Every Writer Should Know the Moth Joke

On Wednesday, I told The Moth Joke and gave credit to Norm MacDonald at the bottom. The meat of the joke was all mine, but the general structure of the joke can be traced to an appearance Norm MacDonald made on one of Conan O’Brien’s shows, I think Late Night:

Okay, so to start:

Hi, Kids. If You Don’t Know Norm MacDonald, I Don’t Know How to Explain Him to You

Norm MacDonald has been a comic since the early nineties. He was on Saturday Night Live in the late nineties where you probably know him best as either the host of Weekend Update or as Burt Reynolds/Turd Ferguson on the recurring Celebrity Jeopardy bits, and then he was probably fired for telling too many OJ Simpson jokes. He’s had a few ill-fated shows here and there and has continued to do stand up and late night talk show bits. He showed up to the last episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien with a late gift basket for getting the show in the first place (and if you don’t know the drama that revolves around Conan O’Brien getting and then losing The Tonight Show, Christ Almighty I’m not getting into that right now. That shit deserves its own column). He was on The Roast of Bob Saget, a typically filthy show roasting a very filthy comic, and spent his entire set delivering the cheesiest, cleanest dad jokes he could collect.

This Nerdwriter video tries to explain him, and the only place I disagree is that Norm MacDonald clearly doesn’t give a fuck. Not giving a fuck and not caring are two different things. You have to put effort into not giving a fuck, and Norm does beautifully. He obviously does care, at all times, about the craft of writing and then telling jokes, and he cares about engaging the audience, but he doesn’t give a fuck about what jokes were expected from him or if the audience is laughing at all times. Actually, this YouTube comment, of all things, might be the simplest explanation:

Another comment further down claims that Norm stretched the moth joke out from a usual thirty seconds to the full five minutes to fill time, but I can’t find anything else to support that and I don’t know if I believe it. Because given everything else he’s done, would you really be surprised to find out he totally planned to tell a five minute joke with a stupid punchline on late night TV?

What the Moth Joke Is: Driving Tension and Bathos

Bathos: /ˈbāTHäs/ noun (especially in a work of literature) an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.

Oxford Dictionary

Generally, as a writer, you want to avoid bathos. At its core, its unintentional comedy deriving from how much your passages suck, either because your serious tone has turned lighthearted by accident, or your serious tone has turned too fucking serious. You’ve basically put in so many ridiculous metaphors, so much purple prose, so much DRAMA, that you’ve completely pulled a 180 and made your serious writing funny again. Something like this needs to be edited out – unless that’s precisely what you were going for in the first place.

I don’t know about you guys, but one of the first things I learned in my writing classes in college was that you have to learn the rules of writing so you know how to properly break them. Being unaware of bathos means you can accidentally wander into it and get mowed down. Once you know about bathos, though, it just becomes another weapon in your arsenal.

The joke uses driving tension to push the listener closer and closer to an edge, and then the bathos at the end pushes them off. The moth isn’t just randomly listing off everything that’s terrible in its life, there is a direction to it. Every piece of information is worse than the last, culminating in the moment when it reveals it has a gun next to the bed, ready to kill itself. And then…

The light was on.

Kills me every time.

Why You Should Practice Telling the Moth Joke

The tension and bathos combination is a good lesson for your writing, but I think learning to tell it is equally important.

The Moth Joke is one of my favorite jokes to tell people I have just met, up there with The Whale Joke, which is similar but different. The Whale Joke goes like this:

Two whales walk into a bar. The first whale says: [Here you begin to make whale noises. Think Dory from Finding Nemo trying to talk to the whale, but get creative with it. Pay attention to your listeners, because you are making whale noises until you see certain cues from them. You are making whale noises until they are confused. Uncomfortable. Maybe getting bored. Or angry. I like to pause long enough to make them think I’m done, but I’m only take a big breath to make more whale noises. You want to make whale noises until you are completely sure that someone is about to either walk away or hit you. Only then do you stop making whale noises.] And so, the second whale goes: [and here you take a big breath, as though you are getting ready to make another long series of whale noises, but instead, you say] Shut up, Steve, you’re drunk.

The Whale Joke doesn’t utilize driving tension and bathos, it’s more exhausting repetition and relief when its over. Think ‘Orange You Glad’ or John Mulaney’s Salt and Pepper Diner bit. But I bring up the Whale Joke because it shares a common goal with The Moth Joke: paying attention to your listeners.

Both jokes aren’t just set up and punchline, they’re an experience. You have to closely watch your listeners as you bury them beneath the set up to know the best possible time to strike with the punchline. Too short and you lose punch. Too long and you lose the listener entirely. Both jokes teach you timing. While you don’t get that kind of instant feedback from readers, I think learning how to time a joke like these can make you better at timing your dramatic hits in your prose.

There’s another perk from the Moth Joke that you don’t get from the Whale Joke: learning how to riff. You can’t really riff with the Whale Joke, you can just make slightly different whale sounds. But the key with the Moth Joke is you can make the moth miserable in completely different ways every time! And you should. Just keep in mind that every new detail you share should be worse than the last and you can make up whatever you want.

Riffing, I feel, is an underappreciated talent. Everyone loves it when they hear it, but not a lot of people see it as a skill they can practice and hone. Work to get better at riffing out loud, in front of people, and you’ll see an improvement in your ability to just lay down a first draft. I wrote Wednesday’s Moth Joke with no prep in about fifteen minutes.

You’re Never Going to be Norm MacDonald

And that’s okay! We already have one of those. But he’s someone a writer can learn from. Writers can’t spend all their time only taking lessons from the ‘greats’ of literature: they’re all old white dudes, and they’re all dead. That’s how you end up putting bathos into your works the bad way. Writers have to be constantly learning from every piece of media they come in contact with, up to and including a five minute telling of one of the oldest jokes in the book.


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