The beginning of Jim Norton’s latest Netflix special Mouthful of Shame features our protagonist receiving a torrent of abuse. When looking for a big name to give him a glowing introduction, he faces a barrage of insults from both Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. Then, he turns to Robert De Niro, who spanks him on his bare ass. Following this scene, Norton takes the stage and points out that when the scene with De Niro was filmed, he was sick, and worried about getting a bout of diarrhea at a particularly unfortunate moment. It was an amusing sequence that brought home one thing that has defined Norton over the years: there’s no one he likes to mock more than himself.
Anyone who has followed Norton’s career is well-aware of his penchant for self-deprecation. In the subtitle of his memoir Happy Endings, he referred to himself as a “meaty-breasted zilch,” and that was just the beginning. When talking about his time in rehab for alcoholism, he shared a rather cringe-inducing poem he had written about his experiences, and encouraged us to join in on the mockery. He also let us know just how profound he thought his poetry was, and how much he was hoping the other members of his group would think it was really deep. It was a brutally honest moment in a book full of them, and it drove home the point that there’s very little you can say about Jim Norton that he wouldn’t gleefully say about himself, probably with some rather vulgar language.
Norton’s penchant for humor at his own expense is well-known, but why is it essential to what he does? Because he’s also the type of comedian who will approach any topic no matter how disturbing it is and no matter how much some of the audience probably wishes he wouldn’t go there. This, of course, includes the topic of rape, which is likely why he was chosen to debate author Lindy West in a now-infamous episode of W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased. The debate received a lot of hype at the time, but really, it was a respectful conversation where both parties made solid arguments. West argued that comedians should be held responsible for the damage their material causes, while Norton argued in favor of comedians being able to make mistakes. You could see where both sides were coming from. But even if the divide between the two wasn’t that strong, when you’re the guy from Opie & Anthony arguing against one of the more prominent feminist writers in the country, some people are going to perceive you as the villain, or in more specific terms, as someone who “punches down.” That might be true with a few of Norton’s jokes, but it’s hard to see it that way when he’s so frequently punching himself. It never seems like he’s putting himself on a pedestal and targeting everyone he receives to be below; rather, it feels like he’s positioned himself in the sewer and is dragging the rest of us down to his level.
Does this mean Norton should get a free pass for all of his questionable material? Certainly not. As enjoyable as the majority of Mouthful of Shame is, there were a few moments that I cringed at, most notably when he jokes about coercing a girl into a performing oral sex. It was pretty obvious that he wasn’t actually encouraging this, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. Even with jokes like that, though, there can only be so much damage because Norton so thoroughly presents himself as a scumbag, and makes it clear that we should not think or behave the way Jim Norton – or at least the character he portrays on stage – behaves. For the sake of contrast, some of Bill Maher’s more objectionable comments about Muslims are harder to swallow when he’s just so sure that his opinion is the correct one. Jim Norton might say something that makes you think “That guy’s an asshole!” but he’ll also spend most of the time telling you what an asshole he is, so it’s kinda hard to stay mad; it’s not like he didn’t warn you.
There will always be plenty of people for whom Jim Norton’s act just doesn’t work. When a comedian so gleefully approaches the horrifying subject matter that tends be in Norton’s wheelhouse, the appeal is always going to be somewhat limited. Still, Norton deserves credit for the persona he’s been able to cultivate over the years. For the past two decades, Norton has thoroughly debased himself, both on stage and in his writing, and it’s worked quite well for him, allowing him to go places that would likely derail the careers of lesser comics. Can Norton be a jerk sometimes? Sure, but he’d also be the first one to acknowledge that, and for that he deserves our respect.