Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty
A few weeks ago, fellow comic Amy Schumer spoke to Norton for Vulture, bantering with her old mentor just ahead of his new special, American Degenerate. Here, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family and a heavily anticipated forthcoming book on the world of stand-up comedy, interviewed Norton at greater length about his own self-loathing and body image, his interest in sexual humiliation and transsexuals, censorship, and his hatred of the media.
American Degenerate, Jim Norton’s fourth comedy special, which recently aired on Epix, isn’t the obvious place to look for news of social progress. Norton’s fan base is notoriously homogenous — “between white and Grand Wizard,” he says — and Norton knows he fits the part: “I look like every guy on the jury in 1955.” His Twitter account posts playfully from “John Wayne Gacy’s basement.” Norton got his legs opening for Andrew Dice Clay when Clay was playing stadiums. Then political correctness — and perhaps the extinction of the Diceman brand of machismo — took down Clay’s risen star. But political incorrectness has continued to inspire Norton, and time has a way of moving the order of things around. Norton now road-gigs nonstop as a headliner and Dice is enjoying a comeback, and the two of them are double-billing for one show at the Beacon Theater later this fall. While Norton has recently added physical training to his regimen, his long-term commitment is as a fanboy — of Black Sabbath, Metallica, Bob Marley, and Eminem. He shares these passions his followers, and the love contributes to what conversations are possible with that black-T-shirted crowd in American Degenerate, which was taped at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, and for twenty hours a week on SiriusXM’s “Opie & Anthony Show,” where Norton has appeared for over a decade as “third mic.”
The special begins with a clip of Michael K. Williams, in your all-time favorite role of Omar, mocking you after sodomizing you. You then open with a bit about Casey Anthony. “What a horrible woman,” you say. “I’m this close to not wanting to fuck her!” You close on the lackluster responses your sexual vigor tends to elicit from women — in this case, a prostitute. In between, there are all sorts of other humiliations to choose from — righteousness, victimization, exhibitionism, Travolta’s lawsuits, the media’s hypocrisy. What, exactly, do you mean by degenerate? And what makes it particularly American?
I am a degenerate, and I know that. The theme of the stage was going to be: We were inside the [American] flag, kind of looking out. I was going to have a few nooses hanging down as a statement on speech, and people being hung for their statements … but they were afraid of some Viacom lawyer would give them a hard time. What’s American about it is the fact that I think we are completely full of shit about what we are really like. And it makes me crazy that we are such liars about what we are really like and who we really are.
I often think comedians’ provocations — the bits some people find offensive, like rape jokes — are one method of pushing the public conversations onto a more accurate ground.
Comedians want honest discussion because it affects us. We make our living talking, so anything around language affects us greatly. Plus, we’re supposed to say what other people don’t. This thing that made people love comedians is now the same thing that makes people turn on comedians — I don’t respect that. And I won’t honor any of the ideology around that. I’ll stop doing pedophile jokes when actors stop playing pedophiles. I’ll stop doing rape jokes when they protest an actor playing a rapist accurately … Fuck them! Why honor an inconsistent morality?
Rape is a popular verb in comedy, whether it is about actual rape or not. Can you talk about the motivation for using rape as a verb in comedy?
Language in comedy is very violent. When you talk about how you did last night — “I died.” “I fucking murdered the crowd.” “He went down in flames.” “He bombed.” … Rape is one that jumps out because there’s such a taboo connotation — it’s just a very violent, ugly word. Comedy uses a lot of words like that … I’ve always like violent words — not violent acts, but violent words in my act … I don’t say, “I don’t care for him.” [I say]: “I’d like to push him down an elevator shaft.” Rape is just one of many, many brutal harsh words. A lot of times in comedy, whatever is the opposite is funny.
One thing I have to say — an important thing, this special was taped before I met Lindy West [a feminist blogger with whom Norton had a heavily viewed debate about rape jokes on Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell]. I’ve changed my opinion and I shouldn’t diminish the voice of bloggers. They are doing something like comedians — using their skill or their art or whatever you want to call it to voice their thoughts. They have as much right to say what they want as I do.
When people were saying [in response to the Totally Biased panel], Rape Lindy West — a lot of people said, see it’s a rape culture! … I don’t believe it proves that at all … That proves laziness on the part of the people writing that. What happens is this, people want to be heard, they want to weigh in, but (a) they feel too small, or (b) they are too mentally lazy … it’s about trying to be heard and say something shocking …whatever we were talking about, it’s what they would have used to assault her on Twitter. … That was not about people wanting Lindy West raped … even trolls are not fucking monsters. If we had been talking about drunk-driving and they disagreed they would have said, “I hope you get killed by a drunk driver.”
There’s a big difference between the public conversation about rape jokes and the comedian conversation about rape jokes. Where would you like to start the conversation?
There is no conversation to be had because it’s not about rape jokes. What it’s about is whenever you say something people don’t like, they don’t want you to say it. So what they do is they try to find reasons why you shouldn’t say it. Everyone has a reason why their particular sacred cow is the sacred cow to be honored.
I think rapists should be castrated. I think child molesters should be executed. Beheaded. But the fact that I make fun of something has zero bearing on how much empathy I have for the subject … I can take something that hurts me deeply and makes me sad and makes me cry, and mock it relentlessly. That’s how I’ve always dealt with things that I think are sad or horrible — some that affect me, some that don’t affect me.
The quality of your self-loathing has changed over time and your body has as well. You are no longer soft, with breasts; you are trim and fit.
The things I’m attacking are a little bit harder to see, but I attack them with more care just to make it clear — I used to squeeze my tits through my shirt, “I have man tits” — that’s a very basic picture. But if I’m talking about other things that they can’t immediately look at or see, you have to paint a much clearer picture …
I’m an advanced enough comedian where I don’t want to be talking about that stuff all the time, anyway … Also, they don’t just connect to “hey-you’re-a-fat-titted idiot,” they connect to the mentality that’s making those statements and recognizing those things in myself. So I’m still Jim and they’re still them.
You once told me you were amazed at how far your fans let you go.
It allows me to never worry about saying something inappropriate. It allows me to be totally honest. As long as I’m being honest and being funny it’s okay — even if it’s things they don’t like, like transsexuals. The fact that I talk about them and that I’m open about my life … They don’t judge me for it … and I love the fact that they don’t. I’ve had enough visibility and traffic to at least attract people who hate the same things that I do …
My hatred of the dishonest language that we use in this country, and the double standard of who is penalized for the language in this country … That’s the main thing I’ve been obsessed with these last two years. Comedians apologize. The press never has to apologize. Certain people get in trouble for racial jokes, but other people don’t get in trouble for those racial jokes. The piggish media never has to apologize. The press can do anything and they never get in trouble. But if you are a fireman and you say something tasteless, you’re out of a job.
You hate the media. You love comedians. What might you suggest we do to improve ourselves? To be hated for more honorable reasons?
Be honest. Be honest about bias. Be honest. … This is why comedians are liked and the press isn’t: Comedians are expressing their opinions, and everybody knows that. But the media gets by under the guise of impartial journalism — giving the facts — and that’s what they hide behind. Meanwhile, they are not giving just the facts. Look the way they are reporting the black kids that beat this old veteran to death. With George Zimmerman, they talked a lot about the racial motivation, and they should have, but they don’t focus on it in the reverse.
You have a whole section in the special about school shooters and the media.
One thing they are doing very accurately is they are painting these animals the way these animals want to be painted. They are doing it to sell newspapers … they are doing it on purpose … I’m not saying they want people to get killed … You’ve got to report the facts … but you don’t need to show the photos and the manifestos, … which does nothing but encourage the next guy to go out in a blaze of glory … Given when a journalist is kidnapped, how fast the media shuts the fuck up — when it’s one of their own, they are very, very careful about how they word things, but when it’s the rest of us at a workplace shooting, they don’t give a shit.
They push Daniel Tosh harder than they push NBC editing the tape in a murder story.
Did you feel that the response to the Rolling Stone cover of the accused Boston bomber was a step in the right direction?
First of all, Rolling Stone stinks because they never gave Black Sabbath or KISS their due … They are a bunch of politically correct babies at Rolling Stone. Why don’t they put Michael Richards on the cover? … But if you want to read it, it should be in the store, available to you.
When we spoke about your friend and colleague, the late Patrice O’Neal, you shared with me about this great idea of “locking the exits” in comedy — i.e. leading the audience down the corridor of your own thinking so tightly, or being so clear about your POV, that they had no option of another route. … What are the exits you are trying lock in American Degenerate? My hunch is that one is homophobia.
What do you mean? Like I’m trying to get rid of it?
There’s that bit on the plane where you are intoxicated by the smell of the man next to you and where you consider the opportunity cost of male homophobia — “it probably robs us of a lot of nice moments.” You also ponder why men want to beat up transsexuals, rather than appreciate their craft. “Why do you get so angry?” you say. “You don’t get mad if someone hands you a can of peanut brittle and you open it and a snake pops out!”
I feel your specificity about your desires about sex prods people who might have certain views about homosexuality or transsexuality to stretch their minds on the back of your opinion and liking you and your work.
I’m just saying it because I believe it. … As a comedian, I have to hold true to it. My job is not to change people’s minds. It’s only to make people laugh at what I think is funny, or the point I try to make. …
The reason I say I’m not out to change their minds, that’s a really slippery slope of thinking, because then you begin to structure the jokes to do something else. You begin subtly preaching to the audience. I am telling them these truths about myself, and whatever conclusion they come to is up to them. Now, I would hope they will come to the conclusion that transsexuals rule, but you know.
… The crowd knows that the base of what I’m saying is from my personal life. And this is why I hate special-interest groups, because if you’re a comedian and you say something anti-gay, or anti-anything, you hear shit from special-interest groups, they want an apology, they blog about it. But if you say something very pro, no one says a word. I don’t need a fucking hug from GLAAD, but why I would never care if GLAAD or any other group got angry at me [is despite] all of the positive things I say, and all of the things I’m saying to the group of people I’m saying it to, [I get] nothing from them. So I have zero respect if they get outraged, either.
What about locking the exits?
I know I’m going to talk about school shooting, and I know where it is in my act, and it’s a rather harsh subject to talk about — I am talking about murdered kids. So the way I kind of wall off the exit, I start off talking about people who blog and get offended at rape jokes, so I am already discussing how stupid it is to be offended at harsh material — you are walking down a hall you have been down many times, and it’s their first trip. It’s not that you’re tricking them, it’s just trying to prevent them from having that knee-jerk reaction.