One of the most iconic sketches on “Saturday Night Live” owes its existence, in part, to Burt Reynolds.
The actor, who died Thursday at 82, was introduced to a whole new generation of fans through “Celebrity Jeopardy,” and more specifically, through Norm Macdonald’s impersonation.
In one of the most memorable versions, Macdonald’s Reynolds smacks gum, dons an oversized cowboy hat and changes his name on the podium to Turd Ferguson.
“Yeah, that’s right, Turd Ferguson,” the fake Reynolds says to Alex Trebek, who was always portrayed by Will Ferrell. “It’s a funny name.” Then when he names a category — “I’ll take them condom thing for 8,000″ — Ferrell’s Trebek corrects him: “That’s ‘Condiments.’ For 400.”
It was that take on Reynolds — as a guy who didn’t have a care in the world and treated the exasperated Jeopardy host with indifference — that drove Macdonald to want to write the sketch in the first place.
“The reason I really did it is I wanted to do Burt Reynolds,” Macdonald told Howard Stern in 2016.
He got the idea for “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch from the Canadian comedy series “Second City Television” (SCTV), which had its own game-show sketch titled “Half Wits.”
“I always loved that show, and ‘Celebrity Jeopardy,’ they always asked such easy questions,” Macdonald told Stern. “And celebrities are all so stupid. It would be great to do it. Unfortunately, [SCTV had] already done it, and I feel like I just shouldn’t steal a sketch.”
The opportunity presented itself to Macdonald when Martin Short came on SNL. Short had been on SCTV and starred in “Half Wits,” so Macdonald asked him who had written it. It was Eugene Levy.
“Maybe we could phone him, to get permission” Macdonald suggested. “So I phoned Eugene Levy and I asked him. I told him the whole sketch. I said how much I loved the first one, and he was kind enough to give it to me.”
Then came the Reynolds twist. The actor was one of Macdonald’s childhood heroes, and the chance to impersonate him was the motivating force to get to the sketch to air.
“When it came time to do the sketch, I went down and saw my wardrobe and there was white beard and a bald white cap, and I said, ‘No, no, I want to do Burt Reynolds from 1972,” Macdonald told Stern. “And it’s funny to me, but no one ever mentioned it, that one guy on ‘Celebrity Jeopardy’ is from 40 years ago.”
Macdonald also played Reynolds in other sketches, including 1997’s “Christmas with Burt.”
The comic ended up meeting Reynolds on the set of an Adam Sandler movie (probably 2005’s “The Longest Yard”). Reynolds “was real nice to me. He told me really funny stories,” Macdonald said. “He has a very good sense of humor.”
“Celebrity Jeopardy” often featured not only the fake Reynolds but also Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery. As Macdonald recalled in a long string of tweets in 2015, “the idea was for Connery to be abusive and Burt to be dismissive. Sometimes people ask me who the funnier character is, Connery or Burt.”
“The funniest character in Celebrity Jeopardy, by far, is Alex Trebek as played by Will,” Macdonald tweeted. “Without Will’s perfect take on Trebek, maddened by the outright hostility of Connery, the faraway uninterest of Burt, the sketch is nothing.”
SNL’s first “Celebrity Jeopardy” aired in 1996, and even outlasted Macdonald’s tenure on the show. But Macdonald — and fake Burt Reynolds — appeared one more time during the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live.”
“Who is Andre the Giant?” the fake Reynolds says.
“Is that an answer to a question?” says the fake Trebek.
“No,” Macdonald’s Reynolds responds. “I’m just wondering who he is, Andre the Giant.”
That SNL Reynolds is frozen in time, and the impression has followed Macdonald around, too. In the final chapter of his memoir, “Based On a True Story,” Macdonald writes about how he may always be remembered for “the four years I spent at ‘Saturday Night Live’ and, maybe even more than that, by the events surrounding my departure from that show. As long as SNL exists, then so do I.”
He continues: “When people come to see me do stand-up, it is because somewhere in their memory I live on SNL, dressed as a young Burt Reynolds, insisting Alex Trebek refer to me as Turd Ferguson.”