Regarding the moth joke

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.

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23 Comments

  1. Well done, once again Dan! A perfect explanation to a basic skill which is simple yet complex. I remember a joke on a Yiddish comedian’s record long ago. The basic idea was a single individual visiting a bagel shop during the worst winter storm ever in NY. The apocalyptic description of the storm, of the complex pastiche of overcoats and scarves worn by the individual, and the long detail of the many delicious types of rolls the baker has to go through to find “two seedless ones” all help in bringing us to the punchline in question. “Would you also like some challah?” “No, just 2 rolls” (Pause) “Maybe some lox with that order?” “No, just the rolls please” (Pause) “You married?” “WHAT AM I, MY MOTHER WOULD SEND ME OUT ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS!?”

  2. Great joke. I would call it an example of meandering, though. You take a long, winding path to get to the punchline making it ever so sweeter when you get there.

  3. It is, in fact, a shaggy-dog story, but as you write, it has an actual punchline. I’ve tried to tell this joke, but Norm MacDonald tells it so well that it always feels like a bad impersonation. The Russian allusions…I suspect that if Norm were asked to tell the joke again, to a different audience full of, say, Spaniards, he would fill it with other stuff, and be just as funny.

  4. Great analysis. The other thing that makes it funny, I think—and that maybe leads people to confuse it with anti-humor—is that the amount of misery the joke puts on the moth is far beyond what a clever punchline can redeem. Characters in jokes are generally put-upon, not suffering existential dread, so the punchline can’t really bring us all the way back from the joke’s darkness. (I’m still so mad at Conan for interrupting Norm.)

    Norm’s other most famous YouTube moment, the roast of Bob Saget (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x069nC755kQ), seems to be kind of in-between: some of the humor is from his charming use of unbelievably hokey jokes, and some from his taking them inappropriately literally (“they want to murder you by throwing you into a well”).

  5. The first time I heard this joke it immediately became my favorite joke of all time. It is indeed very philosophical and very existential, and I too have tried to tell it to others but always feel that Norm’s delivery cannot be topped. And too cannot forgive Conan for the interruption.

  6. Can someone pls explain the wit behind the joke (if any)? What does it mean that the light was on? Do podiatrists use some sort of light on their office or something?

  7. At night, moths and other insects are attracted to lights, as in the expression “like a moth to a flame.” If you leave your light on and your door open at night, bugs will come into your house.

  8. Great, I know that much about moths to a flame. I’m trying to make a connection between “the light” and a podiatrist or was a podiatrist simply chosen at random? And for this to even make sense, the podiatrist would have to have been operating after sundown!

  9. Agreed that the operating hours are a continuity error. I think the humor comes from the shifting of perspectives between human and moth priorities. The moth has human problems, and after he describes them, the podiatrist says they are problems for a psychiatrist, not a foot doctor. So why come to him? “The light was on” abruptly shifts the moth’s priorities from these human problems back to the concerns of a moth. That’s how the punchline works, anyway; I think a big part of the humor here is the long setup for a relatively mild payoff.

  10. That’s fine to throw all that nonsense in and make that the focal point of the humor but in the end, the joke has to tie up logically or else it fails. When I saw the video of that “joke”, I thought I was missing some sort of podiatrist reference or something.

  11. Yes. You’d be lucky if you find a doctor that works on a Friday. If an 8yr told me this joke, maybe I’d chuckle, but for it to come from someone who does it for living? Pretty weak sauce. I have NO clue how SNL has survived all these years. Aside from the once-in-blue-moon opening skit that’s stomachable, the rest of that show is utter garbage.

  12. RB, they don’t need explaining but they do inspire sparkling exegesis, especially if the joke contains more laughter and thought on the second pass. Most comedy is disposable, sarcastic mugging but “Moth” is funnier and more meaningful the *more* you think about it. It’s why Louis C.K. is worth watching again but others can’t be remembered hours after you see them. McDonald’s “Because the light was on” is up there with the closing punchline of Annie Hall: “I need the eggs.”

  13. Because, Confused, at the end of everything…. at the end of all his existential meanderings, his wonderings about the meaning of life, the horribleness of the world, wondering what his place is in it…

    He’s still a moth, and he has to fly towards the light.

  14. Just for the record (not that it should matter) it’s dark enough for a porch light at 4:30 this time of year. But that’s got nothing to do with whether this joke is funny.

  15. @Confused If you really are that hung up on the time of day the Podiatrist is working then hopefully this will clarify matters for you. Sunset in Bangor Maine today is at 4.41pm. The Arcadia Foot and Ankle Podiatrist is open until 5pm today. Therefore anyone seeing a Podiatrist between 4.41pm and 5pm will either be seen by a Podiatrist in the dark or a far more sensible Podiatrist who has put his office light on. Hopefully that clears that one up for you. As a side note other time zones are available. Also you are a moron.

  16. Maybe the joke takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia (hence the Russian names), which is far enough north that they have nights that last all day in the winter and days that last all night in the summer. Also, as much as I enjoy this joke, I find it even funnier that the incredulity of a podiatrist having a light on completely ruins the joke, whereas a talking, existential moth is totally believable.

  17. My guess is that the Russian connection is down to his interest in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I hope it is.

  18. I absolutely love this joke. I am a funny guy and as an amateur a very good joke teller but I won’t dare try this one.
    Norm tells it so, so well all I can do is put YouTube on my iPad and turn it around so I can watch my friends’ expressions as they experience this comedic brilliance.
    I disagree with the other commenters who are upset at Conan. The joke depends on audience reaction/frustration. I have watched it a dozen times and I think that Norm was going to continue the setup for as long as it took to get a reaction. He wrapped it up soon after Conan’s interruption. The joke was funny as hell and the joke was ON Conan.
    I love love love this joke and these comments. Especially from the people who can buy into the speaking moth but not that a podiatrist might have a light on.
    Joke just keeps giving and giving …

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