Norm MacDonald plays Col. Sanders in a new ad campaign from KFC, but it was a gig hawking hamburgers for Hardee’s that made the comedian a star. Literally, he voiced the chain’s star-shaped mascot in a series of commercials that aired during the late 1990s.
Donning the colonel’s iconic white suit and spectacles, MacDonald impersonates the KFC founder with his usual mix of smirking indifference and winking irreverence. It’s a shame to see the 51-year-old again reduced to shilling for a fast food company, but at least the ads mean a steady paycheck.
MacDonald shot to prominence on “Saturday Night Live,” where he spent four years behind the Weekend Update desk. He was fired from the show in 1998 to appease an angry NBC executive who was friends with O.J. Simpson and reportedly took issue with MacDonald’s constant ridicule of the disgraced football star.
Most of MacDonald’s post-SNL projects have flopped, but it’s safe to say he’ll make a more popular mascot than his former castmate Darrell Hammond. KFC tabbed Hammond to play Col. Sanders in a divisive ad campaign launched in May, and the 59-year-old actor’s creepy take on the company’s beloved founder sparked a big enough backlash to force KFC to pull the plug.
The new commercials try to repair the damage done by the earlier ads with self-referential humor. In them, MacDonald’s colonel watches the commercials starring Hammond with a disapproving look before announcing to the camera that he is, in fact, “the real Col. Sanders.”
“Other than not quite looking like him, his voice being different, and his inability to cook the world’s best chicken, we thought Norm was the perfect choice to play the real Colonel. I think the fans will agree,” Kevin Hochman, KFC’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.
It’s worth noting that Chick-Fil-A surpassed KFC last year to become the nation’s No. 1 chicken chain, making about $2 billion more in sales with fewer stores.
MacDonald is a beloved cult comic who refuses — or is perhaps unable — to mute his idiosyncrasies for mass appeal. His leading roles consist of two box office bombs and five television shows, four of which were canceled after their first seasons.
Those failures helped mint MacDonald’s underdog image, and it’s tempting to find poetic justice in KFC’s decision to hire him after firing Hammond, who was on SNL from 1995 to 2009 — the longest run of any cast member in the show’s 40-year history.
Although most fans recognize Hammond’s peerless talent for impersonations, his dogged professionalism made him seem toothless and milquetoast at times. Of course, that might be why NBC loves the guy so much. Hammond returned to SNL last year at the urging of Lorene Michaels, who asked him to replace the late Don Pardo as the show’s announcer.
Despite their contrasting tenures at Studio 8H, KFC clearly felt that Hammond and MacDonald were both bankable enough to rejuvenate interest in the chicken chain. Fellow SNL alum Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon were made corporate hucksters on more depressing terms.
The comedians dusted off Hans and Franz — the catchphrase-spouting musclemen they played on the show — for a recent batch of State Farm commercials. When an insurance company casts a pair of faded funnymen in an ad campaign built around a one-note sketch from 1987, how can they not feel like the punchline?
Jaymie Baxley writes about arts and entertainment for The Robesonian. He can be reached at [email protected]