Norm Macdonald made me laugh a lot over the years, though I didn’t always feel good about myself afterward. Some of his bits were senselessly cruel, and he wasn’t above making you giggle by repeatedly miming himself giving a shoe salesman a blowjob.
But since he died I’ve watched the notorious “Moth Joke” many times, and I never get tired of it. The punchline isn’t what gets me, though the punchline is perfect; it’s watching him get there that’s the point. Like “The Aristocrats,” the joke is really just a framework that allows for endless improvisation. Legend has it that Conan suddenly needed to fill the last segment on his show, and so Norm tailored his delivery to fit on the spot.
My favorite part is his smirk as he toys with the audience. He knows that the premise was set up in the first seven words and that the punchline is going to kill no matter what he does; his only goal is to stretch things out long enough that you forget where he started. And so even the stumbles, awkward pauses, and intentional butchering of Russian names serve a larger purpose.
This, my friends, is how you tell a joke.