Jim Norton talks about the art of offensive comedy
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- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
While most comedians are well aware of their shortcomings and use them as key parts of their act, Jim Norton seems to be more hyper-aware than most, discussing his weirdness at length in both his stand-up act and in the anything-goes environment of The Opie & Anthony Show on SiriusXM. But Norton’s comedy goes well beyond that theme, often focusing on things going on in the world that piss him off. In his latest special, Jim Norton: Please Be Offended, which debuts on Epix Saturday, June 30, Norton talks about the Jerry Sandusky case, how people are selective about their privacy complaints, the horror and joy of watching Hoarders, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s horrible adultery instincts, among other topics. Norton talked with The A.V. Club about the special, why he likes to perform his stand-up for a dark audience, why Jay Leno lets him get away with more than David Letterman, and why the death of Patrice O’Neal hit him so hard.
The A.V. Club: What are you doing in this special that you haven’t done in past specials? Or is it just more of what you’ve been doing, just more refined?
Jim Norton: I mean it’s probably just more of what I’ve been doing. There’s more of a theme to it, I think. I attack conservatives harder in this one. I really brutalize Rick Santorum. They’re not even conservative, the Westboro church, but I smash them. But I typically don’t go after conservatives as much because I think it’s a predictable position for a comic to take, but there might be more of a theme to this one than Monster Rain. It just feels like the next logical step for me.
AVC: When you say the next logical step, do you mean having the bits adhere to a theme?
JN: You wind up getting so frustrated at things and you don’t want somebody who’s just standing up there preaching; you’ve got to be funny with it. So the challenge is to try to be funny with the things that I find frustrating. There’s not nearly as many dick jokes in this one, and it’s not that I’m against doing dick jokes, I just had to cut certain things, and I like the way this one came out.
AVC: Your stand-up is relatively clean compared to what you talk about with Opie and Anthony. When O&A fans come and see you and they don’t know your stand-up, are they surprised you’re more topical?
JN: Maybe, yeah. There’s no effort to avoid being this way or that way. We talk about topical stuff on the air all the time, but on radio you get four hours. I mean, to just walk up onstage and just be gratuitously dirty… it’s not that I try to be, “Oh I don’t want to curse,” because a lot of that stuff can’t be done on TV anyway, like the bit about the mosque at Ground Zero and comparing it to a condom machine in the lobby of a rape crisis center. You can’t do that on TV. The Sharpton [bit], how I wanted to die in a plane crash, you can’t do that on TV. Most of that stuff can’t be done on regular TV anyway. Being “edgy” is not just cursing. There are some things socially that are just not acceptable to make fun of. Anything with race, they really won’t let you do on TV unless it’s completely soft. So I don’t think people are surprised I take the point of view I take. Some people might be surprised I’m not as filthy as they expect me to be, but again, if you just walk out and you’re filthy for an hour it wears really thin. When you just do an hour of dick jokes it really does limit to how far you’re going to—how good I’m going to feel as a stand-up about my shit.
AVC: You’re also more personal on the radio. You talk more about your personal quirkiness than you would in stand-up. Is it because just radio is just that kind of medium for you?
JN: Well I’ve talked about so much of it onstage already. You know, my nervous tics. I would spin in a circle. My erection difficulties, all of my sexual perversions. I’ve done a lot of stuff on TV where I’ve covered so much of my insecurities that I didn’t hit as many of them in this special. But I want to try to keep that stuff fresh. Now that that special is done, now I’m talking about Travolta and I’m back talking a little bit more about massages and my sleep apnea mask, which all happened after the special. Whatever is happening for me in the moment is kind of where the act develops from, and a lot of the personal shit or the insecurity I had just covered, and you don’t want to release a special with a redundant seam in it. People would go, “We already heard this, we know.” I had a couple of good big pussy jokes in this, but we had to edit stuff out for time, and I already did that in my last special, how much I like a big clit. So it’s funny but I don’t want to be completely redundant.
AVC: What’s the sleep apnea bit?
JN: Well I’m basically just starting to talk about it, about bringing women home and just how awful and humiliating the mask is, and how I had to get a chin strap for it. Just basically how frustrating it is that my mouth is trying to murder me in my sleep. I kind of compare the snoring to the way my tongue just collapses over my throat. I pretty much just go through it. And I show a photo of myself in my unfuckable sleep apnea mask, and it does really well onstage because I think that there’s enough people who’ve seen them now. Everybody thinks that they’re awful.
AVC: Did you take any cues from Louis C.K. and some of the other folks who have done Epix specials in the past?
JN: Well the fact that Louis and Eddie Izzard and Lewis Black, who I love, and Kevin Smith and Janeane Garofalo, all these respected stand-ups have done stuff for them—it felt really good that they wanted to do something, because I don’t think that just give these out to everybody. I think they’re actually fairly selective with who they like. But what I did get from Louis was, the special was shot really dark as far as the audience. You hardly see the audience at all. Louis said to me, “Our acts are a bit darker in tone and people feel more comfortable laughing about that stuff in the dark as opposed to being seen,” and I just became obsessed with hating audience shots. Ever since we had that talk a couple years ago, every time I watch his special, I don’t want to see the fucking audience. I don’t need to cut to a woman holding her face or laughing during a setup because they didn’t cut it right. So the special is very, very dark, meaning the audience, you can hardly see, which I love.
AVC: Those shots are awkward anyway.
JN: Yeah they are awkward, they stink. For this special the editor was great. You have to edit on the reversals, or just from far-away shots and different angles, and it worked great. But I would much rather have that and have one or two slightly awkward edits than a bunch of fucking dumb crowd shots with a well-lit room, because you’re not used to doing your act in a totally well-lit room. I hate a well-lit room.
AVC: And the dirty secret is that they’re usually cutting in a reaction that’s not to the joke that’s being said.
JN: Oh absolutely. They’re either adding a laugh or they’re just doing it so they can edit or they’ve had the audience warm-up person make the audience laugh. It’s just so stupid.
AVC: Why do you think producers do those things when fans who’ve been watching comedy specials for years can see right through them?
JN: Most fans don’t notice it. I think most fans, until you point it out they don’t notice it, and I also think most comics are just so happy to be shooting something that they don’t say anything. Maybe they don’t understand how awkward that is, but for me it’s awkward. So I don’t know why producers do it. I understand why they want those quick, easy edit points, because it’s easier for them to do. I understand why when you’re editing something you would want to have an audience shot to edit from, because you’re not performing, so you’re just thinking of the edit thing. And I get that, it probably makes sense to them.
AVC: You mention in the special that you’re much more comfortable onstage than in small groups. How long did it take to get to that comfort level?
JN: It took a long time; I was petrified for a long time. But as time goes on you get more confident, you get more comfortable, and then you just start to want to get laughs with what you want to get laughs with, as opposed to anything else.
AVC: It’s interesting that that your special’s coming out right as the Sandusky trial is ending, given that you talk about it in the special.
JN: It couldn’t be better timing. It was such a big story. It was a very dark subject, so I like taking on stuff like that, because to me as a comic part of your job is to make things that aren’t funny funny. That’s the challenge, to take something that’s genuinely sad and let people find a way to laugh at it. So that’s the attractive part of something like this. Everybody knew the details, that’s also an attractive part. I didn’t have to go through too much explanation. It was pretty much people knew the story because they’d been watching the news.
AVC: When Jay Leno asked you to be on The Tonight Show what was your reaction? How did that come about?
JN: Well I had done his show a few times, but when I started doing The Jay Leno Show I think I just did a whole bunch of spots on there and I kind of clicked with that audience and Jay liked me and the producers liked me. So there really was no effort to like, “Okay I’m going to be better on The Tonight Show now.” I just started doing a lot of Jay Leno stuff, and even though that show didn’t work, when he went back to The Tonight Show they just kind of kept me coming back because the segments did pretty well in the ratings.
AVC: How well do you get to know him while doing the show?
JN: Jay comes in the dressing room and talks to you. I’ve done Letterman twice and he was friendly, he said hello as he was shaking your hand and in front of the audience, but you never spoke to him before or after. Jay actually comes in the dressing room and sits down, “Hey man, how you doing?” he just chats with you for a few minutes to make you comfortable. Jay’s great.
AVC: How do you usually respond when you hear the criticisms of him?
JN: Well, I defend Jay because people have this fake edge and they think they know what edgy is. I know what I get away with on his show and I know the nightmare I had to go through at CBS to get certain things through. I get away with 10 times more on Leno than I would on any other show. It’s like there’s this misconception of, “Oh, you can’t say that on The Tonight Show, its mom and pop,” and meanwhile I’ve done references to dogs fucking women on that show. I’ve gotten away with so many references on that show that I would never get away with on other shows. As far as the way he handled the Conan thing, I’ve defended him there too, because anybody who wanted Jay to step down and said that Jay promised to leave, none of those people held Conan at fault for actually trying to force Jay out by telling the agents, “If Conan doesn’t get The Tonight Show, he’s leaving the network”. So they said, “Okay we’ll give it to you in five years,” and they didn’t plan on Leno being No. 1, and they didn’t know what to do. It’s amazing how people blame Jay when it’s like, they could have just fired him. His contract was up. Why did NBC keep him? If they had faith in Conan, why did they keep Jay? I can’t comprehend how people would allow a personal dislike of Jay to interfere with common sense. It drove me nuts.
AVC: Speaking of late night, if Colin Quinn had started Tough Crowd, which you were a regular on, now instead of a decade ago, do you think it would have been more successful?
JN: No, probably not, because they wouldn’t let us do what we did. The content restrictions they put on us on Comedy Central would be even worse now. It was hard then, but it would be a lot harder now. It did very well in the ratings. It was one of those shows that I think I’m like, “Why would they take that off the air?” What they said to Colin one time—this is how they looked at it—they said, “Hey why don’t you guys leave race to Chappelle and politics to The Daily Show and you guys talk about pop culture?” Because they didn’t like I guess the honest place we were coming from so they wanted… can you imagine saying, “Just let Chappelle talk about race?” Even though he was great at it, but, “We only want that point of view on race and we only want [Jon] Stewart’s point of view on politics and you guys do pop culture.” And Colin said no; he said, “Those guys will kill me if I just come at them with a bunch of pop culture.” … We really touched on it in some stories, but to do the whole show about it would feel fraudulent. When there’s racial issues, to not talk about that because Madonna did something, you’d feel like a fucking fraud.
AVC: Colin Quinn has said that show mirrored what you would talk about backstage at gigs. Did it morph from that point?
JN: That was the way we would just talk at the Comedy Cellar, attacking each other, and that’s kind of what the show was all about, our relationships with each other. The topics of what we talked about of course, but we were all friends, me and Keith [Robinson] and Nick [DiPaolo], and we would smash each other at the Cellar, and that’s why it would degenerate into, “Shut up stupid.” Because that’s how we honestly spoke to each other, and that’s how we honestly treated each other. So that just kind of translated into the show, and the show was just about the way we interacted with each other.
AVC: Patrice O’Neal was also a part of that Tough Crowd group. How did his death hit you, especially coming on the heels of Greg Giraldo?
JN: It’s the hardest death I’ve ever dealt with. Giraldo’s was very difficult, but we saw that coming because he was doing drugs, and he was trying to get sober and he kept relapsing. I’m sober since 1997; you never get used to it, and it’s never not awful, but you begin to expect when people are headed down a certain road. You know it’s going to come, because I know that when people are doing booze and drugs they never can continually do that to the level he was doing it without paying that price. Patrice you knew, okay, he’s diabetic and stuff, but I never knew anybody that died of a stroke. I’ve known a lot of people that have committed suicide or died of drug overdoses, but I don’t think I know anybody that’s just in my age group who died of a stroke. It was horrible. It was a horrible death to think that, “God if he had just gone to this other hospital first, maybe he would have been okay.” It’s the worst one ever. It’s a tremendous loss. Him I will always miss. I’m not just saying that, that’s one that I still feel… it’s a visceral feeling that I get. It’s terrible.
AVC: Do you think that he was on the verge of really breaking out when he got that stroke?
JN: Yeah. He did the [Charlie Sheen] roast, which was just him. He threw away most of his notes and was just Patrice. And the special was already out. I don’t know if he got nominated for an Emmy; he should have. Maybe he wasn’t, but that’s just disgusting that they wouldn’t nominate… it was a brilliant special, and at the roast just showed what a funny, off-the-cuff guy he was, and he definitely was on his way to something massive. And of course, it’s just the way it happens, you know? Stupid business only realizes after he drops dead what a genius he was.