It sometimes seems as if all our discourse is mediated through humor. Comedians write multiple news shows, your survivalist uncle today shares political memes with all family members as he used to only with his fishing buddies, and it often feels like every viral political tweet must express either some form of comedy or outright vitriol, with no middle ground. Our time does not seem to favor the sincere, the simple, or the earnest, traits we have exported to children and cute animals. All of this can change, however, if we but heed the words of prophet. His name is Norm MacDonald.
Comedy is, at essence, a subversion of expectation. This explains why human beings are particularly good at it. Even the most intelligent animals, the chimp laughing uproariously at sleight of hand, have only a sense of physical continuity. An object is in hand, and ought to stay there barring some visible intervention, and then, presto, it’s gone.
Consider this instead:
Q: Why did the Elephant fall off the swing?
A: It was shot in the face.
This joke is a human artifact with complex inner workings. It relies on the juxtaposition of elephant to swing, a mismatch demanding release which the dénouement refuses to provide, instead denying the elephant’s significance altogether. A chimpanzee, or a friend who refuses to open his mind to the beauty of the anti-joke, may reply with a straight face that anything falls off a swing if it’s shot. This fact is what subverts our expectations, and thus we laugh, or at least recognize, regrettably, that we are meant to laugh.
It is only because we have minds meant to perceive the nature of elephant and swing that we have senses of humor. Therefore, it’s according to our understanding that our senses of humor mature, grow more refined, and expand. Just as many adults prefer beer to Kool-Aid, adults (can) prefer Doonesbury to the Family Circus. The strange power of comedy is that the more educated, insightful, and confident we are, the more we see into the workings of the world, the more effect a good joke has on us. The structure of our minds forms the majority of the actual set-up for a good bit of humor. The comedian or joke-teller or humorist builds slightly upon the entire body of our experience and then shakes us with a punch-line, a judo-like reversal of our own momentum. The best way to render a punch-line ineffective is, therefore, to cling to ignorance. If we somehow had no knowledge of what a Donald Trump is, half the attempted comedy in the world right now would simply fail to reach us.
Few, however, would willfully choose ignorance to escape the jokes. Why should they? Comedy is like political power, in that there are many who in theory would like to give it up but practically wish rather to wrest it from their enemies and use it for good. The easiest way to do this is realizing that last week’s jokes, having passed from the present, are now simply the uppermost stratum of set-up. We can build on those jokes by subverting them.
This method, now so common even among non-comedians as to be practically subconscious, is dangerous to meaning itself. Comedy works best as a flying buttress, hanging off the side of sincere meaning and supporting its weight. A structure built entirely out of flying buttresses is no structure at all. Punchlines work as well as turtles when they go all the way down.
If we wish to imagine a theoretical sincere, non-humorous definition of “Donald Trump”, we must now not only undo today’s joke but yesterday’s meme and last week’s neologism. If we want to tell a new joke about him, we become like an artist who must paint roses but has only ever seen paintings of roses. How is the artist meant to “show the real in the light of the ideal” (in the words of Sir Roger Scruton) when the real has been denied him? As we collectively continue to build joke upon joke, comedy grows ever more debased, no longer an art but a mere pursuit of sentiment. Many traditions on teach that those hungers which only grow hungrier when they are fed are dangerous. The hunger for humor is no different. We do not become addicted to things of actual substance. Those forced to pursue the joke-within-the-joke, like those seeking an ever-greater high, must stray ever-outward from reality, that is, the underlying non-humorous set-up. A certain linguistic construct is funny, which becomes the context for its subversion, which in turn may only be kept funny in context of this other thing, and then only if the sentimentality of the set-up is enhanced and the hyperbole of the next punch-line is ramped up.
In philosophical terms, to build joke upon joke constitutes an abandonment of post-Socratic complexity. We desire malleability, to discover infinite potential in the inert set-up presented to our senses, but in this we deny the limiting actuality inherent to all things by their nature; no being with a defined form contains the infinite. We are therefore intellectually forced into Parmenidean stasis (nothing is funny—so does it exist?) or the Heraclitean flux (everything is funny—so is anything funny?).
This inflationary humor, this laugh escalation, slowly works at the web of relationship between all things called “meaning” and dilutes it, always redefining nodes into branches, reference and meta-reference forming a vast edifice of jokes slowly drowning ever-more-slender islands of sincerity.
Laugh escalation is nearly unavoidable in the age of social media, since if we have the option to tweet the straightforward idea disagreeing with our interlocutor or to couch our reply in snark, meme, or clapback, the choice is barely a choice. Straightforward notions feel almost naked, only able to form tribe around shared intellect or direct sincere experience. Set-up not only gets fewer shares, but also does not seem to sufficiently subvert the opponent’s position, to adequately demarcate between us and them. Then the other individual or tribe jokes about our joke, and we are off to the races.
This is why the comedy news shows struggle to be funny—their jokes were first-level work (perhaps second, counting Letterman) when John Stewart made them a decade ago, and every news item in the twenty-four-hour cycle has already been ransacked for comedy on Twitter or even, lord help us, Facebook long before the cameras have a chance to roll.
It is not their fault, for, as noted earlier, the only other option is not to joke, and so not to promulgate, and so not to be. We are consigned, in the age of humor, to either the death of set-up or the eternal rootless becoming, the never-ending quest to mediate communication through novelty.
Reactionaries who don’t play the game are not heard and so are powerless to stop it, while those who would try to stop the game from the inside are consumed by it, as we see by the most popular figures in conservative media today, whose principles are so intertwined with their memes that to dispose of either is to dispose of both. No one is a better example than Ben Shapiro, who in his effort to speak to the young audiences that have been educated in this game since childhood has found even his “serious” points couched in the language of the owner, the liberal-destroyer, the savage comeback, whose Breitbart roots show through in his joy when the President shares his memes. We are winning the game, he seems to think, and he is, in the sense that Ahab was winning against the whale.
Of course, this loss of seriousness has turned in upon itself with the advent of the new puritanism, as it must. If to be funny is to be real, then “that’s not funny” is how to remove the enemy from power. What is special about Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart that they deserve a pass? We have all followed them into the chuckle house, making them our trailbreakers and wise-men, and they cannot complain that we now take humor very, very seriously. Whereas the original puritans and their spiritual successors were merely trying to guard the border between the serious and the unserious very seriously, the new wet blanket guards the border between social life and death.
If the reasonable adults are not part of the culture at all, and the kids live somewhere on the spectrum between the corrupted and the purity police, from whence shall our salvation come?
Verily, from Norm.
Many have written about Norm Macdonald. They call him an iconoclast, a gambler, a genius, and secretly the funniest man alive. Norm traffics in a unique form of anti-humor that subverts the tropes of 21st-century Am
erican comedy itself. Where his colleagues zig, Norm zags. Most comedians listen to pop or rock or hip-hop; Norm listens to outlaw country. When comics work hard to dunk on each other in the most shocking way possible, Norm calls Bob Saget a cauliflower. The comedy news shows strive to squeeze “clapter” from the headlines, while Norm shoots the breeze with a grab bag of (pseudo-)celebrities. They seem to search endlessly for the next punchline. Even though Norm does stand-up, he has, for years, searched for the perfect joke whose set-up just is its punchline. As a comedian subverting not jokes but comedy itself, Macdonald can teach us how to fix comedy from the inside.
Why does Norm search for this mythical form of humor, the set-up-as-punchline? I think he is tired of our comedic status quo. I think he sees the way other place themselves above the ever-expanding setup, seeking to manipulate it, and desires to place himself within the set-up, in order to understand it. The point is not to extract a shock of joy from experience, to impose one’s will upon what one sees in order to build upon it. If this was the goal, a regular punchline would suffice. Norm yearns to make art.
This explains the quaint feeling you still get watching Norm’s old Weekend Update clips. The goal was not to work the news, to find its problems, to resolve its contradictions, but simply to peer at the contradictions as they are. He wishes to consider the reality before him, to move it hither and tither in the light, and to see its inner beauty, its internal contradictions, its truth unfolding before him. He knows that to make a joke is an act of moral heft. He wants not to add but enter, to partake. The true comedian doesn’t need to do dunny. It is the world that is funny, and he merely reflects it, and in the reflection makes it beautiful. And hilarious.
Norm makes our other comedians look like teenage metal heads in search of the fastest guitar shredder of all time. They are junkies looking for an arbitrary fix, never aware that there are limits, that there is a highest boundary on how fast (or how loud, Nigel) one can play. Beyond that point, there is no growth, no greater speed, and the journey is over. Norm is like a flamenco fan. In abandoning the quest for speed or volume and pursuing beauty instead, he finds not only a well of near-limitless depth but also some of the fastest fingers around.
“Norm is not funny,” my friend Hollee insists. In a way, she’s right. He’s not funny in the sense that Paco de Lucía didn’t rock. His goal is not a temporary subversion of expectations while working within the stale boundaries of his medium. Norm wants to transform the conventions themselves into freedom, to stop running from the old as if we fear it but to transform and elevate the set-up on its own terms. When he tells his famous moth joke on Conan, he does not worry that it’s an old joke in the joke books, which is meant to be the kiss of death for comedians, a sign of deficient creativity. He doesn’t change the punch-line. He makes it hilarious, on his own, by dwelling within the set-up, by turning it into a dark somehow-Russian tale of sorrow, by allowing the old joke to write itself upon the medium of his sensibility. The joke is not his product; the joke is his form. The humor inheres in his delivery, his limitations, his self.
If we wish to joke like Norm, we must not give in to the pressure to escalate comedy. We must practice looking at the seemingly-unfunny and allowing its humor to shine. If we seek to converse like Norm, we must not seek to add to the humor of our guest, but to let their humor shine free naturally, through charming active listening and engagement. If we want to comment on the news like Norm, we must be unbound by it, to find what’s truly funny in it according to its nature, rather than desperately needing to make something out of the headlines.
He can be our guide, our leader out of the darkness and back to meaning. He can show us how to escape our childish escalations and rediscover set-up, the funniest thing of all.
the current moment