Monday, January 26, 2009

My Interview with Jim Norton

[Originally posted on November 10th, 2008]

I'm really late with updates :)
Here's an interview I did with Jim Norton for Punchline Magazine.

Jim Norton: Comedian For All Mediums
After his first book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty Breasted Zilch stayed on The New York Times Best Sellers list for four weeks, it’s no surprise that Jim Norton would once again venture into the literary world. His new tome, I Hate Your Guts is a compilation of acerbic, all-too-honest essays about the people who irritate him most: everybody from Al Sharpton to Starbucks employees (and even himself). His biting honesty and colorful language leaves you feeling just as pissed off as he is, and laughing the whole time.

Heard everyday on the nationally-syndicated Opie & Anthony radio show, seen on the bigger stand-up stages throughout the country as well as his second HBO show, Down and Dirty with Jim Norton (not to mention the occasional film), Norton is fast becoming a master comedian of all mediums. Punchline Magazine recently caught up with the New York based comic.

I Hate Your Guts, is much different than your first book. This is less autobiographical. Why did you decide to write a second time?
They had asked me to do a second book. They said, ‘How about something on pop culture?’ And I’m like alright, but I didn’t’ want to take shots at like, Lindsay Lohan, or any of that shit. I wanted to just write about people that I couldn’t stand and that really made me want to throw bottles at the television in the last year or two. I just wanted to shit on people that have been irritating me.

Yeah, you do that a lot on Opie & Anthony. Did any of that sort of inspire you?
Well, what inspired me on O&A is the fact that we do that every day. It’s honest; we talk about what we want to talk about. And a lot of shows don’t really bag on other people, but we do— so it was kind of comfortable to do it in book form. You know, I’m a comic; my job is to be funny, so hopefully people laugh at it. It’s not like I’m accusing any of these people of rape. I’m just making fun of them.

Yeah, I heard the book needed to be vetted carefully by lawyers.
Right, I’m not saying they embezzled money. They’re all public figures and they’re getting shit on and they deserve to get shit on. It’s like, you know you can’t be Jesse Jackson or Sharpton or Keith Olbermann and be as vocal and as media hungry as they are and not expect people to hit you back once in a while.

Was it easier for you this time around to write a book?
No, this one was harder because the first one was done over the course of a year and a half. We were kicked off the radio and I was manically depressed. So I was just getting hookers and all that stuff and writing about it in a blog form and was hoping to turn it into a book someday. But this one, I said, ‘Okay, I have to actually write a book.’ So, I hired a girl to do some research for me ‘cause you know, I wanted to get the facts correct and…I got a lot of information on these people [because if] you’re going to rip on these people, you should have some of the facts.

The book is very funny and it’s great because that’s who you are; honest and mean when you have to be.
Yeah, because all you can do is tell the truth. I mean, I’m not always right. Too many comedians are obsessed over being right and being politically brilliant and poignant and they end up just boring everybody. They think they should go on Fox and CNN and talk brilliantly and it’s like, ‘Shut the fuck up. You don’t have to be right. You’re allowed to express your opinion, but be funny with it. You’re going to be right half the time and wrong the other half and that’s the way it is for most of us.’

As a comic, I’m not afraid to blast people and be wrong and be corrected even. I’m not always going to say the right thing. I hate when people say you have a responsibility. No, I don’t. My job is to be funny and I don’t have to think for other people and I don’t allow other people to think for me. I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s opinion. I just try to make people laugh and I don’t need to agree with you to laugh at a joke. I’ve listened to Paul Mooney many times. He’s black and he’s radical and I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but he makes me laugh. So if I hold myself to those standards, why shouldn’t I hold other people to them?

You have a lot going for you now, besides the book; you had a new show this Fall on HBO, Down and Dirty. How was that experience?
Well, it was great, I mean HBO gave us four episodes. We may do more. I actually talked to the president of HBO yesterday. What he’ll do, I don’t know. Those guys never play their hands, but he was complimentary about the show so if we don’t go, it wasn’t like ‘Hey, he thought it sucked!’ I just don’t know.

Was that reaction different from the one you got with Lucky Louie?
Yeah, in the sense that my name is on this one, but there was producers and stuff picking the acts. I didn’t really have any structural control, but HBO said we wanted to make sure people know it’s a comedy show, so how about we just call it Down and Dirty with Jim Norton? I mean, I’d have to be a moron not to say no to that.

And Lucky Louie was written by a bunch of great writers, but it was a fun project because if something wasn’t working, Louie’s a stand-up so [a lot of times] we could just try things at rehearsal and laugh or we would do a live taping and [when it’s] comics just doing the same jokes in front of the audience, you don’t feel comfortable doing it, so we had to redo something [and] a lot of times Louie would go, ‘You got anything else?’ and we’d try a second line to try to get a natural laugh out of the audience. That’s why I loved doing Lucky Louie and I really was furious they didn’t give us a second season.

Yeah, a lot of people were. It wasn’t like this happy-go-lucky environment like Friends.
Yeah, it wasn’t a bunch of good-looking people in beautiful apartments. The critics are such faggots. I mean, they like to look at an overly done set. You watch a show like Two and a Half Men— who lives in places like that?! I mean, who has a fucking decoration every eighth of an inch? Lucky Louie was [shot] on a dumpy apartment; there was no sweetening of the laughs, it was all live. The audience’s live reactions were totally real so if a joke didn’t do well, some jokes got little laughs and other ones got massive laughs.

But people have become so accustomed to sitcoms softening and sweetening the laughs and then balancing them, so it sounds like a production and using a laugh track. And Groucho Marx said that what has ruined comedy is the laugh track because it doesn’t have to be funny. A laugh track is a disgusting, cheating thing. You’re putting in fucking laughs where they may or may not belong. It’s fucking really irritating so we never ever used that.

I remember Louis C.K. saying how he would tell the audience, don’t “fake-laugh” at anything.
Absolutely. There’s so much pressure from the audience by people who are not usually performers— like when they want to get wide shots of the crowd clapping and fake laughing so they can edit better. I went nuts when they were taping Down and Dirty cause [I was saying] ‘What the fuck are you doing, making the crowd fake-laugh for? That’s so nonsensical.’ People know what to do when they hear something funny— they laugh. If they don’t think it’s funny, they won’t laugh. But it’s a problem in comedy in general that permeates the business is that people just have to spoon feed because they’re just so afraid of something not getting a laugh [but] that’s what comedy is. Sometimes it’s great and brilliant and other times, it’s mediocre and it misses. So let people see it for what it is.

It’s great that there’s a show out there where comics aren’t dumbing it down for the audience. Is it important to you to expose more people to this kind of cringe comedy?
Well, to me, it’s amazing how this type of comedy isn’t being represented right now on any real channel. To me, it’s like there’s so many great styles: there’s alternative, dirty, political. And to me, none of them are better or more pure than the other. They should all be represented in some form. But I like to see edgier or dirtier comedy. Other people might prefer Brian Regan or Jerry Seinfeld—and that’s good! But there’s this allusion that people who don’t curse are doing a higher form of the art— and they’re not. Pryor cursed. Carlin cursed. Woody was a genius and he didn’t curse. So it doesn’t make you better or worse for not being dirty. As long as you’re original, I think that’s the most important thing.

The general television audience is exposed to things like Last Comic Standing so they think ‘Oh, that’s what comedy is.’ Do you think this show might change the audience’s mind about what comedy is?
Well, people did watch it. We did pretty well with the ratings. We didn’t get a whole lot of promotion and we knew we wouldn’t. And in the final episode, Patrice O’Neal’s episode, they almost doubled…well, maybe not doubled, but almost 40 percent higher ratings. It was a huge jump so it made me feel like it was due to word of mouth. These people are catching on, liking it, and it had very good On-Demand numbers. So people definitely did watch it so I would love to do more. But to me, edgy is not necessarily dirty. It can be, but it can also just be social commentary or any of that stuff, it doesn’t have to be dirty.

There isn’t really a large representation of this kind of comedy where comics are being honest and not doing cutesy, easy things like Last Comic Standing.
Well, Last Comic Standing is a network show, it features new comedians, and it’s totally aimed at a different, broader audience and they’d get 10, 15 million people and I’ll never get those kind of numbers because our humor is aimed at a different audience.

Do you think this show might change people’s views on comedy or maybe “convert” them to watching this style of comedy?
No, because I don’t think there is a one thing of what it should be. Do I watch Last Comic Standing? No, because it’s a little too cutesy for me. I don’t know if my show will convert people, I just want to bring people this kind of humor because I think there are a million of them out there. I mean, pornography is the biggest selling video industry out there, it’s a billion dollar a year industry, so don’t tell me people don’t enjoy a darker side of life.

Did HBO approach you with this idea or did you come to them?
Well one of my managers is one of the producers of the show and my managers also produce Little Britain, so they went to HBO with the idea. And I wasn’t the guaranteed host. My manager suggested me, but it was ultimately HBO’s call. And luckily, I got the gig. It helped obviously having my managers produce it.

Did you have a lot of say on the show, in terms of which comics get booked or anything else artistically?
Not really. I gave a rough idea of what I wanted the set to be but there’s so many producers who deal with all this shit and as times goes on, if more episodes are shot, the better off we’ll be and maybe then I can say more. But there wasn’t anybody on it that I didn’t want on it. But there’s so many comedians that I did want on, like my friends of course: Otto and George I would have loved to have on it [or] Pete Correale. But there were people from L.A that they put on like Anthony Jeselnik who turned out to be fucking fantastic. So those are guys I would’ve looked over because I didn’t know them. The producers had the total control over that.

Do you think this could span into a tour?
I would love to do a tour. Dice wanted to tour…and the reason I haven’t is because I was putting certain shows around book promotion. Like Boston, New York, and New Jersey. But I would love to do a tour with Dice [and other comics]. My book comes out today and Artie Lange’s book comes out next week so I would love to go out and do gigs with Artie some day. Even though there’s been fighting between the shows [O&A and Howard]…there’s not anymore because we’re all with the same company now, like no one’s fucking angry anymore.

Would you want the taping to be in New York or bounce around a little bit?
Well, I would want it to be in New York because I like a certain mentality of the audience. L.A. crowds are nicer, they’re good-looking, but here [with the] Opie and Anthony fans, the Stern fans, they’re animals and that’s what I want [for] this type of humor. I don’t want a pretty crowd. I shot an hour for HBO about a year and a half ago in D.C. and they seek the audience for the shows and I said, I don’t want a bunch of great looking couples up in the front. That’s not my audience. My audience are misfits, they’re single guys.

Is there anything else you haven’t accomplished yet that you’d like to?
I’d like to obviously be on a show that lasts for more than one season. I did one line in Kevin Smith’s movie so I would love to do more than one line a movie. My acting is mediocre, I’m not an actor, I’m a fucking stand up, you know? I’ll do acting if it’s right for me, but I can’t just go and play the fun-loving neighbor because it’s simply not my nature and it would come off as phony. I would love to do a little bit more with that stuff and I want the radio show to keep going. But I hope people like the book.

Live photo at Comedy Cellar, NYC by Heidi Kikel.

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