Honest Laughs

Comedian Jim Norton may offend, but he does so with the best intentions

Jim Norton is certainly America’s most transsexual-friendly comic, if the beginning of his new special Please Be Offended is any indication. (Judging from the sloppy make-out session, anyway.) The Opie & Anthony co-host, author of two best-selling books (I Hate Your Guts, Happy Endings: Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch) and frequent Tonight Show contributor is also one of America’s most darkly personal comics. Yet the new special from the 44-year-old Norton, which aired on Epix and is now available streaming on Netflix, is far more political than 2007’s Monster Rain. We caught up with Norton to talk about that tone shift, working with Ozzy Osbourne and which cable show he’d want to join.

The last time you were here it was as part of the Anti-Social Network Tour with Bill Burr, Jim Breuer and Dave Attell. Other than just going longer, how does your approach change from doing a showcase to your own show?

You kind of get to the point faster because you know you’re only doing 20-25 minutes. I enjoy those shows. I’m getting to hang out with my friends. But it’s kind of a best-of when you’ e doing a show with three other guys. I’d much rather do be doing my own hour. There’s much more time to explore bits and do what I have to do.

For Offended you got Ozzy to introduce you coming on stage. How did that go?

I had always wanted Ozzy to introduce me from the toilet. What a great way to walk on stage. I’ve interviewed him many times and I know Sharon fairly well, so I e-mailed her. I sent her the script and I made sure it was one page. He’s a busy dude and I don’t want her to think I had him doing this six-page thing. She wrote back and said Ozzy right now is in England. Ozzy was there taping the Sabbath record. She said when do you need it done? I told her, and she said he’d be back then. She goes that’s great. We’d be delighted. It was that simple. We went to Ozzy’s house. We had to do a long shot and a close-up. We’re doing the close-ups first, and we needed him to drop his pants. I’m like, “All right, are we going to put a towel down or whatever?” He didn’t give a fuck. He just drops his pants. I saw his balls. It was fucking unbelievable. Then I remembered, oh right, this is Ozzy. He doesn’t give a shit. He’s not shy, he’s a fucking maniac. He was perfect. He gave a different look every take. He had a different delivery. Some were higher energy, some were lower. It was unbelievable, because it gave us something to choose from.

How was Ozzy’s house now that the reality crew isn’t there?

The cool part about being in Ozzy’s house is seeing all these family photos that aren’t meant for public consumption. It was just him with his kids, or Sharon on a tour bus. It’s elegant. Sharon is the main decorator, and you’d never know it was Ozzy Osbourne’s house except for the photos or the occasional crucifix. It’s like an English gentleman’s house. It’s the home of a proper gentleman.

You’ve seen guys like Louie (C.K.) and Jim Gaffigan doing their own thing, self-publishing. Is that something you’d consider in the future

Louie did one for Epix too, first, a couple years ago. That’s one of the things that convinced me I wanted to do it. They used Louie, they got Lewis Black, Eddie Izzard. Creatively, it was amazing. I never had a network so hands-off on my stuff, which I loved them for. Doing my own release, Louie can do that. Aziz (Ansari), Gaffigan. Those guys are bigger than I am. I could do it, but not with the kind of success those guys are having. Maybe the next one I do I’ll consider that. I think by the time he did it, Louie had a million Twitter followers, Aziz had a million and a half at that point, Gaffigan over a million. You have to have a certain immediate marketing power, and all those guys are more famous than I am. I would love to do it, but probably on the next go around if I think I can make money doing it. It is the way things are going, to be honest with you. That’s why Louie was voted in the Time 100, because he really is changing things for real. Doing all these things on his own is removing so much power from networks. You can go on, shoot some smart and funny videos. If they become viral, it’s an amazing campaign. Hands off, do all the stuff yourself. Again, you better be good at it, but I think that’s why everyone is talking about Louie so much. He’s legitimately changing things, not just in a shallow way, but legitimately changing them.

This special was much less personal than Monster Rain. Were you trying to consciously move away from that kind of material, or did it just work out that way?

After Imus got fired, it made me so angry because of not him, but because of the way political correctness was affecting people’s jobs and the obsessive apologies. That was kind of what was on my mind, so that’s what I talked about. The public was making me sick with allowing all this stuff to go on. The personal stuff I talk about, I had some of it in Please Be Offended, but it was dirty. I didn’t mind using it, but we ran out of time. The other stuff was timely. Whenever I talk about stuff whether it was Mel Gibson, or Tiger Woods, or the TSA, I try to at least include myself in it or at least give examples of how my life had similar moments. If I’m going to bash Mel Gibson, if I’m going to make fun of fucking Tiger Woods, I’m at least comfortable telling on myself and talking about my private stuff.

The fact that comics have to—our job—I’m not saying you have to be purposefully abrasive, but the way things are. You know who described this to me was this guy driving me one time. He said you get these knots in society. A comedian’s job is to take you knuckle and dig into that knot and work through it and work it out, but people are avoiding it. It’s like as a comic, our job is to talk about the stuff that’s bothering everybody. You’re laying off? What the fuck are you doing? How do you not talk about the Aurora shooting, or whether it’s 9/11 or the Muslims rioting, or wahtever it is you want to talk about. If you’re Brian Regan and you have a different style, that’s different. Brian’s great and he has a style that’s unique to him. But you see some guys being fake edgy, and it’s like dude, if you’re not talking about the stuff that’s happening, I don’t know what you’re doing up there.

Why do you think audience members will jump on a bit for being “too soon” when a comic dives right into a tragedy, like a 9/11, or other controversial news items?

They’re fucking dummies. They think their creative input is important. For some reason people think with comedy that they have an equal creative input or content approval. How come nobody complained about movies about 9/11? How come nobody complains about Jodie Foster portraying a rape victim, but if you make fun of it you’re a terrible person. I don’t know why they react that way. I think it’s for attention. People think when they’re offended, they have to be listened to. I never care if people are bothered. I prefer they weren’t, but my job is not to talk about what they’re comfortable hearing. My job is to be funny and express what I think. One compliment Louie (C.K.) gave me years ago was that I was really good about explaining why I felt how I felt. That’s all I can do on stage is let people know why I’m coming from this point of view and be funny about it. My job isn’t to be right. It’s to be honest.

Doug Stanhope was doing a show here and said part of the reason he can say what he says is that his audience expects it. Are you in the same place with your crowds?

In front of the audiences who come to see me, I know I’m comfortable doing what I want to do. But I work it out at the Comedy Cellar every night, and they’re not there to see me because I don’t work under my own name, because I want an honest reaction from people. There’s some stuff that won’t necessarily work that well in front of that audience that I know is going to kill in front of my crowd, because my crowd aren’t babies. They might not laugh if it’s not funny, but they’re not going to go “that’s too harsh,” because they’re great crowds. I think nothing is off limits. Doug Benson gave a good description of it. I saw him in San Diego with (Joe) Rogan and we were talking, I think it was about (Daniel) Tosh, or whatever the outrage of the day was. He said something about, “Hey man, it’s the human tapestry. You have to be able to talk about everything.” I thought that was such a smart way to describe it. While rape is a terrible thing, it is a subject just like airline peanuts, just like 9/11, just like the Titanic sinking, just like Forrest Gump. They’re all just experiences and subjects. Some of them are much more serious and much sadder, but none of them are off limits for a comic to talk about it. I don’t believe that. Everything hurts at least one person. What kind of fucking banal act are you going to have if nobody would ever be bothered by the subject matter.

That Tosh thing was so insane because what he said was so fast and so funny, but the tack people took wasn’t “You can’t make jokes about rape” which would be at least consistent, if stupid, but they said “You can’t make jokes about rape if they’re not funny.” They wanted to attack him for not being funny.

That’s again because they think they’re part of the creative process. That’s the fraudulence of this outrage. It’s always phony. That’s why you can’t give it any respect. You have to meet it aggressively. I think people almost know by going “You can’t joke about rape” they’re kind of know they’re putting themselves in a shitty corner by saying you can’t talk about something. So they put that caveat that you have to be funny. Fuck that woman who was offended and left. I have zero mercy for her. This is this entitlement mentality. People are like “She had the right to express—“ No the fuck she didn’t. She was in a performance. She had the right to get up and walk out quietly. She had the right to go “Wow, this isn’t funny to me. I’m going home.” She had every right to do that. She had zero right to interrupt the performance and blurt out what she thought. Who gives a fuck what you think? Who the fuck is she? Get the fuck out. She was a heckler, and he addressed a heckler harshly as he should have. So I have zero empathy for that fucking forced victim. Fuck her.

It was just announced that Patton Oswalt will be doing a stint on Justified. If you were going to a part on a prestige cable show, what would it be?

Huh. The Wire is off the air. Probably Game of Thrones. I would play Khaleesi’s toilet.

I haven’t read that far along in the books. I don’t know if there’s a role in there for that.

Probably not. A talking toilet that goes “Yum.”

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Patrice O’Neal’s death. Do you have anything in the works to mark that?

We’re all talking about a benefit, a bunch of comedians. We’re just not sure when we’re going to do it. At least the Emmys mentioned him. It’s more than a lot of comedy channels did, who basically did nothing for the guy. At least his comedian friends will do a benefit. Bill Burr and I are thinking February, we’re just not sure.

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