The Truth About Norm Macdonald's Moth Joke

Since the blindsiding announcement last week of comedic genius Norm Macdonald's death at just 61 years old, his fans, friends, and colleagues have been dealing with their shock and grief by sharing some of their favorite Norm moments. There are so many to choose from: his relentless, no-holds-barred shots at O.J. Simpson on "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update" (which would ultimately cost him his job), his cocky, gum-gnawing Burt Reynolds impression on "SNL's" "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches, and clips from his inimitable stand-up comedy, to name just a few.

One clip that keeps getting shared and discussed (which you can watch on YouTube) is an epic joke about a moth (kind of) that he made when he was a guest on "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien. In the clip, Macdonald says that the driver O'Brien's show had sent to bring "this ol' chunk of coal" to the studio had told him a joke, which he wanted to share.

It begins with a moth going into a podiatrist's office. The podiatrist asks what the problem is, to which the moth sighs, "What's the problem? Where do I begin, man? He goes, 'I go to work for Gregory Illinivich, and, and all day long I work.'" For the next few minutes, the moth's maudlin tale gets bleaker and bleaker, including ill children and a loveless marriage. The absurdity of the premise, combined with Macdonald's emphatic, surgical pauses make its silly punchline anti-climactic in the most hilarious way.

'He had nothing planned, absolutely nothing planned'

First of all, no, it wasn't Norm Macdonald's driver who told him the joke, according to a recent "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend" podcast. In the episode titled "Conan Talks About Norm Macdonald," posted on September 16, O'Brien talked with former longtime "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" (and later, "Conan" on TBS) co-host Andy Richter and longtime producer Frank Smiley about their friend, one of their favorite and most frequent guests on O'Brien's various late-night talk shows. At about 16 minutes in, the trio gets all "inside baseball" about the moth joke.

Macdonald had already been on the show for about seven minutes and was preparing to cede his spot to the next guest. But due to a last-minute cancellation, O'Brien found himself with unscheduled time to fill. "I always wanted more Norm," he said. "So he didn't know we were going to ask him to do a second segment. He had nothing planned, absolutely nothing planned."

Smiley said that Macdonald had heard the moth joke from fellow comedian Colin Quinn, but that it was very short. "Then you [O'Brien] say, 'We'll be right back with more Norm!' and he goes, 'I've got nothing to say.' So then he remembered the Colin joke, and it was a 20-second joke, so he asked you how long is the segment, and he was hoping you'd say 20 seconds. But you said seven minutes," Smiley recalled.

'I've never met anybody who would take that chance and make that choice'

Conan O'Brien and Norm Macdonald were able to pad about half that additional seven minutes with their familiar, friendly banter, but Macdonald still wanted to get another joke in — and it looked like all he could grasp on to at the last minute was that lightning-quick Colin Quinn joke. He had to draw it out, somehow.

"This has to be understood: he's doing this on the fly," O'Brien said on the podcast. "His way to slow it down, that he came up with on the fly, is he invents... a Chekhov play with Russian names and there's an ineffable sadness in life weighing on the character's soul."

O'Brien's reactions throughout Macdonald's misery and character-driven yarn were equal parts thoroughly entertained and completely baffled as to where he and his audience were being taken. By the time Macdonald essentially throws away the punchline — "The light was on" — O'Brien's laughter is the cherry on top of a bizarre sundae of Macdonald's creation.

"I've never met anybody who would take that chance and make that choice," O'Brien said. "And I'll never meet anybody like him again."

Indeed, the world feels a lot more like the Chekhovian moth's version without Macdonald around to make us laugh at it.