"People Just Love to Get Outraged": a Conversation with Jim Norton

Comedy Features Jim Norton
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"People Just Love to Get Outraged": a Conversation with Jim Norton

Jim Norton’s new stand-up special Mouthful of Shame was released on Netflix last month. It is his seventh special and his first with Netflix. The New York-based comedian and actor, known for his pugnacity and his facility with foul subject matter, is riding high: He says the response to Mouthful of Shame is the best he’s received yet, which is no small feat for a former Opie and Anthony co-host—who currently hosts Jim Norton and Sam Roberts on Sirius XM—with a vociferous—and quick to anger—online following.

I recently spoke with Norton about the special and his thoughts about comedy more broadly. For those who haven’t seen the special, I should briefly explain two topics of discussion, which are also spoilers. The first is that the special opens with a brief sketch in which Norton solicits a series of celebrities to introduce him: Ricky Gervais, Louis CK and Robert De Niro, who ends up spanking him. The second is the special’s final joke, in which Norton details a conversation he had with a woman on Tinder. Things were going great, he tells us, until he asked for her number and she went silent for several days. When he messaged her again, she said that she Googled him and saw a routine about him sending dick pics to a woman; it was, well, a turn-off. Norton tells us he didn’t know what to say, so he just said—well, that’ll become clear below.

Following is the transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Paste: Congrats on the special! What kind of feedback are you getting?

Jim Norton: You know, man, my fans are brutal and honest, and it’s literally the best feedback I’ve ever gotten on anything in my career. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of good things that’ve been said by the fans. I don’t know how anybody else feels about it but on Twitter, at least, I’ve never, never experienced this kind of positivity. I don’t know how to handle it. I’m used to arguing with people!

Paste: Hah—what kind of brutality are you used to?

Norton: Well if something sucks, they’ll be happy to tell you. They’re more than happy to let you know when something isn’t funny, or when something is a waste of time, or they want their hour back. They’re really comfortable letting you know when something stinks. So when they like it, you know they like it.

Paste: Great. So, that intro video—which of those guys was best to work with?

Norton: I mean, De Niro, obviously. There’s no one better than De Niro spanking your bare ass. I’m never gonna top that in show business. Louis I’ve worked with a hundred times over the years. Although Louis was the hardest one to book! It was so funny—De Niro was the easiest one. Gervais said he would do it and he did it. Louis was impossible to pin down, I thought he was blowing me off. But De Niro we just shot in his office, and I don’t know if you saw, but he spanks my bare ass and I kept that out of the script on purpose .I was afraid I’d freak him out, so I kind of kept the spanking to myself until we got there that day. I had my director buy a hairbrush and I said, “I’m gonna want you to spank me, but we got a hairbrush in case you don’t want to touch my bare ass.” And he’s like, “Ah, I don’t care.” That was how I let him know I was gonna be pulling my pants down in his office. He was really awesome.

Paste: Damn. Team player.

Norton: He really was.

Paste: So this is your seventh special. How have you felt yourself grow over the last twelve years of making comedy specials?

Norton: You just get more comfortable with who you are, being honest about who you are and what you like. This was a more personal one, I think. I mean, they all have personal stuff in them, but this one was really personal and it was really honest. So I think you just become more comfortable, that’s all. You stop worrying—I didn’t feel like I hadto talk about Trump. We shot it after the election and I had a Trump bit, but I cut it out because I tripped on the punchline. So I didn’t feel the need to try to force it back in or make it happen without the punchline. I let it go. He’ll be here for a while—make fun of him next time.

I didn’t feel pressure to do anything in particular other than make it funny and be happy with it. And that’s from doing it a long time. All I have to do is like it.

Paste: I saw you’re trying to get some TV projects going this year. Can you tell me anything about those?

Norton: In all honesty, I just want to pitch a talk show or something or something else. I would love it to be on Netflix. I don’t have anything, really—I’m trying to come up with something I can pitch. I have a show I wrote years ago, which I pitched to a couple places but it was too dirty for most networks. It was about me as a radio host and a pervert. And I do think there’s something very very funny there, so I want to try to bring that in to them. But I’m never an optimist when it comes to pitching. I suck at pitching, I suck.

Paste: I talk to a lot of comics and I gather it’s not the easiest thing.

Norton: Because typically we deconstruct everything, so what you want to do is go everything and say “Look, here’s the show,” and then point out the weaknesses in it. That’s all you want to do, is tell the network why they shouldn’t pick it up. My instinct is to be honest and make fun of things. So I’m not good at going in there and prostituting—but not out of integrity, just because it’s my job and I’ve trained myself to be really honest about what I hate.

Paste: That seems like a good enough quality to have.

Norton: Well you don’t want to pitch it that way. You want to spin the positive when you pitch. When I was a kid—my first attempt at a job, we had to go door to door selling [newspaper] subscriptions and I couldn’t sell any. You get a dollar for every subscription you sold, and—this is true—my sales pitch was, “You don’t want a new newspaper, do you?” I don’t know how they do it! I don’t know how to sell. I wish I did.

Louis is an amazing pitcher. ‘Cause he’s a great storyteller, so he knows how to get you psyched about something. He’s great at describing something, and that’s why he has so many successful projects. It’s incredible how good he is at pitching stuff.

Paste: Was that [difficulty pitching yourself] tough when you were just starting out as a comic? You gotta go up at open mics, on shows with people who don’t care about you.

Norton: I mean, they didn’t care about any of us. You go up there and the audience doesn’t shit about any of you. Half the times I go on at the Comedy Cellar now they give a shit about me. So it’s one of those things I’ve gotten used to.

It’s actually a really good training process because it’s honest. If they all know you and they all like you, they’re predisposed to laugh. But when none of them know you or care about you, you really have to earn it. So it makes you stronger when you’re going up like that, in front of really awful bar crowds in New Jersey.

Paste: Was there ever any moment when you thought, “Oh, hey, I know what I’m doing now”?

Norton: No… when you’re doing it for a while you start thinking, “Okay, I guess it’s going well.” But I never particularly feel like I know what I’m doing. Me and Michael Che were just [talking about this]. I was like, “I swear to you, I feel like I suck.” Like I go on sometimes and it’s like, “You’re incompetent!” And then I kill and I’m like, “That was comfortable, I’m comfortable performing.”

But I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten it. I feel like now I can go on and I can write good jokes and I can express myself, but I’m never overconfident and like, “I’ve got this.” I’ve never gotten to that point.

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