotten half the set. I was telling him his own jokes and he started laughing, saying ‘Good one!’ It was like an acid flashback. I gave him his old material. He ended the night writing them down so he could tell them in the future.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.