Jim Norton: Transparent Degenerate

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Jim Norton has always been a great talker. He may not always be right, and he knows he has a tendency to meander, but when he talks he is always honest. Just ask him about Black Sabbath.

“I think it’s absolutely old school Sabbath,” he says of the band’s latest album, 13. “It makes me so happy for them. I wanted to cry when I heard it. I was so fucking happy that they did it. I truly love it, man. It sounds like something that was recorded in 1971.”

Norton’s obsession with Sabbath dates back to his youth in North Brunswick, New Jersey, where he admits he used to play “Crazy Train” on his boom box when he walked by his crush’s house, hoping that her bedroom window would be open and that she’d get to see for herself just how cool he looked in his Kangol hat down below. Or better, how he says he used to preface his secret love notes with the words “Speak of the Devil,” which was the title of Ozzy Osbourne’s latest LP back in 1982. So it makes sense that Norton would sound at least a little excited when asked about Osbourne’s first Black Sabbath album since Norton’s 10-year-old self picked up Never Say Die! in 1978.

Norton has a reputation as an outspoken, uncompromising and often vulgar stand-up comic with a truly exhausting work ethic. He holds two full-time jobs: stand-up comedian and professional broadcaster. On any given night he could be touring his across the United States with his latest set of stand-up or working through new material at New York City’s Comedy Cellar, and every weekday morning at 6 a.m. he sits alongside Gregg “Opie” Hughes and Anthony Cumia on SiriusXM’s The Opie & Anthony Show. But if you ask Norton, the ability to keep up with such a demanding schedule isn’t a result of will power.

“I have almost no will power,” he says, “and that’s why I’m sober.”

Norton’s honesty—about himself, his career and especially his alcohol addiction—is remarkable. The 45-year-old started drinking heavily during his teenage years in North Brunswick, and by the time he was 18 he was already in rehab. “The key to being sober is admitting that you are powerless over something,” he says. “So for me, no, I don’t have the will power and I know that if I get into the arena with it I will lose every time. I’m happy to say that it’s bigger than I am.”

Norton has been sober since 1986, when he left rehab at 18, and it was through his adolescent years that he developed a passion for standup comedy, particularly that of Richard Pryor’s live albums That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger, the latter of which won Pryor a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album in 1977. So what was it exactly that an awkward white kid from suburban New Jersey saw in a brash, vulgar black stand-up comedian like Pryor?

“You know, that’s the weird thing,” says Norton. “It was never a decision I made. It just happened. His cadence, the way he talked, the things he said. He was very dirty, but he was also very funny, and even when I was 12 he made me think about race. He made me look at race, which I had never even considered, really. So I kind of knew that I was hearing something that a guy my age normally didn’t get to hear. That’s how it felt. I don’t know what I connected to, I just knew I loved it. I can’t even put it into words. I just loved him.”

Fast forward to 2013 and Pryor’s influence is readily apparent in all that the now-grown-up awkward white kid from New Jersey has accomplished comedically. In addition to his radio work and regular stand-up gigs, Norton has written and performed three comedy specials, released three comedy albums, written two New York Times bestsellers and appeared as a frequent correspondent on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. His latest special, American Degenerate, which hits Netflix on Nov. 21, premiered on Epix in June 2012 and was the most watched comedy title on the network in its premiere weekend. The special, like all of Norton’s work, possesses a high degree of self-deprecation, including as an incredibly acute perception of his vices, which he confesses are many. Norton often admits that he has maintained his sobriety not through self-discipline, but through substituting other obsessive (i.e. sexual) behaviors in for alcoholism, the specifics of which he isn’t afraid to detail honestly and often graphically in his stand-up set. He is well aware of the fact that he is speaking to voyeurs every time he walks on stage. “It’s one of the things that’s always made me funny,” Norton says of his candid nature.

The essential caveat, however, is that Norton sees the voyeurism he enables as a two-way street, both in terms of his audience taking pleasure in his perversions and, on a larger scale, the American public’s general lust for gossip. If somebody derives satisfaction from browsing TMZ and peeking in on the private lives of public figures, he argues that it’s only fair that each yenta in America forfeits their own privacy in return. “I love the fact that the NSA spies on people,” he says. “And I really mean that. I love it! All these nosy cunts in our country who just love to watch Tiger Woods’ personal life come apart are just so appalled that their privacy is being invaded. Fuck the public.”

“So what I do is this,” he adds. “I reveal myself. I admit all the sexual stuff. I admit to being a pervert, I admit that I send dirty text messages, I admit that I send photos of my dick, that I’ve lost erections — I tell on myself. I feel like me making fun of somebody is fine because I’m not hiding behind this veil of perfection.”

As a result, the media has resorted to a very neat and tidy term to define Norton as a comedian and radio personality: “shock jock.” It’s a woefully dismissive label that has been used to summarize the type of profane and, well, shocking talk radio that has gotten Norton and fellow broadcasters like Howard Stern in trouble with the FCC. On Opie & Anthony, Norton and the title duo operate within a realm gonzo radio journalism that touches on comedy, news, politics and pop culture with very little structure and none of the wacky “morning zoo” radio shtick. Topics of the day often arrive on a whim, debates are formed without preparation and unique positions and conclusions are made (uncensored, naturally) in simple terms with remarkable insight. All of this, Norton says, exists completely outside the spectrum of any alleged shock jockery.

“Shock jock is a dumb media term,” he says. “They’re such assholes. It’s like how Nancy Grace has to call Casey Anthony ‘Tot-Mom.’ They like to have little easy names because they’re lazy, so if they call us shock jocks it allows them to do no investigation. Then they hear something and go, ‘Oh hey! We know what this is! We’ll sum it up for our dumb viewers!’”

Norton continues to argue that it’s the media, not his radio show, that operates with the intent to seek out morbid content that shocks audiences. “The news should consider themselves shock jocks,” he says. “I’m not showing dead bodies. I mean, we joke about things but I’m not walking around putting a camera into the face of a murder victim’s mother or wife. They’re more shocking than we are!”

And with this Norton arrives at his central comedic theory. The media, he argues, which is tasked with maximizing viewership while at the same time toeing the line of political correctness, has failed to give itself an honest assessment of its true intentions for reporting the news. Do media outlets seek to entertain through sensationalizing the news? Has the concept of shock value been beaten to death by the media’s obsession with manufacturing controversy? It’s hypocricies like these that a disappointed and frustrated Norton attacks in his standup routine with pinpoint accuracy.

“Me and Opie were talking about political correctness once and I was like ‘Jesus, I’ve tried to look through the other way, maybe I’m wrong.’ But in the end, what tells me I’m right is that I try to be fair with opinions. And the way [special interests] punish people or go after people is arbitrary and unfair, so that’s how I know they’re wrong.”

Case in point: the recent controversy surrounding the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the movement to force the team to change their name. Norton actually feels like the Redskins should drop the offensive moniker, but doesn’t feel like they should be forced to. The NFL, like any major news outlet, is rife with hypocrisy, he contends, turning into “groveling, apologetic worms” when players make politically incorrect comments, but at the same time freely allowing an entire race to be “cartooned” through an insensitive team mascot. In light of this and the general, never-ending stream of similar controversies that result in vapid, publicist-written apologies, Norton feels that people are in fact actively seeking out new issues to which they can take offense.

“I know they are,” he insists. “And they don’t realize they’re doing it. It’s an attention-seeking device, and it’s an empowerment. We’ve trained each other to operate where if you get offended, we are going to listen to your complaint and do something drastic.” In his previous stand-up special Please Be Offended Norton drives this point home, riffing on how despite the best intentions of political correctness, the very idea has been used more as a tool to exert power than as something that can help those who genuinely feel hurt by slander and libel.

Whether it be on the radio or on stage, Norton enjoys having these types of debate. His assessments are refreshing, and just as clever as they are funny. They also possess a political attentiveness that stand-up comedy has sorely lacked since the loss of George Carlin in 2008. “It’s really pathetic what we do for attention in this country,” he says. “It’s like, all we do is stand around and watch each other get thrown under the bus.”

“There’s times when I’m wrong, sure, but it’s coming from a truthful place,” he concludes. “I have zero feelings to hide or conceal from people, so I’m able to speak very honestly.”

It’s honesty like Norton’s that has become increasingly rare in a society that is constantly worried about the ramifications of their words. Whether he’s detailing an encounter with a prostitute or the insidious ills of the news media, hearing Norton speak is refreshing because everyone knows he’s being real. And though he claims not to have any will power, he certainly hasn’t shown any signs of letting up in his crusade for transparency. If anyone is to lead the way in humor in that crosses lines, both socially and politically, it might as well be a New Jersey kid who grew up on Pryor, loves the NSA and isn’t afraid to admit that Sabbath can bring him to tears.

Jim Norton’s third standup special American Degenerate will premiere on Netflix on Nov. 21. You can hear him on The Opie & Anthony Show weekdays from 6-10 EST on SiriusXM.

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