[epistemic status: wild confabulations only loosely based on reality.]
His time on Saturday Night Live is probably most remembered for the Celebrity Jeopardy series he created, but I remember him for his constant bombing while hosting Weekend Update (the SNL faux-news segment). Norm MacDonald had a flat affect, and dead-pan delivery. This works for delivering outrageous lines that would make a normal person sputter. It was great for absurd skits, but really failed when interfacing with banal reality, because Norm found reality outrageous. Shocking, even.
Whenever Norm covered a news story that involved sending someone to prison, he always made a joke about prison rape. The “punchline” tended to be a sentence along the lines of “so he can spend the next 20 years being anally raped.” It always ended with the flat punch of the two words “anal rape.” It was not funny.
When asked about this in an interview, he said that he hates the coyness of comedians who make jokes about prison rape, who wink and use terms like “meeting his new boyfriend, Bubba.” The audience all laughs, because it’s wrapped in silly language that lets us indulge our thirst for extralegal vengeance in a lighthearted manner. He firmly believed we should just call it what it is, and not be such damn hypocrites about it. So he went straight for the heart of the matter, and called it rape.
Why shouldn’t people laugh? It was standard shock-jock humor. Take something shocking about our human nature, which we all know is true but dance around, and hold it up to the light. Biological processes. Sex. Prejudice. Laugh at it. Take away its taboo nature by getting us to guffaw at our own crudity. Why not our practice of tacitly using anal rape as a punishment for a wide variety of crimes?
In one way, it failed. People didn’t laugh. But I think Norm himself found that hilarious. What does it say about us, that we’re willing to laugh at a cloaked joke of “taking it up the tailpipe”, but can’t laugh at “anal rape?” They’re the same thing, one of them is just honest. And soon the joke wasn’t FOR us anymore, it was ABOUT us. We were the joke. Everytime Norm told it, he watched to see what hypocrites these humans be, laughing only when it didn’t make us look too bad. He laughed at us, silently, and he laughed that we could stand this world, and all the evils and absurdities within it. He laughed that he himself was still here, and laughing, because it was the only defense left. It was laugh or break, and he chose to laugh.