Jim Norton on Media Hypocrisy, His New Special and His Transgender Co-Host

Jim Norton is an advocate of brazen uncompromising honesty. A comic's comic who honed his skills in the unforgiving rooms of New York city, Norton has developed a cult following over his long career. In addition to his longstanding co-hosting gig on the massively popular radio program The Opie Show (formerly Opie & Anthony) Norton has also turned up on comedy nerd favorites such as Louie and Inside Amy Schumer. Before the comic returns to Denver after a five year absence for a weekend of shows at Comedy Works Downtown, Westword caught up with Norton to discuss preparing for his next special, hypocrisy in the media and his former co-host Bailey Jay.

Westword: You’ve done Comedy Works a bunch of times, right?

Jim Norton: I’ve only done it once. It’s been about five years since I’ve been to Denver, to be honest with you. I didn’t realize. I thought it had only been two years. I lose track of time -badly, and I get so many emails from fans, telling me “hey dummy, you haven’t been here in a long time!” So they had an opening and it was just perfect timing to get back.

It’s a great club.

Yeah it is. I think Dave Attell shot something there, and every other comedian raves about it. I did it once and I remember loving it because of the nice low ceilings.

Dave Chappelle has done some surprise drop-ins there, and headlined a few “secret” shows on the weekends. His Salinger act is over now, so he’s showed up there kind of a lot lately.

Oh Really? Why’s he in Denver, I wonder?

The club? Who knows? Maybe the legal weed?

What a dumb question that was on my part! That’s exactly why. Does he advertise or just walk on?

Sort of. He headlines and people buy tickets. They don’t usually announce or promote it much because all the shows sell out within a few hours anyway.

Yeah, it probably just goes out to their mailing list or whatever.

Exactly. They find out about it before almost everyone else. Anyway, I didn’t realize it had been that long since you’d been out here.

I didn’t either until I looked at the calendar. I always look and see which markets I’ve been to just so I’m not repeating material; I always want to go someplace about once every year and a half. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been there since 2009.

Do you consider the Comedy Cellar your home club?

Yes. The Comedy Cellar is where I work on my material. I try stuff out because I’m very, very comfortable there. It can be an unforgiving room too, a lot of jokes bomb there.

It seems intimidating.

Well, after a while, so many famous walk-ins are there that people aren’t coming to see Jim Norton necessarily, so yeah, you can absolutely bomb.

Does it live up to its reputation as the place all these New York comics hang out with each other?

They don’t really hang out that much, maybe upstairs, but we don’t necessarily sit in the room and watch the show. Occasionally, like if Seinfeld goes on or Chappelle, or back when Robin Williams would come in. Then we’d go in and watch.

Are you concerned, or maybe back when you were starting, did you try to make other comics laugh, rather than say, drunks and tourists?

It was always nice. The comedians’ laughing kind of let me know that going in ther direction of self-deprecating honesty was the right move. But you’ve got to be careful. You can’t play to the back of the room. If you start doing that, you’re in deep trouble because you’re going to lose the regular audience.

Eventually, you’ll even lose them, because comedian can almost always smell a phony.

Comedians can absolutely smell a phony.

So, you’ve been pretty critical of the media in previous interviews.

Very critical. Yes. In some cases, not in all cases.

I do standup and I work in media, so I can understand your criticism. I usually tend to agree with the comedian’s argument, but not every time. I feel like people in the media absolutely have the right to respond to something they don’t like, but I feel like their righteous outrage overwhelms humor and doesn’t leave much room for irony. They’re off the mark a lot.

Yes they are. It just seems like they always take the predictable angle. Like with Anthony [Cumia, Norton’s former co-host on Opie & Anthony] they took the angle of “shock-jock says dirty thing,” instead of “shock-jock is assaulted and responds non-violently.” They take the ideologically predictable angle and it kind of drives me crazy.

Usually the more sensational one. A public personality behaving in a scandalous way is going to sell a lot more papers. Well, it’ll get more clicks, anyway. No one is selling newspapers.

It’s clickbait. And you know what, I’m criticizing the media, and then you get those guys that go overseas and go into a war zone to get a story, and there really is a difference between them and who I’m talking about.

And meanwhile bloggers get to work from the safety and comfort of our own homes. Fair enough. If someone’s legitimately offended offended by one of my jokes, they should feel free to say something about it after the show. I might be interested to hear it. Usually though, I find that the outraged people aren’t paying that much attention.

I’m not even interested when people are offended, to be honest with you. What’s it for? They include things in the story like “Jack on Facebook says...” Who gives a shit what Jack on Facebook says? That’s not part of the story! Man on the street reactions are total bulshit. “We can’t believe it happened in this neighborhood.” That’s not part of the story, but they make it part of the story and I don’t know why.

I think readers probably want to see themselves in a story. The man on the street helps people decide how to feel.

Well, the press asks a lot of questions. Questions like, “do video games cause violence?” Or “does comedy cause sexism?” But the story they never do is “how much do we contribute as the press?” After a school shooting, all they want to talk about is violent video games. They don’t want to talk about how they quoted the joker, and gave him what he wants by making him an anti-hero. Aren’t they contributing to the cycle of people who want to follow in his footsteps? They never do that story and that’s what bugs me about them. In full disclosure, they should really do that story.

Intentionally or not, they have given some awful ideas a platform, like when they publish entire manifesto.

FBI profilers and behavioral specialists all say that it really encourages people to commit these crimes, and it seems like the media is aware of that, yet they make the conscious decision to get the story out there. If they examined that, I’d respect them more. But they take the moral high ground if a comedian does a rape joke. Yet they won't call themselves out for their horrendous contributions.

There's definitely a moral relativism in the media. The internet media in particular, because it runs so fast.

Yeah, it's about getting it out there first instead of getting it right.

So, are you still doing The Jim Norton Show?

You know what, I don't know. Vice has indicated that they want to do more. They're building some huge office in Brooklyn, but because those guys have grown so gigantically so quickly, I just don't know how much time they're going to have. I hope so. I'd love to do it, I really like those guys.

You booked a lot of guests that wouldn't be considered traditional talk show guests. People like Rick Ross, or Mike Tyson. People with some controversial things to say. What made you decide to take that sort of approach?

Well, they're more interesting to me. A guy like Mike Tyson is a brutally honest guy. A guy like Dana White is also brutally honest. Same thing with Rick Ross, and I'm much more interested in those stories. Whitney Cummings was on because she's a friend of mine and I'd seen her interviews before and I always thought that she was the exact opposite of the way people would expect her to be in an interview. She's very self-doubting. She's a comedian! So I think that she was a very interesting guest. Dave Attell did me a favor. We booked him very last minute because Richard Linklater had to cancel. He had something in L.A. the night before and couldn't fly in, so Attell just did me a huge favor an jumped in there. To me, those are the people I always preferred interviewing on the radio. Most actors —not all, Ricky Gervais is amazing— but most of them are boring and they only want to talk a bout their dumb project. "The director was so much fun to work with..." Go fuck yourself, of course he was. They give you nothing. So I decided that I really wanted to talk to people who are going to be unafraid to just have a conversation, and those guys were awesome.

You can rely on comedians to know not to be boring. It's hard to believe anyone gives a shit about most talk show interviews, from the host and their guest to the audience at home, everyone is just sort of sleepwalking through everything. The late night apparatus is kind of absurd in that way, there's so much pomp and circumstance for something no one cares about. 

Well, and I'm not gonna out-Fallon Fallon, you know? Those guys are great at what they do, they're so smart with the viral videos. So I'm not going to try and compete with those guys. I'm not good-looking enough or charismatic enough. That's never going to be my specialty. 

How'd you end up working with your co-host Bailey Jay?

Bailey's been a friend of mine for quite a while. I always think Bailey is funny, she's come on my radio show and she's done my advice show. The fans love her. She's transgender, but she's also really intuitive and funny and she's an awesome guest. So I always thought that if I was going to co-host something, I'd love to do it with her. Also, so many straight guys look at her and go "oh my God. I like her." 

So they have some questions to answer for themselves?

Yes! She makes you question who you thought you were, what you thought you liked. She makes a lot of guys feel like, "Jesus, I never thought I would, but..." So, physically, I like that about her, but her personality is just great. 

You've been pretty outspoken about being into transgender women. Has that earned you a following among that community at all?

I don't know. I think they get just as mad at me if I say the word "tranny" as they would at anybody else. I've had a few come up to me and say "I like that you're not afraid to say that you like trans girls" but I don't know if I have a following. I haven't gotten any negative reaction. I guess some people don't like it, but who cares? If more people were honest about what they like, it wouldn't be so shocking to hear it. 

It doesn't seem like it should matter all that much, but there's probably nobody else who'd make her their co-host. 

She told me "thank you for not just having me do tranny things" which made me feel really good because that's never what I wanted to do. Talking about transgender stuff with her is interesting because she has that perspective and she has great input, but that's not something you can do in every episode. She has to be interesting, and she was.

You wouldn't want her to be like a mascot. 

Exactly, not at all. She brings such a great insight. I'm happy that she way available to do and I hope that she'll be available if I get to do it again. 

When you travel, do you usually prefer to bring a feature act with you, or do you let the club handle that?

It depends, you know? I've done both. Amy Schumer toured with me for quite a while. I've had other comedians. 

Are you on a tour or just here for the weekend?

Just the weekend, but I'm trying to get out more to do new material. My special comes out at the end of April, so I'm out now doing a lot of new material, so I can tour after the special comes out doing new material. We've already shot my hour, and I've probably got about 30 new minutes that weren't in the special. But the special won't have come out yet by the time I'm in Denver. 

That's pretty prolific. You just came out with a special not too long ago. 

I've done three specials in three and a half years, It's been a good, productive couple of years. I like to put out a lot of new material. I get bored easily, and I figure if I'm always putting out new material, I won't get bored. 

Do you know what you're going to call the next special yet? 

Yeah, it'll be called "Contextually Inadequate." It's coming out on Epix, who released my last special and then it'll be on Netflix. They're great, I love Epix. 

Norton is headlining from Thursday, April 2nd through Saturday, April 4th. Showtimes and ticket prices vary. Go to Comedy Works' website to buy tickets. 

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham