Norm Macdonald once said, “I always told everybody the perfect joke would be one where the setup and punchline were identical.”
You might know Macdonald from his time on “SNL” from 1993 to 1998, including his three years as “Weekend Update” host. You might recognize his voice as that of Death on “Family Guy” or recall his appearance in the Adam Sandler movie “Billy Madison.” But the Canadian comedian and actor is at his best performing stand-up comedy and in his appearances on late night shows. (His strength in these two fields is so respected that David Letterman chose him to be the last stand-up act during Letterman’s reign of “The Late Show.”)
His voice alone is funny. He has a calm, soothing voice, and you can almost picture his smile while listening to him. He is a master of both timing and emphasis. Nobody can do his jokes as well as him. A competitive poker player, he can manipulate his voice and face to get exactly the result he wants.
He always sounds perfectly innocent, which is perhaps why Macdonald can go to such dark places. He has jokes about wars, depression, diseases, death, bestiality, alcoholism, religion, rape, 9/11, LSD, and more. None of these things are funny. But Macdonald is, so many of these jokes are completely uncontroversial.
But not always. Definitely not always.
During his stint on “Weekend Update,” Macdonald constantly referred to O.J. Simpson as guilty during Simpson’s first trial, when it was still an extremely divisive issue. When Simpson was found not guilty, MacDonald began his comments with “Well it’s finally official: Murder is legal in the state of California.”
I’ve discovered several categories of Norm Macdonald jokes. The first — my personal favorite — is the kind with an extremely long build-up and a fantastic punchline which turns that build-up upside down.
In one of his best late-night appearances ever, Macdonald told a joke about a depressed moth on “Conan.” MacDonald went into brutal detail for three minutes about what makes a moth’s life horrible before delivering a punchline completely irrelevant to the moth’s depression.
The third category goes through something everyone knows about or takes for granted, and tears it down. In his Netflix comedy special “Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery,” Norm discusses the Ten Commandments.
When it comes to coveting his neighbor’s ox, he says “Now I have this old, scraggly ox. I bought him used. The person who sold it to me didn’t tell me about all the diseases it has. But then I walk by my neighbor’s house, and here stands the most beautiful ox. Like a blue-gray Belgian ox, and he’s brushing his luscious… and I’m not supposed to covet it.”
The great thing about Macdonald is that he’s been around for so long that he has produced a vast array of quality jokes. I keep finding more jokes, different jokes, some that I can’t categorize, and they are always hysterical. Only Macdonald can make the most difficult issues of life worth laughing about.