What is the funniest joke? Greater minds than I have endeavored fruitlessly to answer such a question. Given the futility of this task, I’ll narrow the lens a bit. What is the funniest running joke? The mind immediately scans memories of gag-laden comedy films and TV shows like Airplane!, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development. But to truly engage with this existential quandary, we must delve further into what we’re really asking. Is the caliber of a running joke determined by its amusement throughout, or by its payoff at the big finish? Either way, the top honor may go to Paul Rudd’s two-decades-spanning prank on Conan O’Brien. And said prank that culminated in a blaze of glory on Monday night’s episode of Conan.
First, for due diligence, if you’re new to the late-night world, here’s the deal. Every time Rudd visits Conan on any of his talk shows, the actor couriers a clip to show the audience. This is, of course, not abnormal; Rudd always introduces the clip as though it represents whatever movie or TV series he’s advertising at the time. But in the cheeky interest of undermining showbiz tradition, the clip is never that. It’s always—always, always, always—the same absurd moment from the oft-derided 1988 movie Mac and Me.
Now, if you’ve seen any number of Rudd’s appearances on Conan’s shows, you’ve seen him command this ruse before. Thus, you probably knew what was coming when Rudd suggested he’d show the storied clip from a Saturday Night Live dress rehearsal. And you probably knew what was coming when he promised he’d show an alternative goofball clip from the 1999 movie Baby Geniuses.
But even if you did, you most likely laughed at each reveal of that infamous moment from Mac and Me. That, if nothing else, is the sign of a running joke worthy of superlative.