One of the best ways to develop one’s skills in any craft is to learn from the masters, as those that we regard as masters of the form studied the masters who came before them, and so on.
If a careful examination of the history and development of art can teach us anything, it’s that studying what has worked in the past will give us an idea of what will work in the future, a lesson that creatives and innovators should make their personal hymn.
And when it comes to the learning the discipline of comedy, budding humorists could do worse than examining the work and techniques of comedian Norm Macdonald, who is renowned for his unique blend of insightful, sophisticated musings and folksy, blue collar delivery, filtered through his singular worldview and subdued yet rebellious attitude.
If you’re interested in becoming a professional comedian or just want to learn how to inject a little more humor into your social interactions, read on to learn the methods of a true whimsical master.
Find Humor in Dark Topics
Norm Macdonald is an expert at fearlessly exploring how a tragic or serious situation can result in a funny story or joke, and isn’t afraid to poke fun of our worst fears and most taboo subjects.
He has the disease of alcoholism. And he came to me… and he told me, and I’m the kind of guy that likes to look at the bright side of things. So I told him, I said, ‘Richie, it’s true that you have a disease and everything, but I think you got the best one.’
Ever see this? It’s a homeless guy but he’s got a dog… The dog’s really thrilled with this idea. The dog’s going, “Hey pal, I can do this by myself pretty well. The longest walk in the world you got me on here.”
Don’t be afraid to look for the humor in areas where most think there is no humor. Make list of topics that you think are off-limits in polite society and challenge yourself to turn them into funny anecdotes. Don’t inhibit yourself, and approach each topic with a childlike sense of curiosity.
Find Innocence in Racy Topics
One of Norm Macdonald’s greatest gifts is his ability to make the audience believe he’s going down a raunchy path, then suddenly turn the joke into an innocuous observation.
You ever hear guys with small cocks talk about sex? Can’t talk about it enough. They even got poems. They’ll say, ‘It’s not the motion of the ocean, it’s the boat of the lotion.’ I’ve even heard variants…, “it’s not the tree or the size, it’s the axe that you wax.’ It’s a whole sub-genre of poetry now that’s taught in many of our finer institutions.
I don’t care for sex. I find it an embarrassing, dull exercise. I prefer sports, where you can win.
Just like it requires a certain bravery to discover the humor in grave subjects, it also requires bravery for a comedian to demonstrate restraint during the last moment of a crass bit. Make a list of crude or sexual topics, then challenge yourself to see how you can draw a wholesome conclusion or observation from them.
Find the Humor in Awkward Situations
Comedians have used everyday awkward situations as the inspiration for their jokes for decades, but Norm Macdonald has perfected the art, not only managing to make a simple misunderstanding or embarrassing moment funny, but completely believable.
Last Christmas, I got the worst gift a guy ever gave me. He gave me a lottery ticket… what’s the guy even thinking there. “Here you go… nothing! Merry Christmas! It’s nothing!”
In the coffee shop line today I hear the guy behind me say “I like to start by biting the ears off” and I had to pray, “please God, let him be talking about a chocolate Easter bunny!”
This method requires keen observational skills which you can develop by constantly taking note of the uncomfortable conversations and interactions you regularly experience, and recording them for future reference. Pick a clumsy moment in your life, ignore the shame you feel in reliving it, then think about what wrong and philosophize about it, drawing a humorous yet relatable conclusion from it.
Norm Macdonald is notorious for his deadpan delivery, which perfectly complements the way he downplays the gravity or seriousness of a subject.
You know, with Hitler, the more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him.
It’s tough to know who’s better in cliff diving. Like, you see a guy diving off a cliff and you go, “Oh, man, a guy diving off a cliff! And then another guy’d dive – “Oh, there’s another guy diving off a cliff there. But you can’t tell who’s better, y’know? Like, uh- if you survive at all, hey, you’re a great- you’re a great cliff diver there. There’s only two classifications in cliff diving. There’s, uh- ‘Grand Champion’ and then, uh- ‘Stuff On a Rock.’ Very hard to make a comeback in that sport, I’ll tell you that.
Surprise is the biggest element of the success of a joke. When you talk about a somber or important thing, your audience expects you treat it with the appropriate thoughtfulness. Shock them by trivializing a weighty matter by highlighting its irrelevant aspects.
While Norm Macdonald is generally more well-known for his use of understatement, there’s no denying his flair for drawing an exaggerated conclusion from a realistic or mundane premise.
After months of speculation, the sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres admitted that yes, she’s gay. Inspired by her courage, today, diet-guru Richard Simmons admitted that he is really, really, really, really gay.
The Rolling Stones reunited for a twenty-fifth anniversary tour last week. Keith Richards said that he’s happy to continue to do what he’s been doing for the past twenty-five years: cheating death.
This is another example of how creating surprise is essential for inspiring laughs in your audience. Begin a boring or trivial situation, and, like employing surrealism, start asking “what if?” Jus ensure that the punchline still maintains some sort of logical, if extravagant, line of thinking.
Explore the Psychology of People
Because us humans are so bewildering and often counterintuitive in our thoughts and actions, we make a great source of comedy, a source that Norm Macdonald has tapped into for hilarious results.
You ever lie for no reason at all? Just all of sudden, a big lie spills out of your evil head. Like a guy will come up to you, ‘Hey, did you ever see that movie with Meryl Streep and a horse?’ And you go, ‘Yes.’ In the back of your head, you’re like, ‘What in the hell am I lying about over here? I stand to gain nothing by this lie.’
This is the amount of time you think about sex: every once in a while. The problem becomes, when you think about it, it’s all you can think about. It encompasses your whole brain. You’re like a fucking werewolf or something. Usually you’re a civilized human being, but then every couple of days, you?re like ‘arrrgh.’ Then you’ve got to close the blinds.
Pay attention to all of the ridiculous, nonsensical, and even contradictory thoughts and actions that you yourself are often guilty of, and think about how you can present them in a way that’s universally applicable, yet still humorous.
Turn Something Innocent into Something Not So Innocent
Norm Macdonald is an authority on the art of misdirection, and this is evident in the way that he begins a joke with a harmless statement, only to twist it into crude, hard-hitting, and edgy.
Many people are skeptical about marriage of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. They say, Lisa Marie is more of a sit at home type, while Michael Jackson is more of a homosexual pedophile.
On his ventriloquist dummy: “I’m trying to get rid of that guy – you know, he’s a holocaust denier. That’s no secret. He’s an enthusiastic holocaust denier. And I’ve had it up to here with this character, you know? He’s just a waste of wood.”
This technique is in many ways the complete opposite of finding innocence in racy topics, but the methodology is still the same; make a list of inoffensive topics related to anything – sports, pop culture, politics, etc. – and challenge yourself to draw some crass or subversive observations from them.
Are there any other comedians or humorists whose style you want me to examine? Let me know in the comments!