How Norm Macdonald Writes a Joke
AP English Language and Composition
19 September 2019
How Norm Macdonald Writes a Joke
Norm Macdonald is a comic. His job is to write jokes. He’s not a particular type of comic, despite how particular his comedy is. He speaks like a folksy Canuck grandpa with the wit of a scholar and a gentleman. Often described as an anti-comic, for reasons which will become apparent, Norm rejects the label, citing the fact that his jokes represent the most basic form of comedy: a setup and a punchline.
Norm begins with a purpose—a message to convey, usually an observation. The purpose exists to provide a premise to the setup. The ‘purpose’ is the purpose for telling the joke; otherwise, nobody would bother paying attention to it. He often uses long, winding paths to seamlessly go from one point to another, very disparate one, building up suspense along the way. While on Macdonald’s wild ride, the audience is given short pauses to laugh and gasp before they’re thrown back into the river again. Towards the end, the audience’s patience is stretched thin and whatever substance to the joke there once was appears to have faded, until Norm whips them back to focus in a completely different context.
This ‘whipping’ Norm does is part of the punchline of the joke. By taking his point from one context to a very different one, he creates dramatic emotion in his audience which can only be expressed through laughter. Usually these dramatic contextual changes are from the very normal to the very extreme, such as with his thirteen minute long joke where he goes from being unable to understand the local news to how he’d “do that thing that makes [him] feel like God” to a woman before burying her in a “very, very, very deep grave.”
Macdonald has done the reverse as well, going from discussing an extreme situation with deep philosophical implications to the ludicrously normal, almost vulgar: a phenomenon called bathos. In his famous moth joke, he presents a personified moth, having gone to his podiatrist to pour his heart out over his broken life. This moth hates his job, his marriage, and grieves over the loss of his daughter, no longer loving his son for he sees in him the worst he sees in himself: “the same cowardice confronting [himself] when [he] look[s] in the mirror.” Having a gun next to his bed, he talks about how he wishes he were a stronger man so he could use it on himself. After the dramatic tragedy of the moth’s life has been told, the podiatrist asks why he’s discussing this with him. The moth then replies, “‘Cause the light was on.”
This style has led to Macdonald being branded by most passing observers as a “metacomic” or an “anti-comic.” Neither of these labels work on Norm, because he’s just trying to make the perfect joke, without any attempt to be anything other than a simple comic. Having succinctly summed up his purpose as a comic, Macdonald stated “The perfect joke would be where the setup and punchline were identical.” His years of joke crafting and adherence to strict principles have made his comedy timeless and everlasting, not bound to any time or place. He’s a comic that wants to make people laugh, raw in that he’s not swayed by any ideology or trend. That’s how Norm Macdonald writes a joke.