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Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Norm Macdonald and the Economics of Comedy

What made Norm Macdonald so funny? Economics can give us a clue.

Image Credit: Greg2600 - Wikimedia | CC BY SA 2.0

My favorite comedian, Norm Macdonald, died a little over a year ago. Norm was raised in a rural area outside of Quebec City, Canada. He was known by many as a “comedian’s comedian” and was known popularly for his work as host of Saturday Night Live’s weekend update and his movie Dirty Work.

Norm was something of a renaissance man. He wrote his own (very funny) book, created a YouTube podcast in 2013 before the format exploded in popularity, and played professional poker.

But what made Norm Macdonald so funny? We’ll answer that question with, you guessed it, economics.

Rational Humor

While economics may not be able to fully account for humor, it can account for an essential element: expectations. As we’ll see later on, Norm was a master at confounding expectations. But why are expectations important in comedy?

Consider a pitcher who always throws a fastball right up the middle on a 3-2 count. What will happen to him? Well, batters will begin to expect the fastball and will be able to hit home runs. This idea that people will learn and modify their expectations to match reality is known in economics as rational expectations.

In order to make things difficult for the batter, the pitcher needs to switch up his strategy. In economics, this is known as a mixed strategy.

Expectations play a similar role in comedy. Imagine a comic who goes up and tells a really funny joke about an answering machine. The audience laughs. He thinks to himself, “well that went well. I’ll tell it again.”

But as you know, it isn’t funny the second time because the audience expects the punchline. If listeners can anticipate the punchline before comics make it, the joke won’t be as funny. Much of comedy depends on surprise.

To combat this, the best jokes often start with a set up, then the comedian works to distract the audience away from the setup. When the comic finally returns to the punchline, the audience is reminded of the setup they were distracted from.

It’s very common for comedians in their bits to generate noise (distractions) to prevent the audience from correctly expecting the punchline.

Noise generation is necessary because audiences, like hitters, are rational. They learn the patterns of jokes.

While generating noise to confound expectations isn’t the only element associated with good comedy, it’s essential, and it’s what Norm excelled at.

Or, to quote Norm, “I feel comedy is surprise, right? So that’s the funniest thing—something they don’t expect.”

Let’s look at some examples of how Norm used surprise to make people laugh.

Three Ways Norm Confounded Expectations

1. Playing dumb and never dropping the act

The first time I watched Norm a singular question swirled in my head—is this guy acting? He was so odd and somewhat incoherent, that it was unclear to me if his whole character was a joke. The answer of whether he was acting is a little bit yes and no, but it turns out that insofar as Norm ever appeared unintelligent, he was fooling audiences.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Norm Macdonald was a smart man. He authored his own book, a memoir which blurs the line between fiction and truth (leaning towards the former). You may be suspicious that Norm used a ghostwriter. In fact, the ghostwriter of the book is a character in the book.

But author Michael Malice, a ghostwriter himself, confirmed someone familiar with the book told him that Norm made up the ghostwriter.

So not only did Norm not use a ghostwriter—he wrote the book in such a way that he pretended he did.

His book also infused elements of Russian literature of which Norm was a big fan. He often used stereotypical Russian literature names in his long, meandering jokes and was seemingly well-read.

Norm frequently implied he dropped out of high school early, but the truth of the matter is he graduated early at 14. In college, Norm majored in math. Based on my research, it’s unclear if he graduated. Some sources say he dropped out of college while others claim he graduated college at 18.

Regardless of whether he graduated, those who knew him said he had a surprising knowledge of mathematics.

One reason it’s tough to know about Norm’s credentials is he didn’t flaunt them. If anything, Norm reveled in coming off as nothing special intellectually. In fact, it seems intentional.

In an interview with Larry King, Norm laments how “some comedians—their goal is to be smart… they want to be seen as smart” as opposed to funny. In contrast Norm praises David Letterman.

“David Letterman, he’s smarter…he understands play the dumb guy. Play the everyman. Nobody likes a guy smarter than them. That’s the worst guy you can be—a guy smarter than the audience. They’re gonna hate you.”

Later in the same interview, Norm demonstrates his intelligence and tips his hand a bit about playing dumb. In explaining the Letterman show he says, “this is Letterman. Letterman’s in on the joke, the studio audience is in on the joke, the home audience is in on the joke, and the guest is the joke. So as soon as I realize that, I started playing with Letterman and not doing material and going off-script.”

If you go back and watch Norm’s old interviews on Letterman, you can see Norm do just that. When you watch it, it sounds like he’s just forgetting his lines, but in reality he’s sparring with Letterman. Watch this, and look at Norm’s face when he knows he got Letterman:

Norm played dumb to subvert expectations.

He has an impressive commitment to this. Apart from a few personal interviews, Norm’s mask never dropped.

2. Blurring the Line Between Bits and Reality

Another way Norm kept fans guessing was with his constant blurring of the line between his jokes and reality. I already mentioned how Norm’s “memoir” was clearly fiction in some parts, but there certainly were pieces of reality mixed in.

Norm also did this with his jokes in stand-up. This constant infusion of real details with humor makes it very difficult to parse when Norm is telling a funny made-up story and when he’s telling a true story from his life.

For example, in both Norm’s book and his stand-up he often joked about appearing on the show International Star Search. In a roundtable for comedians held after Norm’s death, Dave Chapelle points to Norm’s “Star Search” bit as an example of how he could tell the same joke several ways. Chapelle is right. If you watch Norm do the joke about how he was beaten on International Star Search, you’ll find him tell it many different ways. It’s in his mostly fiction book too.

But it isn’t a bit. The basic details of Norm’s story are true—including how he lost to a Liberian comic who TMZ even tracked down to confirm. The true story of losing on International Star Search is included with some stories too crazy to be true, but there are some stories that sound reasonable enough to be true. For example, he recounts unknowingly taking a gig at a facility for the “criminally insane.” Is this true? I don’t know. And the fact that I don’t makes it even funnier.

Norm is self aware here and seems to acknowledge this blurring between reality and fiction in his “memoir”. In one passage he recounts a painting that changed his life:

A picture hung on the wall of our parlor. In it, a woman was taking a shirt from a clothesline. She had clothespins in her teeth and it was windy and a boy was tugging at her dress. The woman looked like she was in a hurry and the whole scene gave me the idea that, just outside the frame, full, dark clouds were gathering. But that was not what it was. It was paint. So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

Norm had a lot of other minor abnormal habits which threw off expectations of listeners and made them question if he was serious. He was famous for employing old-timey phrases like, “holy crow” and “did you ever hear tell of X?” Here’s a ten minute video of some of these. Fellow comedians have also pointed out his abnormal pronunciation of words and abnormal emphasis of syllables.

3. Meta-gaming Comedy

One final way Norm subverted expectations was by subverting the various formats his comedy occurred in. One of the gateways to Norm’s comedy is his famous part in the roast of Bob Saget.

Modern roasts of comedians are famous for being as explicit and raunchy as possible. And although Norm wasn’t opposed to explicit humor, he didn’t like comedians being raunchy for the sake of being raunchy.

So instead of making crude jokes about Saget, Norm makes basic, clean, joke-book style jokes such as “as you can see he has wavy hair. It’s waving goodbye on account of he’s going bald.”

The crowd is nearly silent for most of the roast, and Norm’s ten-second pauses make it deafening. It’s an absolute joy to watch Norm eviscerate the roast format. Give it a watch. You can see the other comedians chuckle with uncertainty.

Norm also subverted the talk show format. Talk shows are famous for being formulaic. Guests come on and pretend to have a candid conversation (which is scripted ahead of time) with the goal of plugging their latest project. Guests try to be snappy and quick so they can spend the maximum time on self promotion. Not Norm.

Norm’s talk show appearances are littered with long, meandering jokes which often take up the whole time he has. My favorite all-time Norm joke came from this kind of appearance.

This subversion of format makes every Norm appearance unique, and, like all good comedy, surprising. You can hear the studio audience start to get delirious with the confusion caused by Norm’s meandering.

An Economist Goes Into a Comedian’s Office

While learning economics won’t teach you how to be funny, it does help explain the social world around us. Norm was funny for a lot of reasons, but his ability to surprise was no small part,

A necessary element of humor is surprise. An expected punchline is a boring one.

Norm was a true master of the unexpected, and, in true form, even his closest friends said they didn’t even know he was sick when it was announced he died of cancer last year.

But with hindsight, we can look back at some of his last jokes and say, with very little surprise, that Norm had the last laugh in his battle with cancer.

  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.