Norm Macdonald has been all over the internet lately in connection with Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary. One Rolling Stone writer dubiously asserted that he was the 135th funniest of the show’s 141 total cast members—behind Randy Quaid and two people who never actually appeared in any sketches, Laurie Metcalf and Emily Prager. Obviously, John Belushi had the funniest SNL career. But Macdonald remains one of my favorite comedians, partly for his strange delivery but mostly for his pathological commitment to his vision of humor. For me, he is on a short list of uncompromising comic sensibilities with Louis CK and Steven Wright. The infamous moth joke, captured above, is an example of how particular and particularly misunderstood Macdonald’s sensibility can be.
The scene above is from the “Last Exit to Springfield” episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer becomes head of his union and negotiates a new contract with Mr. Burns on sheer strength of idiocy. Dorks will remember it as episode 9F15 of season four, which my college roommates and I remember as the Era of Big Pupils. This model style roughly coincides with Conan O’Brien’s tenure on the show and, probably not by coincidence, some of its most surreal gags. For example: On a tour of his mansion, Mr. Burns shows Homer a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters, who will soon produce “the greatest novel known to mankind.” He checks one monkey’s progress. “‘It was the best of times,” he reads, “it was the blurst of times?’ You stupid monkey!” That was your last chance to enjoy this joke, because I’d like to talk about why it’s so funny.