Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival is the biggest comedy event of the year. Like Coachella, South by Southwest and the Oscars all rolled into one, it features an almost comprehensive lineup of the biggest names in the game, who perform stand-up, sit on panels, accept awards and give speeches throughout the month of July. For all that Just For Laughs has to offer, the most talked-about event every year may be the keynote address, in which a respected comedian gives a speech on the state of comedy.
This year’s speaker was Jim Norton, a stand-up known for his tendency to offend, upset and cross lines (not surprising, then, is that he was just given his own show on Vice). Norton spoke eloquently and at length about how comedy’s role in society has been largely misinterpreted, and how comedians are unjustly castigated for using humor as a way to address controversial subjects. Below are some highlights from his address:
ON RUBBING OUT THE LINE IN THE SAND:
I don’t know why all of a sudden comedians are suddenly expected to respect the boundaries and comfort levels of the public. Like, Richard Pryor didn’t respect them; Lenny Bruce didn’t respect them; George Carlin didn’t respect them. When society draws a line in the sand, it’s a comic’s instinct to not only step over the line, but to kind of rub it out with your foot and be belligerent about it. It’s impossible, for me at least, to respect the moral lines that people draw for their comfort levels, simply because any morality that says subjects shouldn’t be joked about…I find that really hard to get in line with. The public scoldings and punishments that are [handed] out are inconsistent and they vary from performer to performer, so how do you line up and say, ‘I respect that morality,’ when one day this is gonna get you and the next day that is gonna get you? I don’t think as a result we should go up onstage and be purposely malicious and pointlessly antagonistic. I just don’t think we should shy away from subjects because we’re afraid of getting in trouble.
ON EXPRESSING OPINIONS:
It just seems like right now we’re in a place where people are being witch-hunted for expressing an opinion. Even if it’s a lousy opinion or a shitty opinion…I don’t think comics can ever fall into the trap of lining up with groups that for any reason want to censor what a person says or thinks, or punish a person for expressing what they think. Because anything you say about a social issue is going to offend half the country. I don’t care how nicely you say it, I don’t care how well you construct the joke; simply by stating the opinion you are for something and anti-something else.
ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH:
I don’t think we’ve progressed much since the 1950s when we got in trouble for talking about sex and Catholicism. I understand the legal difference between being arrested onstage by the state and the network threatening to drop you if you don’t apologize for calling paparazzi a cocksucker. I just don’t think that with most of our state of freedom of expression or freedom of thought that we think as harshly as ‘arrested or not arrested.’ I think it means a little bit more than that. So, when people say, ‘Oh, we’re not saying you’re going to be arrested for saying these things,’ it’s like, I get that. But I don’t think that just because you’re not going to be arrested [means] your ability to say what you say isn’t being kind of stepped on. I like to feed into the joke about any subject, no matter how awful or how painful the subject, because like a lot of you, that’s what made me funny. It was always taking the things that hurt me or made me sad or insecure…I would make fun of them. And that was kind of what made me who I am as a comic. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, when I say, like, McCarthyism! But the difference between that thinking in McCarthyism and now is that it’s not the government doing it anymore. The government doesn’t come after you anymore. We’re doing it to each other.
ON TABOO SUBJECTS:
I hate when people will say manipulative things like, ‘So are you saying that, like, rape and murder are funny?’ Like, they really think they have you when they say something like that. And that automatically triggers, ‘No, of course I don’t think rape is funny.’ And they think they’ve won the argument. Because rape is not funny. Murder is not funny. However, jokes about rape or murder or any other horrible subject can be funny. I don’t think that any subject should be off limits. I kind of think that it’s all the way you come to the joke and I kind of think of the idea of being able to make fun of anything in the human experience, that sentiment has been lost on a great part of our culture because people keep finding their own sacred cows and saying, ‘Well, this is the one thing you shouldn’t talk about.’ Like, you can make fun of that, you can make of that, but whoa, stay away from race or whoa, stay away from sexual identity or gender or whatever it is. I don’t think we should avoid unpleasant subjects simply because they’re unpleasant.
ON COMEDIANS’ RIGHTS AS ARTISTS:
Another manipulative thing that people will say when they bring this stuff up is, ‘Why is it important for you to make fun of these things? Why do you feel like you have to make fun of me?’ It’s another way of kind of putting you in the corner, like you’re the asshole for bringing it up, and they’re not in any way, shape, or form flawed for being bothered by it. And I’ll tell you why it’s important to me, why I want to make fun of them: because every other artist has the right to address things. An actor or an author or a songwriter can address any subject they want without repercussions. And why? Because they don’t make fun of it? That somehow makes them more artistic than a comedian?
ON ADDRESSING SUBJECTS WITH HUMOR:
Unfortunately, the only way for us to address [controversial] stuff is to do it in humor. I’m talking not really humorously now, but you can’t go onstage in front of a paying audience and just stand up there and fucking give a speech about something. You have to address it in humor. So I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that without offending or bothering someone. People are like, ‘Well, that’s not a funny subject, so you shouldn’t talk about it.’ But I think any asshole can address something that’s inherently funny. Like, if that’s the only thing we’re supposed to talk about, you don’t need comedians. Anybody can just point at something that’s already funny and go, look at that. Has anybody watched a video of a dog sliding on linoleum and gone, ‘Ah, whoever filmed that would be a great comedian?’ It’s hilarious.
ON THE NEED FOR HUMOR:
I think the gift of what we do as comics—I would only say this to a room full of comedians—I think the gift of it is we take things that aren’t funny and we allow people to look at them in a way that makes them laugh. And I’m not using that as a justification to address harsh subjects That’s honestly how I feel about it. You know, and again, an extreme example, but when cops were pulling bodies out of John Wayne Gacy’s house, they were making fun of it and they were joking about it. Because the honesty and the reality of what they were doing was so horrible. And most of us obviously are not doing that, but that to me is where that type of gallows humor comes from. So it’s not this unjustified desire to be a frat boy jerf off. I mean, it really is based in what has always kind of made me, has made a lot of us, who we are as funny people.
ON FOLLOWING JOAN RIVERS’ EXAMPLE:
I saw Joan Rivers—one of the greatest stand-ups I’ve ever seen was Joan Rivers—about five years ago at the Cutting Room in New York City, and she went up and did probably the harshest set I’ve ever seen a stand-up do. There were about 100 people in the room (it was on purpose though, she didn’t have like 600 possible seats) and this really, really…She just stood there for an hour, and I wanted to cry when she was finished, because what she did was so pure. She didn’t hold anything back. She was fucking brutal. 9/11 jokes, AIDS jokes, jokes that I would never make—‘Oh, oh, blood on my fur coat!’—without one ounce of worrying about offending somebody’s personal line. I’m not saying that’s what you have to do to be a good comic. But that’s when it struck me that that’s what it is we should be doing. Taking whatever it is that makes us who we are, whatever it is that we wanna make fun of, and bringing it onstage without worrying if we’re getting in trouble for it or any type of penalty for it. And everybody in the room did not enjoy what she did. My girlfriend and I loved it because we were both comics, but there were a few people that had just seen her do some celebrity interviews on the carpet and went, ‘Oh, let’s watch her, she’s kind of cute. I saw her on Carol Burnett in 1975.’ And they were just horrified. She said ‘cunt’ in like the first three minutes. They were mortified. I happened to enjoy it.
You know, but I walked out of that room…I didn’t feel that AIDS was any less serious. I didn’t feel that 9/11 was any less serious because I had laughed. Laughing at jokes about those subjects didn’t make me have less respect for the seriousness of those subjects. It didn’t make me feel any less love or empathy for victims of that stuff. So that’s a lie that people use just to try to get you not to talk about subjects that they find personally uncomfortable or upsetting.
ON THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE AUDIENCE:
I’m sick of people babbling about, ‘Well, you can say what you want, but a lot of responsibility comes with that.’ Oh, fuck you. A comedian’s job…I think that we’re responsible just for being funny and being original, or attempting to be funny and original. That’s where our responsibility begins and ends. What about the responsibility of a fucking audience member? What about their responsibility to comprehend that they’re hearing something that they know is being said in humor, and they know they have the ability to laugh or not laugh? Why do bloggers and audience members in special interest groups suddenly have zero responsibility for accurately interpreting the content of what they’re hearing? Why is it only the comedian that has the responsibility? Why is it that the audience members have zero responsibility for willingly walking into a situation where they know they’re going to hear something that could be offensive or upsetting or objectionable and still getting offended? Like, there’s no responsibility by them and their reaction. Like, all of a sudden, a room full of a people who enjoy something are invalidated, and the one person who was bothered by it is suddenly the focal point. Where everybody goes, ‘Oh my God, you’re right. You walked into a situation where you knew something could be made fun of but you are right for getting upset. And all of those people are wrong for enjoying that and that person was wrong for saying it.’ When did comedians become people that you were supposed to interpret literally? Word by word. Like, you know, all of a sudden, we’re contributing to rape culture and racism and violence in society. What the fuck?
ON WOMEN IN COMEDY:
So I guess, by the way, for a male-dominated business, such as stand-up comedy, the people that show the real courage are the women. You look recently at the people who have kind of stood up to the controversy: Natasha Leggero, Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler, Joan Rivers, they’re the ones who have been attacked for jokes, and they have not only refused to apologize. They have mocked the idea of the apology. They have kind of been aggressive in combating the idea of the apology. So I think that all of us should kind of follow suit.