The Setup, the Punchline, and Grace

Norm Macdonald and the Art of the Joke

Guest Contributor / 6.16.22

This article is written by Ryan Cosgrove:

Norm Macdonald’s death hangs like a pall over his final, self-taped comedy special. And I use this expression in the truest sense. Norm’s death is no blanket of remorse that covers his set. Rather, like the baptismal pall that drapes the coffin, Norm’s fate is something that covers his stand-up in promise.

As such, this special offers a dandy little lesson on redemption.

This makes a certain sense, too. Especially if you hold the opinion that good humor is the subversion of expectation. After all, what bigger subversion of expectation could there be than forgiveness when judgment is anticipated?

On the whole, Norm’s set is … mediocre. Without an audience (or a laugh track), Norm’s deadpan style can feel more awkward than funny. Norm recorded these jokes in one take at a computer during Covid-tide. He did so because he wanted to have one last set in case he wasn’t able to beat back his leukemia during lockdown. Norm had kept his illness secret for many years — so thoroughly that many of his closest friends didn’t even know how ill he was.

It’s some of these friends, and fellow comedians, who are brought in at the end of the special to try and make up for the lack of an audience. These folks spend little time talking about the jokes themselves. Instead, as people tend to do in such circumstances, they talk about Norm and what he meant to them — foibles and all. And what they reflect on, one way or another, is what a delight it was to stand on the receiving end of Norm’s affections.

They wonder if Norm’s diagnosis didn’t have something to do with that effusive love he could express. Take Norm’s now-famous final stand-up appearance on Letterman; at the end of his set, Norm told David he loved him on live television. During the special, Letterman confesses that he thought Norm was just giving him a nice send-off. But now that Letterman knows what Norm knew all long, Letterman can’t help but suspect Norm was giving him something better, and more precious too.

The retrospective reassessment this posthumous release inevitably evokes is where our lesson on humor and redemption really comes to life. Redemption is a lot like the wallop of a good punchline. It justifies the setup. Not the other way ‘round.

I know that sounds obvious, but the truth is we don’t believe it. So let me say it again, setups don’t make a joke funny. Punchlines do that. The setup doesn’t make the punchline land. What makes the joke funny is that, against expectations, the punchline landed.

That’s why the surest way to ruin a joke is to explain it. What makes a joke good is how the punchline takes the threads of a setup and weaves an unexpected web of humor out of them. In short, setups can’t make a joke work. A punchline and its payoff do that. This also means, by the way, that what makes the setup worthwhile isn’t its own integrity. No, it’s the way the punchline does something with the setup.

I know I’m being tedious here, but this point has many implications. And furthermore, the truth is we usually get it backward. If not in humor, then most certainly in redemption. Sadly, we all live with this heretical conviction that if we don’t create just the right setup, be it pious, social, or ecclesiastical, then the punchline of redemption won’t land.

All we have to show for this inversion of the rules of comedy, though, is a lot of humorlessness. A lot of humorlessness, straining under the weight of its own self-seriousness and self-importance. And, like a bad joke, we seem to think the solution to our predicament is more hemming and hawing over the setup.

This backward, albeit well-meant, solution only ruins the joke every time. Trying to get the setup right is akin to explaining the joke. The temptation to do so may be understandable, but it’s misguided. If a joke is going to land, it will do so by its own power. When a joke is coming, the proper thing to do is enjoy the two-drink minimum and get ready for an unexpected, yet inevitable, punchline to bowl you over.

The truth is, this is the plight of humanity left to its own devices. On this side of eternity, we’re all in the middle of the setup. And when the setup seems to be going sideways real quick, it’s hard to trust the punchline is capable of landing. So we all hedge our bets by trying to punch up the setup. But it never works. And tragically, it only makes the interim that much more unbearable.

Norm, though, by his diagnosis, was liberated from this plight. By reckoning with the curse of death we all live under, Norm was freed from trying to make a joke work via its setup. For Norm, either the punchline was going to redeem it all, or not. And blessedly, Norm put his chips on the power of the punchline.

I mean this in both ways, too. Norm’s faith comes up multiple times in this final special. But regarding humor, Norm understood (or trusted) that punchlines ignite into laughter by the heat of their own spark.

And this conviction created an interesting reversal. Consider, for instance, his beloved “moth joke.” This gag is all setup for a silly punchline! And part of the gag is how silly the punchline is and how meandering and sobering the setup is. A joke like this is a big risk, especially if the punchline doesn’t land. But Norm trusted the twist of the punchline would make the setup worth it. In other words, the more you trust the punchline, the freer you are in the setup.

I know I’ve tested your patience, but, like Norm, a good joke is what you’re in for. The cross is the great subversion of expectation, and the “alleluia” of the empty tomb is the great guffaw of the punchline. And like Norm, you’ve been let in on this joke!

This means, fellow comedian, that the payoff of your life is out of your hands. What’s more, you’ve been let in on the punchline that promises to make something out of all this. The setup of your life is no longer something you have to get right. Rather, it’s something you get to enjoy.

And that’s not all, either. Because, as anyone who’s heard a good joke knows, half the fun is repeating the bit to another person. You have a punchline capable of redeeming this setup of life East of Eden! Even in the middle of this setup! Even while this setup seems to be going sideways!

And when you have a punchline like that, you can’t not share it.

Whether you know it or not, you stand in Norm’s shoes today. The setup of your life isn’t for justifying your existence. That’s a fine way to ruin the joke. No, you have something better. You get to use the setup of your life do something as funny as loving others as yourself, as Norm did with Letterman. You get to use the setup of your life in service of letting others in on the joke of redemption, as Paul did with the Corinthians when he bid them to foolishness for Christ’s sake.

If this gag hits your funny bone, it’s probably because you have a string of failures, like yours truly, or a diagnosis, like Norm. It’s a bitter pill that breaks our addiction to backward humor. But once the fever passes, the rest of life sparkles with the making of a marvelous joke. A bit capable of wiping every tear of grief away from our eyes and replacing them with ones of laughter. On that day, the former things will pass away, and the comedian of all comedians will, not stand up, but sit down on and take the mic once and for all.

That’s a callback to Revelation. Get it?

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