Whenever someone declares a superlative—the best joke, the worst president, the most boneheaded play of the game—you should ask what the second-most was. Superlatives are dumb. The question of the second-funniest Holocaust joke calls attention to the problems of the genre. The Holocaust was many things, but inherently funny it wasn’t. It was inherently shocking, and most Holocaust jokes focus on audacity—either the audacity in the mere act of telling them or some put-on insensitivity to their subject. That’s cheating. Anyone can find shock humor in history’s worst genocide, but it takes a deft hand to make a Holocaust joke genuinely funny. Enter Norm Macdonald:
That’s the funniest Holocaust joke I’ve ever heard. Dissection after the jump.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but more than 30 American cities have reported a sharp increase in their murder rates this year, and nobody can explain why. Just kidding—I totally mean to alarm you. Murders in St. Louis are up 60% from this time last year. Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. You can buy this shirt and wear it to the mall or whatever. Maybe your grandfather was right, and the last 50 years—the period that begins when we decided everything that feels good is okay, and ends when we gave first-person shooting games to children we taught how to deliberately feel self-esteem—set this country on some kind of course. Today is Friday, and America has embraced an iconography of skulls and luxury. Won’t you demand money and respect with me?
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.
Nolan Ryan punches Robin Ventura in the head during a 1993 baseball game.
What is the failure rate of empathy? Surely it is among the most powerful forces in human motivation, but no one would say that it works every time. So what is empathy’s average? .750? .250? Ted Williams batted .344, and he’s in the hall of fame. It would not be ridiculous to suggest that even a top-shelf impulse like compassion wins fewer than half the days. Are we prepared to accept that for every anonymous kidney donor, two people crowd the gate before their boarding group is called? Today is Friday, and that which makes us human only works some of the time. Won’t you grudgingly share resources with me?