“A joke should catch someone by surprise,” Norm Macdonald said, and in the mouth of basically almost anyone on earth, that would sound like a truism—that’s what comedy is, right? But coming from him, it sounded more like a mission statement, and it described not just the punchline but the meandering, straightlaced, sometimes full-on anti-humorous path the joke took to get there. There is a reason why The Moth Joke gets held up, by people who know what they’re talking about, as among the single greatest jokes of all time.
It is a perfectly fine setup and perfectly fine punchline; you’d smile if there were nothing more to it than that. What comes in between is a four-minute shaggy-dog digression in the style of a 19th century Russian novelist. It makes you think it’s going somewhere, and it isn’t. It sounds like it’s building to something, but it doesn’t, not really. It is one of those jokes where its aimlessless and disdain for its listener earns “funny” simply through sheer length. But the laughter through that part isn’t humor; it’s tension. That’s nervous laughter. Where is this bleak tale going, and can it be anywhere good?
It is the combination of that—the tension drawn out past the point of being bearable, only to be fully and instantly punctured by the chewing-gum-wrapper punchline—that makes The Moth Joke immortal. That was Norm: a genius of the stupid.
It feels pointless to try to write anything like an obituary, because everyone had their favorite Norm. SNL Norm, sitcom Norm, standup Norm, bit-role Norm, talk show guest Norm, ESPYs Norm, book Norm, roast Norm. I can only tell you my Norm: the guy who I saw do a live set once, and mostly ruined the form for me because it was clear how much better he was at it than 99 percent of even the other professional standups; the guy who did shit I literally did not realize you were allowed to do on basic cable; the guy who said stuff that made other comedians try desperately to keep a straight face, and fail. You’ve got your Norm, and if you don’t, there’s no better way to spend the rest of your day than going to YouTube and searching for Norm and watching any and everything that comes up.
Because everything he did was funny! Everything! Scores of people around the world are currently sitting in their homes, chuckling and muttering, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man is for the birds!” because that’s the first thing they think of when they think of Norm. What other comedian could have planted a punchline so dumb into the heads of so many people? Something about the voice, and the delivery, and the deadpan-with-a-barely-suppressed-hint-of-manic package elevated all material, and made him the only person alive who could possibly have pulled off his best stuff. And now he’s not alive, so all that might’ve been can no longer be, but we’ve still got a lifetime of work to go back to. Share your favorite Norm bits, and watch ’em again. He was truly one of the funniest people to ever do it.
Norm Macdonald died today after keeping his cancer diagnosis a secret, even from family members, for nine years. Maybe that’s not the strongest punchline, but it’s the only one he ever would have picked to finish off the yarn that came before.