Even though he continues to enjoy a career as a longtime comedian, it’s unlikely that Jim Norton will let it all go to his head. You see, for 25 years, Norton has been honing an act that targets many things; many of them bullseyes locked in the crosshairs like his peers of edgier comedy. But Norton’s ultimate aim is himself and he rarely misses. Fans would expect nothing else. And Norton obliges, with a wellspring of fresh material, bubbling with debasement, self-loathing, and specific self-hatred. Take one of life’s insightful epiphanies, waterboard in a spray of colorful vulgarity, and you have a sense of what Norton serves up on the comedy scene.
In 2000, Norton became a regular on the NYC morning radio talk show, The Opie and Anthony Show. He then came to greater prominence as a panel member of Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn (2002-’04), a kind of late-night, comedians’ slam session teetering by as a roundtable discussion. Appearances on Letterman, Leno, and two New York Times bestselling books (including the self-explanatory Happy Endings: Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch) ratcheted up his notoriety. But like other working standup comedians, Norton has sustained his career, and bolstered his fanbase, with a series of comedy specials. Although crude and lewd, Norton is smart enough to back up the bad words with some good material. His aforementioned skills at kicking his own ass make him more endearing rather than just another foulmouthed novelty. The now 47-year-old Norton has a daytime gig as a co-host of the Sirius XM Radio show, Opie with Jim Norton and he’s working on his next special, Alone and Edging.
Folio Weekly spoke to Norton at his home in New York City while he was gearing up for a run of East Coast gigs, a tour that brings him to The Comedy Zone this week. We discussed talking on the radio, the joys of self love, and what’s truly offensive.
Folio Weekly: Do you feel like you were kind of a natural for the talk show, radio environment?
Jim Norton: Well, I like doing it so much and I think that makes it a lot easier when you enjoy it so much. Because I love doing it, I think I do well at it. It’s comfortable and fun so you just get used to it. When I first did it, I was pretty terrible. But over the years, I think I’ve become pretty good.
What do you think you were doing so wrong? Were you just awkward or throwing “F bombs” at people?
No, I didn’t curse but I think it was more of where you just don’t know what to talk about. And you do bits and you don’t know exactly what to do on the radio; you don’t know how to be a funny conversationalist or how to be natural and just be honest. I think that’s the best the thing you get: You become more comfortable with being honest.
Right. Like in the way, well, in my view, that the best standup is fairly “anti-showbiz,” was it the same vibe where you had to learn to peel the layers away?
Yes. Absolutely. I would much rather just be myself, one-on-one, and have a real conversation. And that was the most important thing to learn. Then there’s no pressure and that’s why I just enjoy doing it.
You know, regarding your standup, it seems that with a lot of material, you’re the actual punch line. And it’s weird since the view is, “Jim Norton is offensive,” yet you’re really aiming it at yourself.
Yeah, most of it is aimed at me. To me, they always consider me offensive but, to me, one of the greatest movies all time, The Godfather, and you see what happened to Sonny Corleone. How is that not offensive? In Raging Bull, where he’s beating his wife; how is that not offensive? Just total violence. It’s so funny to me how people put comedians in the “offensive” category, but they don’t look at other forms of entertainment that can be truly offensive. It’s very weird.
With a lot of standup, it seems like it’s a laboratory-type experience, where you’re working new material onstage with no idea of the audience feedback. Have there been times when you’ve been onstage, told a rather off-color joke, and thought, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t have just said that”?
Oh, God, yeah. Whenever I’m working on material, I can do it at the Comedy Cellar in New York, where they’re not there to see me, they’re just there to see “a show” … so a lot of times, I go too far and they might not enjoy it. But that’s a great place to work it out because then you know, if it works, you know it’ll work really well in front of my crowd. You need to test it in front of people who don’t necessarily know what you’re doing. Because I don’t just want to test it out in front of my fans. Because everyone who might see my specials won’t be a fan. I really want it to work for other people as well.
When it comes to your onstage self-deprecation, what are some of your favorite things to hate about yourself? Personally, body dysmorphia’s always a fun pastime.
Oh, yeah. I don’t have body dysmorphia, I have “body accurate.” I know what I’m working with. I can see what’s wrong with me. I see what [a] mess I [am] and I acknowledge it. My stomach is the thing I focus on the most or my side fat; that’s the stuff that drives me crazy that I hate the most. People tell me, “You’re being too hard on yourself” and I say, “No, I’m not. I just have great eyes.”
Do you feel like you’ve worked through some of these issues doing standup and attacking yourself in front of a paying audience?
Yeah, because I don’t like to keep it private. And yeah, I think so. I think if you talk through it, it helps a lot. And I think it’s always easier to make something funny. It’s not as bad when it creeps into your subconscious or your mind, when you know you could possibly do a joke about it. You could look at it without being depressed about it, when you realize that it’s something you could actually use.