Known and (in certain circles) revered for his unapologetic cringe style, Jim Norton has staked out a niche in explicit but deceptively thoughtful comedy. His latest special, American Degenerate, is his second with premium channel Epix, following 2012’s Please Be Offended. The Comedy Cellar regular also co-hosts the daily Sirius XM talk radio show The Opie & Anthony Show and is a best-selling author. I got the chance to talk to him recently about not being self-rightous, his supportive fans, and getting away with edgy jokes on The Tonight Show.
Is it different working with a company like Epix, that’s newer to comedy specials, than someplace like HBO that’s done so many?
No, not at all. It’s the same process you’ve got to go through. I think with Epix, they’re really artist friendly. Not that HBO isn’t, but my experience with [Epix] is that I had a little bit more control over what I wanted to do. But again, it’s hard to say, because with HBO, I did the first one six years ago, so by this point I may have that control there too because I’m further along. So no, it’s the same was working with HBO. Everything is done with the same level of quality. You’re using the same type of crew you’d use on HBO, the same type of producers and all that stuff.
I noticed in the hour that you weave together topical jokes with sex material, which is what I think a lot of people associate with you. Are you conscious of balancing the two?
Well that’s what my life is like. So basically, I’m kind of weaving in my own experience or opinion about certain things and how it affects me. Like, when I talk about John Travolta – you know, one of things I hate about our culture the most is the way everybody points the finger at everyone else and doesn’t reveal themselves. So, if I’m gonna talk about him getting a massage, I am going to talk about my experience in that area and why I believe this. I’m gonna give a reason. I’m not gonna stand up there and say, “John Travolta’s full of shit.” I’m gonna give my experience in that, and say, “This is why I think what I think.” I try to explain why I feel the way I do, and I usually give personal experiences by doing that. And a lot of them are sexual.
But you also talk about gun violence, which is really more of a political or social issue.
Yeah, and even in those, I just tie in how I think I would do with it. The whole thing with guns is, I think people should be able to have them if they’re responsible, but here’s why I’m not responsible enough to have one. I guess everyone performs differently, but I always try and tie in personal stuff because that, to me, is the stuff that makes it uniquely mine, as opposed to fifty guys being self-righteous saying why you can’t have guns. It’s annoying.
I guess I wondered if you set out to mix…
No. I didn’t answer your question. No, I didn’t, I’ll tell you why. Because you don’t know where you’re gonna end up when you start putting together an hour of material. So whatever it is that seems right at the moment is what I talk about, and usually it works out that way becuase my style is to tie in my personal stuff. But I don’t set out, like, I want to balance this or I want to balance that, because if you do that then you’re forcing yourself to write about something in a moment that you may not want to talk about, or you’re forcing yourself into a pattern you may not want to be in. I think it has to happen naturally.
And you reference in the special how your receptive your audience is these days. Do you find that, as you tour, you have a built-in audience from Opie & Anthony?
Yeah, it is. Wherever I go, there is definitely my audience. I would say in some places there’s more of them than others, but it’s one advantage to performing for a long time and building up kind of a reputation with a certain crowd. I don’t have to go on stage and immediately prove that I’m funny. Like, you have to be funny, but they give me the benefit of the doubt. They judge the material on whether or not it’s good. They don’t start groaning, like “Aww, aww.” I don’t have to deal with a lot of that crap, which I had to deal with for years. They don’t obsess over content being offensive or not offensive. They just want it to be funny.
That seems to be the goal of a lot of younger comics that I talk to – they just want to be able to go someplace and have people show up who already know and like them. It’s a good spot to be in. You’ve found your crowd.
Oh yeah, but it takes years. You’re right, it is a goal. That’s a great goal for a comedian to have. Which shows you state the country’s in, where the comics are saying, “All I want to do is be able to talk about what I want without everybody being babies about it.” You know, Americans think that they’re such progessive and free thinkers, but we’re as uptight as any other country when it comes to speech and language and content. So it took a long, long time for me to find a crowd that wasn’t going to be violated if I made fun of something in a point of view that they didn’t agree with necessarily. I don’t worry about the crowds agreeing with me anymore. I want them to laugh and have a good time, but I think they can disagree with you and still enjoy it.
And you’re also on Leno a lot. I find that relationship interesting, because I would think that Leno’s audience and your audience would be so, so different.
They are, sure. But I mean, I’ve been at it for a long time and you learn how to work clean. And, you know, Pryor and Carlin did The Tonight Show. Lenny Bruce did clean TV. You have to be able to do that, I think, to succeed because if you want to promote something, you go on The Tonight Show or Letterman or whatever, you can’t be dirty. There’s kind an misconception about The Tonight Show – you can get away with a lot edgier content than you think. It’s really surprising the things I’ve been able to say on Leno and get away with it. You can’t be dirty or curse, but the content’s a little bit harsher than people realize, I think.
Do you get fans of Leno who come out to see you? Do they like you?
Oh yeah, I get fans of a show called Red Eye on Fox [News], that’s a pretty big help with the draw. They come from all over. And sometimes a Leno fan might come out and I’m a little dirtier than they expected, or a Fox fan might come out, who’s seen me there or on Hannity, and I’m little dirtier than they expected, or a lot dirtier even. But usually it’s not a problem. It’s never a real issue.
Do you find that now you have this base, it’s harder to bring in new fans? Or are people more willing to try things than I’m giving them credit for?
Yeah, I think it’s much easier, actually. It’s much easier when a bunch of people are going, “Wow this is great.” And then somebody else goes, “Well what is it?” And then they come in the room and everybody’s having fun, that’s a lot easier. The psychology of that’s much easier. Because when you’re performing for your own fans – and again, I can’t just go up there and give them shit. I have to give them good material. They give me the benefit of the doubt, but they’re not gonna sit here and not be entertained for an hour. But if people see other people enjoying you, they are more likely to get into that vibe and not worry about, “Is this inappropriate or is this appropriate?” Because then they feel stupid standing up or going, “This is terrible,” when they see everybody else is not being offended by it. People tend to relax and just enjoy it. Or not enjoy it. I mean, I’m sure there’s still plenty of people that I think I stink. But I do think it’s easier, once you’ve developed a fanbase, to kind of continue to grow that than it is to get it begin with.
I also want to ask you about Opie & Anthony. There seems to be such a specific clique of O&A comics and O&A fans, and I wonder how that’s evolved over the years that you’ve been there.
Well, they’re much better comedy fans than people think they would be. I always get that when comedians do a show with me. They’re like, “Wow, your fans are great.” I really do hear that from most comedians I work with, and the majority of my fans are O&A fans, and it’s because they don’t mind something being harsh. I think people are surprised by the amount of freedom the comics are given by the fans to do whatever they want. I just think that they’re much, much better comedy fans than people think they’re going to be. They’re less aggressive with you. I mean, there’s been instances where they were, but the majority of the time, they’re much, much better than people think they will be.
If somebody were to listen to O&A for the first time tomorrow, would it be something that they could get into? Do you think it’s accessible?
Absolutely. The fanbase gets larger and larger, but again, there’s just as many people who I’m sure would hear it and not like it, because we’re trying to be ourselves and do what we think is funny. We’re not trying to reach out and find what everbody else will think is funny. And I think when you do that, the people who like you will really like you. You may find less of them than a show that can go out there and just reach out to the masses and go, “Hey!” I don’t know if it would be accessible, I guess it would depend on what we’re talking about at that particular moment. If we were talking about gun violence from a point of view, or gay marriage from a point view, that the listener agrees with, then we’re very accessible. But if we’re talking about it in a point of view that that particular person doesn’t agree with, then all of a sudden we’re assholes and we’re not accessible. It really does depend on any individual’s sensibilities.
Have you found that doing that show, just comedically, has changed your voice?
Well, it gives you much more confidence in your voice because, again, it develops a fanbase. And when you have a fanbase and you go out and you do all these things and people laugh at them, you get more and more confident. And the more confident you get, the more you write what you want to write, as opposed to what you think people want to hear. So I think it develops the confidence tremendously.
And it forces you to know something about what’s going on in the country, because you’re talking about it every day. You know, we have to fill 20 hours a week, so you have to at least read the paper or at least form some kind of opinion on most things that are happening, whether it’s Paula Deen or Al Qaeda or Egypt, because probably you’re going to be talking about it. So it helps to at least be a little bit aware of it, and a lot of times that sparks good material when I go back on stage.
Yeah. That is incredible; 20 hours a week is just an enormous amount of space for three people to fill.
Yeah, it really is. I mean, Opie and Anthony carry the brunt of the pressure there. I get to fire in lines when I want to. I have a much easier job than they do. For me, it’s great. I can just chime in whenever I want.
That sounds like a perfect job.
It really is.
So where else should people be looking for you? What else are you working on?
Red Eye and Leno are the two main TV things I do. I do Hannity sometimes. I have a talk show that I want to get on the air. That’s the only thing I’m working on right now. I’m not even doing as much standup. My main goal is to get a show on the air this year.
A talk show?
I love to interview people. I love it. And I get to do it a lot on Opie & Anthony, I get to talk to whoever we have a lot. So yeah, I would love to do one of those. There’s been so many people I’ve talked to that, I just think it’s really fun to do. And I’m decent at it. I’m not saying I’m Charlie Rose, but I think I’m good enough to have a fun time, especially in front of an audience.
I imagine it would be quite different from what’s on late night at the moment.
Yeah, well I’d probably – I don’t want to do it on network TV. Obviously I can’t, and honestly, I couldn’t pull off what Fallon does or Leno or any of those guys. I would rather do it on like a cable channel or somewhere where I can have a lot more language freedom. It’s something I really really want to do.
Jim Norton’s American Degenerate airs on Friday, August 23 at 10PM ET on Epix. He tweets at @JimNorton.
Elise Czajkowski is a Contributing Editor at Splitsider who occasionally tweets at @EliseCz.