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.1 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.
I do not believe Macdonald is a meta- or anti-comic. He seems to agree with me, if this missive is any indication. Like his delivery, the structure of the moth joke violates several deeply held principles of performed comedy, but it does so in pursuit of a genuine laugh.
The moth joke is not a shaggy-dog story. It does not exploit audience expectations in the hopes that discomfort or incredulity will substitute for laughter. Nor does it conspicuously subvert those expectations, a la Neil Hamburger, on the principle that a knowing smugness feels similar to amusement. These are anti- and meta-comedy, respectively. The difference between a shaggy-dog story and a conventional joke is that in the former, the punchline does not matter. But the punchline to the moth joke is absolutely crucial.
If you can’t watch the video for some reason: The premise of the joke is that a moth goes into a podiatrist’s office. The podiatrist asks him how he’s feeling, and the moth says he feels terrible. He launches into a series of complaints that go from mundane to tragic to existential. Macdonald emphasizes the parallels to Russian literature by giving all of the moth’s friends and family members Russian names.
This litany of tragedies goes on for a long time. Normally a good interviewer, Conan O’Brien breaks a cardinal rule of stage performance by demanding to know whether the joke has a punchline. Finally, after a few more of the moth’s absurdly depressing complaints, the podiatrist breaks in. He says that the moth’s situation sounds awful, but he’s only a podiatrist. What the moth needs is a psychiatrist. Why did he even come in here?
“The light was on,” the moth says.
That’s not a groaner, in my opinion; that’s a genuinely funny joke. Its length makes it funnier: Macdonald has spent the last two minutes anthropomorphizing the moth, beginning with the absurd premise of him visiting a podiatrist, but crucially moving into the realm of psychological realism with the complaints that his job demeans him and he no longer feels affection for his son. The moth is not humanized in the style of jokes; he is humanized in the style of literature and philosophy. “The light was on” slams us back into joke territory again, with all the pleasing incongruity that entails.
The punchline and the long setup it resolves are exemplars of classic joke structure. The punch is short and restores the premise of the joke rather than violating it. To apply an Aristotelian principle, it is surprising yet, in retrospect, inevitable. This joke is a Swiss watch, ticking along with no wasted motion even as it reminds us how long a minute really is.
The moth joke is not, as Wikipedia would have it, an example of anti-humor. One suspects that the person who categorized it as such either did not listen very carefully or does not understand how humor works. Macdonald may be avant-garde in his stage presence, but from a content perspective he is a classicist. His blunt punchlines and stilted delivery are the mark of a comedian who recognizes humor where we do not—not someone trying to create it where none exists. Like all formally daring artists, he has a keen sense of the old rules.