By Monica Murray Derr
If you’ve seen me since the middle of September, it is a near certainty that I have asked you, “Have you seen the moth joke?” and then—regardless of your answer—proceeded to whip out my phone and play you a clip of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien from 2009. If you are somehow unaware of the moth joke, switch over to YouTube real quick and watch it. I’ll wait. Did you do it? Great. Now you can’t complain if I spoil the punchline because I told you to go watch it first.
For those of you who did not follow my instructions, but are still reading, this next part is a) not going to make a lot of sense and b) going to spoil the joke, but that’s the risk you run, I guess. For the rest of you, I am going to do the one thing that always makes a joke funnier: explain it. What makes the moth joke funny is not the joke itself—that is firmly planted in dad joke territory—it is the ridiculously (comically?) long setup. Between the opener, “a moth walks into a podiatrist’s office,” and the punchline, “the light was on,” Norm Macdonald recounts the basic points of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. What makes the joke funny is not the joke itself, it is the contrast between the tragic story of a man—I mean moth—whose life is so miserable but is too weak to take his own life and one of the dumbest, oldest jokes in the book. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in.
I have a distinct recollection of Norm appearing on Conan (after he had moved to TBS) and being asked about what he thought of fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the success of the TV show. Without missing a beat, Norm replied that he thought it was trash and lamented having read it. For the life of me, I cannot find this clip anywhere on the internet and the good people of r/NormMacdonald suspect that I may have imagined it. Whether or not that’s true, I am in luck because Norm tweeted out all his thoughts on the book so that I could reference them years later.
But I am not here to delight in the criticism of one famous person who I’m not interested in by another famous person that I like (although, I am doing that a bit). If I were here for that I would also tell you about the time Norm took to Twitter to defend Alice Munro and mock Bret Easton Ellis at the same time. No, I am here to tell you why the moth joke is the reason I believed Norm when he told me and everyone else watching Conan that night that Margaret Atwood sucks.
In a 2012 interview, Norm said that his favorite book was War and Peace. I know! I read Crime and Punishment one time and I thought I was impressive. In that same interview, he also said that he pretty much only read classic literature because he already knew it was good and he didn’t want to waste his time reading something that might be terrible.
If I have anything approaching a point, it is this: I trust someone who knows great literature to tell me what the bad literature is. Was my initial response to Norm’s criticism of The Handmaid’s Tale that of a contrarian reveling in someone on television dunking on something popular? Maybe. I can’t rule it out, but that’s not all there is to it. When it comes to separating the literary wheat from the chaff, trust the guy who boils down Russian literature just to elevate a stupid joke about a moth. That guy knows what he’s talking about.