Jim Norton called me from a cab in New York City. The longtime standup comedian was between gigs, which isn’t surprising – he has two daily radio shows on SiriusXM, a new late-night talk show on Vice.com, various TV and film appearances, and a recently announced comedy club tour that hits Columbus from September 18-20.
During the course of our 18-minute conversation, Norton went from cabbing through NYC streets, into his apartment building elevator, and finally onto his couch. When I asked for his feelings about phone interviews, he responded: “I’m now in my underwear on my sofa. This rules.”
He was open and thoughtful as we discussed darker topics, provoked in part by the Vice project, The Jim Norton Show, in which he delves into uncut, sometimes-funny, sometimes-not interviews about heavier subjects. It was the end of a heavy week – four days since Robin Williams hung himself, prompting Norton to write an essay for Time.com entitled “Why the Funniest People Are Sometimes the Saddest.”
I read your article on Robin Williams, and his suicide, and the issues that tend to plague comedians. What are your thoughts as to why he meant so much to so many people?
First of all, he was an iconic figure. You know, we forget he’s been a household name since 1978. So for 36 years, which is most of most of our lives, we’ve known who he was in a very, very big way. So he’s such a part of your psyche and your consciousness, and then for all this time for a guy like that, who always makes people laugh and he makes people happy, to commit suicide and you realize like, “Oh my God, he had all this sadness.”
You never really know what kind of pain another person is feeling. You never really know what’s going on inside of them. And I think it makes us sad in a way, too, because it sounds corny, but he made so many people happy, and he made so many people laugh, and then when something like this happens everyone goes like, “Well, f*ck man! I wish I coulda done something for him.”
I think it’s a stereotype for many – the tortured artist archetype – that pain is somehow inherent to the creation of the art itself. Do you buy into that at all?
If it’s genuine, it’s okay. If it’s manufactured or forced, it’s corny, and it’s transparent, and it’s boring. Like anything else, most of my being funny comes from my self-doubt and my self-loathing, but I don’t do that because, “Hey, that makes me cool and artistic.” I walk around and I feel that way all the time, and that’s where my humor comes from. It’s genuine. I think if you try to make yourself a tortured artist, you’re boring. My self-doubt, again, is genuine and it’s always been there. It’s been there long before I did standup, and no matter how good things are going, I find that it creeps in. And I don’t want it there. I wish it wasn’t there.
One of your defining characteristics is how honest you are about your own demons and perversions. Does using that in your act ever help you work through things?
A hundred percent. Because there’s an old expression: we’re only as sick as our secrets.
The embarrassment’s a little less when you realize someone else has dealt with the exact same thing, and it’s not so foreign when somebody else shares that with you, where when you say something and they’re like, “Yeah I did the same thing,” it just feels good and it gives you a sense of normalcy. So yeah, man, it’s really, really cathartic for me to do that, and it’s one of my favorite things about my act or what I do as a performer.
I saw The Jim Norton Show episode with Freeway Rick Ross, the notorious former drug kingpin. That seems like a pretty big departure from many other shows in terms of that type of guest.
I mean, would I love to interview Will Smith? Sure, I love A-list guys too, but [Ross]’s a guy who you won’t see on late-night talk shows, and it’s because he probably can’t give you a quick, seven-minute, cute sound bite. He’s a real guy, and to me his story is far more interesting than anything a guy who just did a movie is gonna tell me. I’m as star-struck as the next person, but I would rather hear from a guy who made $900 million selling coke than some actor tell me how much fun the director was and how the whole crew made each other laugh the whole time. Who gives a f*ck…
You’ve stood up for other comedians who have encountered backlash after their jokes were deemed offensive. Do you think comedy can serve the purpose of helping keep free speech sacred in a way?
Well, it depends on how much comedians get attacked for what we do. The fact that people want comedians to apologize for offensive jokes is a reflection on what an embarrassing culture we are. Comedians make offensive jokes. We violate emotional space. We step over boundaries. That’s what a comic does. That’s what our job is. That’s why people pay us. And then people say, “Well, that’s in poor taste.” Yes! Yes, it is! But that’s part of our job.
Is there anything that you personally feel is off limits within your own act?
No, I mean there’s no subject. I didn’t want to make fun of Robin’s death when I heard it ’cause I liked him, but I don’t think it’s a subject that should be off limits. There’s things I haven’t made fun of, sure. The only thing I’ll say is I don’t want other people punished if they decide to make fun of it. Being who I am, I never say that people shouldn’t have their own boundaries. We all have our boundaries, and boundaries are healthy and they’re fine. Just don’t ask for another person to be penalized when their boundaries aren’t what yours are.
For more about Jim Norton, or to buy tickets for any of his shows at the Columbus Funny Bone, visit www.jimnorton.com.