Interview: Jim Norton, Stand-Up Comic

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Jim Norton is a pervert. But that’s not what makes him funny. What makes him funny - and brilliantly so - is both how confessional he is with his flaws and moreover, his own self disgust at them. Norton has described his own body as an “atrocity.” After performing a half hour special for HBO two years ago, he’s back to the premium outlet with a one hour special entitled “Jim Norton: Monster Rain” premiering tonight at 10PM. Earlier this week, I talked with Norton about self-loathing, the blank-phobia criticism and the phrase “silly goose.”

One of the things that’s a big part of your comedy is self loathing. But you’re getting more successful now with the HBO special and the best selling book. Plus, you’re in a relationship now. Do you find it’s harder to make yourself the target for your jokes?

No. That’s always coming from an honest place. It’s like the old expression, “wherever you go, there you are.” That shit’s all external. And it’s great. The special’s great. The book is great. But you know what I mean? When I’m in the mirror, I’m still looking at Jim Norton. That stuff doesn’t change.

Because the perception is always irrational anyway. To be obsessed with smashing your own face through a window… it’s not like conditions were that bad that it warranted that. So no matter how good conditions get that’s always going to be there.

Right. You’re very open about the fact that you once attempted suicide. When you look back on that, is it kind of the same thing? Were conditions that bad that it warranted that?

No. I was drinking. I’m an alchy, so I was drinking so much. And I think that played into it, the drunkenness. But conditions externally were okay. Internally they were a disaster. I was certainly the problem.

It’s kind of fascinating that you came out of that attempt and rehab with almost complete irreverence. My impression of people who have gone through something like that is that they’re a lot more reverent. They’re confessional is a dark sad way, rather than a dark funny way.

A lot of people try and just be fucking melodramatic about it and they think they’re going to be spokespeople for something. The bottom line is I do have feelings about it, but I have to address it kind of shitty and smugly and make fun of myself because that’s how I address everything else.

So it would be kind of embarrassing if I’m sitting here teasing Christopher Reeve and his stupid legs and yet I’m self righteous about my own fucking wrist cutting. Then I’m a boob. (laughs)

I think one of things about your comedy that people who don’t know you don’t realize is that you’re harder on yourself so much more than other people. Do you think because you trash yourself you can get away with much more when you’re targeting something else?

I think so to a certain degree. But I also think it’s because I’m comfortable doing it. If the crowd groans because I’m trashing Heather Mills, making fun of her leg being gone or whatever it is, I don’t change what I’m doing. And I’m not uncomfortable with the fact that they might not be uncomfortable with it.

So I think when you show a complete lack of regard for their morality by being honest… I don’t mean I’m some rebel who’s ruining everybody’s life. I’m just being honest in humor. If you show no regard for that, [the audience] has two choices. They can laugh and come along with you. Or be angry and leave.

Learning how to be honest on stage would be hard when you’re worried about being likeable as well.

That’s the word that’s thrown around in the shitty industry so much is likeability. And their idea of likeability is, to me, vomit inducing. It’s high energy. It’s wacky. It’s the non-threatening jizz bucket who shakes his head and makes a funny face. They should stop saying likeable. That’s not likeable. That’s pathetic and safe. That’s what they should call it.

I think it was one of the guys from Monty Python, he said – I’m paraphrasing here – “I’m tired of hearing about likeability, I like to people who can make me laugh.” That’s what I like – guys who express something that’s honest. That’s what likeable to me.

That’s what I think people like about you – is that you’re open about the dark thoughts you have about yourself. Thoughts that everybody has.

Sure, I’m not unique in any way with that. We absolutely all do have them. Owen Wilson just tried to kill himself. If having a career like that and fucking the girls he fucks, if that’s not enough to keep you alive, then none of us have a shot. If even having that you want to toss yourself in front of the train, we’re all finished.

So much of stand-up comes from life experience. Do the observational, “likeable” comics simply not have life experience or are they simply not being honest on stage?

I think they have life experience and I think they are being honest. To me, honesty on stage doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re introspective. Honesty on stage means that you’re being true to what makes you who you are and what makes you funny. Seinfeld doing dark shit on stage probably wouldn’t be honest, because that’s not the nature of what makes him Jerry and what makes him funny.  Observationally, he’s being honest. That’s true to his personality. That’s who he is. To me, honesty on stage means being true to yourself in humor rather than information revealing.

That’s a very good point. I’ve heard the goal of stand-up describe as to be as much yourself on stage as you are off.

To be the same person. And I think Jerry is the same guy. What ever makes you true to your humor. Comedians, and I’m sure all artists, get into a place of arrogance where my art is more important than your art. And because I talk about my own life and I talk about hookers and things I’ve done, that does not make me any more true to the art than a guy doing observational stuff. What am I going to fucking say? That I’m any more of a comedian than Milton Berle, who was just doing “Take my wife please” stuff. So I think it all depends on just what makes you funny to begin with.

So there are guys out there who don’t do darker material like yours that you really like?

Brian Regan is a very funny dude. He as clean as they come. He’s very funny. Seinfeld obviously is great at what he does. I don’t put a clean or dirty label on it. I just think the guys who are being original and funny are the guys I admire. They don’t have to be edgy. They don’t have to be anything for me to like them.

This is probably one of the best times for stand-up in a long time. Do you feel like it’s getting any closer to being recognized as more of an art form?

I don’t know. The way people self-righteous impose their will on comedy of what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate, it really does make me hate and resent a lot of other artists.

There’s been a lot more controversy around stand-up comics the past couple of years than there has been in a while.

It seems like the same people who would crucify a dirty comic are the same people who would defend Robert Mapplethorpe. Artists have this fucking pomposity where they think they’re all genius, but if a comedian says something under the umbrella of his art, they’re like, “He’s a pig.” “It’s hate speech.”

So it’s kind of like, the more people that attack comedy, the more I dislike artist for not being very vocal.

It seems to me that these people aren’t listening. I don’t know if you’ve ever been called homophobic.

No.

Well, if you ever were called homophobic, it would be ludicrous because you talk about trading blowjobs under a porch with a childhood friend.

Yeah, “Monster Rain” is about me sucking dicks when I was a kid and who doesn’t love a good tranny. What am I, a communist? (laughs) You have to love the transgender community.

I’ve actually never been called homophobic. I’ve been called Islamaphobic because I have the nerve to shit on Islam a little bit and make fun of them. That’s just another way people don’t like you to have your own opinion. Because you want to make fun of gay people, or anybody really, they have to put phobic at the end of it like there’s this fear-driven motive. No. Sometimes you just don’t like something or you want to make fun of something. It doesn’t mean there’s always a hidden motive.

One of things that I noticed in this special was that you made fun of the Rutgers Basketball Girls, saying they aren’t attractive. And I know D.L. Hughley was in trouble because he said something very similar. And it used to be the people that were in the community got more of a pass – black comics could satirize their own.

Well, D.L.’s not towing the company line. Black people are just like any other group. Every group tends to hundle together. Black people got very mad at Cosby. Bill Cosby wasn’t saying anything that people didn’t know was true, but nobody wants their dirty laundry aired in public.

I’m not saying there hasn’t been reason for that either. For many years, and maybe even to this day, blacks were judged much more harshly with a lot stuff. It’s almost like if a black guy did rape a white woman, then every black guy for the next eight months was going to arrested for looking wrong at a white girl. So maybe there is a reason behind that.

You’re pretty uncompromising on stage. Do you feel like you have to bring a crowd with you a little bit before you get to some of the darker material? And how does that transition work?

Being a comedian – it is a performance. You don’t just go up there. There has to be order that makes sense. Like, I close with the big pussy stuff because it gets really big laughs and it’s kind of hard to follow that with social commentary. (laughs)

I don’t prep them necessarily with what I think they can handle. But I kind of prepare an audience just with whatever material seems to build and however it seems to flow and what can follow what.

Are you sets laid out before you go out? Or are you a bit looser where you can choose – I could go into this joke or that joke?

When I’m shooting a special, I know what I’m going to do for the hour. But when I’m working out material – like I’m doing now. I’m trying to put together another hour. So it’s much more freestyle because I don’t know where I’m going to end up yet. So you kind of have to leave it more loose or you’re now going to explore the material as much as you should.

I was looking at your schedule and you’re in Reading, Pennsylvania performing the same day that the special airs. And it struck me that was the dichotomy of stand-up – you’re always working out something while you’re leaving a larger work behind at the same time.

The special’s already shot so I won’t do that material any more. People don’t want to come out and see the same stuff they saw on HBO, they want to see something new. So for the next couple of months, I’m doing small rooms – like under 200 seats. Because I kind of just want to sit there, even on a stool with a piece of paper that I’ve written some stuff down on it, and kind of fun with the process for a hour, like I would at the Comedy Cellar for twenty minutes. It’s a fun thing to do.

I know you’re not a fan of alternative comedy as well. But you’re friends with Louis CK.

I love Louis.

And he was a big part of that scene for a while. Do you think alternative comedy has kind of moved away from guys like Louis?

Alternative comedy gets a bad reputation in a way. Because a guy like Louis or – I’m on Opie and Anthony and we interviewed Marc Maron today, who was a buddy of mine for years. I don’t look at those guys as alternative. They might be what was classically called alternative, but to me they’re just funny stand-ups. Like, Demetri Martin is a very big alternative comic. I don’t consider him an alternative comic. To me, he’s a slower paced comedian. He’s meticulous in the way he speaks on stage. But I don’t think he’s an alternative comic.

Do you think Demetri’s funny?

Yeah! Of course he’s funny. He’s a good act. He’s a good writer. You can’t deny that.

To me what alternative means is people who aren’t that funny who have traded in the idea of funny, by standing on stage and not being funny and implying the audience just doesn’t get them. That what they’re doing is so progressive and brilliant. It’s that fraudulent detachment from the idea that a comedian is supposed to be funny.

It’s the biggest problem in a movement in any art form is that after a while it gets up its own ass to some degree. In comedy it’s particularly deadly.

Nobody wants to hear a comedian pontificate. Speak through your work. This is why columnists are great. Guy like Bill Maher, whose politics I completely disagree with. But he is a comedian and normally he’s being very funny when he’s expressing what he wants to express. So I’ll never have a problem with a guy who does that. Paul Mooney is another guy. I agree with nothing he says, but I’ll watch him for an hour and a half because he’s up there telling jokes and you know exactly where he stands politically and socially.

You’re pretty uncompromising with language – you’ll say the word cunt, you’ll say the word n*gger.

Well, let me say… n*gger’s a weird one and so is cunt, because there has to be a good reason to say it. N*gger especially, because of the implications it had socially. It’s not just profanity – one of the rare instances where a word has come to mean the degradation of a group. Not just mentally or emotionally, but physically.

I don’t say n*gger on stage. And again, there are ways to get away with it. But I find that most times, not all times, when a white comic says it, they’re only saying it to get away with it. And to me that’s…

My apologies for saying you said it. I thought I heard it in the new special. [Note: what I did hear on Monster Rain was Norton quoting Snoop Dogg, and that’s was decidedly “Nigga”]

That’s OK. You probably heard it on my second CD, I do a bit on white guys saying Nigger. And I forget how the wording was, but where they’re trying to quote Richard Pryor but they’re saying it just to get away with it without getting punched in the face. They’re enjoying the “naughtiness” – the taboo “naughtiness” (laughs).

And again, I’m not saying they’re never reasons. Louis CK has a funny bit on the word n*gger. Carlin used it, where he said [paraphrased] “It’s not the word n*gger that’s the problem. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it.” Then he goes, “Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, they’re not racists. They’re n*ggers!” But you know he’s not racist, he’s a brilliant guy making a language point. I’m not saying it’s never a good vehicle, but you better have a good reason for saying it.

The funny thing is that’s not where my original question was going actually. I was going to finish with: but what I’m interested in is your fascination with the phrase “silly goose.”

I love it.

Where does that come from?

It’s just nonsense. A lot of my humor is dark and mean and self-hating. But some of it is just silly and dumb. I like something with the silly absurdity of a “silly goose” combined with a cancer reference or a rape joke. To me, just those two things together is very funny.

That’s what I found kind of interesting is how it bumped up against the other things you say. In some way, I found it kind of cute.

(laughs)Thank you.

You’re kind of lovable and huggable in your darkness.

I appreciate you saying that. It kind of goes back to one of the things you asked me about earlier – if people know that you’re coming from a place of honesty – of “look, I don’t like myself much either.” Denis Leary is the kind of guy who can stand there and go, “This is what’s wrong with the world.” And he’s great at that. Where my point of view is, “Look, I am a fucking major problem. This is what’s wrong with me and here’s my opinion on other shit.” And I think people can relate to that self-doubt and self hate.

Posted by at | Send to Friend

Comments

Posted by John Morrison on 10/13  at  08:26 PM

Fantastic interview! Thanks so much for doing it and for sharing it. Yay for you!

Posted by Jake on 10/14  at  02:37 AM

Good interview.

Posted by Stephanie on 10/14  at  03:59 AM

Just incredible. I’ve been finding that so many of the honest comics you interview are so erudite and intelligent. And that’s just awesome! :-)

Posted by Harley Breen on 10/15  at  03:53 AM

Absolutely awesome interview. Words are words. It’s all about changing intention not words.

Posted by Duff on 02/21  at  11:54 AM

I’m just reading Norton’s book now and stumbled on your interview on the ‘net. Very well done-good questions and follow-ups. I know a lot more about Norton than I did 3 minutes ago. Good job.

Make a Comment

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.