“There are some lovely girls at that table! Delightful! Did you see the young blond one? Woooowwww!”
Jim Norton had never been to lunch at Michael’s—the outlandishly priced Manhattan restaurant populated by media types, literary agents, moguls and celebrities—so who could blame him for gawping at the sparkling Glamour magazine table a few feet away?
You wouldn’t know it to look at him—he’s a diminutive, shaved-headed, round-faced guy in a fading black T-shirt adorned with the word “PRIDE”—but Norton is one of the more popular comedians working.
Actually, he’s a star.
At 46, Norton has parlayed a lucrative career in standup into a regular (abeit suddenly uncertain) gig on the Opie & Anthony radio program, dozens of guest shots on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno along with appearances on Letterman, Kimmel and Fallon, comedy roles in sitcoms and movies, HBO specials, a couple of best-selling books, and, as of this week, hosting duties on his own eponymous talk show that just launched on Vice.com.
And yet Norton—who by most measures is wildly successful—seems to feel uncomfortably out of place in this suave, self-satisfied venue; he keeps apologizing for not dressing up. Apparently he’s serious.
When CBS This Morning co-anchor Norah O’Donnell arrives for the Glamour lunch and glides past our table to take her seat, his eyes go wide.
“Is she married?” he asks in a tone of awe.
“Yes,” I answer. “But does that stop you?” “It stops them.”
He wears a furtive grin.
“I dated someone for almost three years and we broke up two or three years ago,” Norton confides. “I like being single. I miss the friendship sometimes. I don’t miss waking up with somebody. I like being alone in the morning. I get bored very easily. And I’m a pervert. I like hookers and I like weird sexual things—not that any of that’s terrible if you can find somebody who’s interested.”
Since indelicate sex jokes are central to Norton’s hilariously transgressive shtick, I ask if it’s true that, as fellow standup Jim Florentine once suggested during a typically filthy roast of Norton at Caroline’s years ago, that he likes his partners to deposit a hot lunch on his chest.
“I’m not that crazy!” He adds with a giggle: “I do enjoy cider.”
Needless to say, Norton’s brand of humor is not for everyone, though he seems perfectly suited to the off-kilter, gritty sensibility of Vice, where The Jim Norton Show is enjoying a summer test-drive, initially online.
His laser-like focus on the absurdities of bodily functions, the hypocrisies of the so-called “language police” and the politically correct culture of coerced apology, the deluded vanities of celebs and their preening handlers, and the lacerating humiliations (almost always his own) offered up by human existence, has little in common with the puckish observational spiel of Bill Cosby or, for that matter, the eye-rolling sarcasm of Jerry Seinfeld.
Perhaps surprisingly, Norton speaks with near-reverential admiration about a late-night comic who seems—at least in terms of his public persona—Norton’s polar opposite. “Jay Leno was so good to me,” he says, adding that he wonders what Leno has been doing since he passed the Tonight Show mantle to Jimmy Fallon in February. “Jay is such a workhorse, I’m guessing he’s working on his cars. He’s such a good guy. When I’ve struggled with something, I’ve talked to him about it, and he always gave amazingly good advice. He knows how to survive in a very fierce environment.”
From Norton’s first moment onstage during open mike night at the Varsity Pub—a well-known hangout for comics in central New Jersey, where Norton, at 21, lost his standup virginity in April 1990—“I was dirty,” he recalls fondly. “I was a pig. I was a real pig.” He continues: “The weird part was hearing my voice projected back at me”—a noise much louder than laughter. “I wouldn’t say ‘crickets,’ ” he adds about the audience’s reaction to his inaugural routine. “It should have discouraged me from coming back, but it didn’t.”
The talk show came about after Norton’s Los Angeles-based manager, Jonathan Brandstein, invited Vice Media co-founder Shane Smith to spend a weekend at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J., where Norton regularly lures thousands of loyal fans to see his act and purchase his merchandise. “Colin Quinn says it’s like a Turkish bazaar,” Norton says, quoting his fellow A-list comic about the sheer volume and variety of Jim Norton products that are hawked offstage.
Vice’s Smith, who has established himself as something of a genius, if not an idiot savant, when it comes to channeling the Zeitgeist, quickly recognized Norton’s potential. “It took a while to get going because Vice is so busy. Those guys are exploding. They’re getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Norton says. “We shot four episodes. I thought they went really well. Usually I hate everything I shoot. But this, I was happy with. I like the fact that they kinda let me do what I want to do. If it bombs, it’s my fault. There’s no one I can blame but myself.”
The idea behind The Jim Norton Show—whose debut features a mix of monologue, sketch, and a couch-side chat with Mike Tyson and Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White—is to tear down the conventions of fake showbiz promotion and reveal the beating of its hideous heart. Norton’s sidekick is the decidedly un-Ed McMahon-like Bailey Jay, a transgender porn star who wears a tight, skimpy dress, is designated the show’s “Official Girl” and towers over the host. “My balls are getting stuck,” Bailey Jay complains at one point, crossing and re-crossing her mile-long legs.
“We wanted to do an uncensored talk show,” Norton explains. “It’s not even about the language. Traditional TV is built on sound bites and seven-minute clips. Nobody says anything genuine anymore. It’s all so, ‘tell us about the project, oh it was a lot of fun, everybody was great,’ and they’re selling a product—which is fine, but I can’t watch that shit, man. It drives me crazy.”
Norton elaborates: “I watched Ryan Seacrest interview what’s his name whose record is bombing? Robin Thicke! After Ryan asked a couple of questions that weren’t even that personal, Robin said, ‘Well, I’m gonna keep that private.’ Dude, you’re doing a fucking record called Paula to get your wife back, and then certain questions are private? Arrrgh! What a douchebag! No wonder nobody likes you! I hate that awful surface conversation where you can’t touch on certain things.”
Notice to future guests on The Jim Norton Show: Be prepared to bare all or don’t even come. Among the brave souls who so far have confessed everything to Norton’s audience in upcoming episodes are "Freeway" Rick Ross, a former drug dealer turned anti-drug evangelist, and comedians Whitney Cummings and Dave Attell. But nobody is more committed to brutally honest full-disclosure than Norton himself.
If comedy is born of pain and misery, he has already experienced more than his share. The son of a librarian and a truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service—his father was an ex-Marine and Army reservist—Norton describes a childhood in North Brunswick, N.J., filled with self-loathing, leavened by his ability to make his friends laugh.
“I was obsessed with my hair. I hated my hair because I had cowlicks,” he says. “I always wore a hat. They were gonna throw me out of high school because I wouldn’t take my hat off. But it was just a deep insecurity about my awful hair.”
He started drinking—heavily—at age 13. “Mostly vodka and grain alcohol, because that got you really drunk, really fast,” he says. “That feeling of discomfort that was always there, wasn’t there when I drank. It was just a way of feeling comfortable. I didn’t analyze it at that point. I was horribly insecure, horribly shy, always feeling ugly and weak. And it just made you feel better. Beer muscles.”
At age 16, Norton tried his hand at suicide. “They weren’t real suicide attempts,” he says. “I was a cutter. It was attention-seeking stuff. It was ‘notice me!’ crap. I was 16, 17, and drunk. I never did that stuff sober. The last time was 1985, New Year’s Eve, going into ’86.”
Understandably alarmed, Norton’s parents took him out of school and sent him to a rehab facility in Princeton, N.J., where he continued to sneak alcohol during the month he spent there, but also picked up some self-awareness that ultimately helped him stop drinking a year later. He never graduated from high school, though, and he missed out on the distinction of being voted Class Clown.
“When they voted on the awards, I was in rehab for razor-cutting,” he says. “It was kind of hard to give the Class Clown award and send a photographer to fucking rehab to take a picture of me sitting there in front of the 12-step person.”
Eventually Norton got sober and stayed that way. These days he keeps healthy in body and mind by seeing two different physical trainers four times a week—“both attractive women,” he reports—and a psychological therapist, also a woman, once a week, something he’s been doing for the past 25 years. “I once had a therapist fall asleep on me,” he says. “That really wrecks your self-esteem. I never went to a male therapist after that.”
By any reasonable analysis, Norton’s self-esteem should be soaring. His career is chugging along on all cylinders. He has plenty of money, plenty of options. He’s much in demand, having been asked to deliver the keynote address Thursday night at the Montreal Just For Laughs comedy festival—a signal honor in his business.
And yet, Norton says ruefully, “You know the old expression: ‘Wherever I went, there I was.’ ” He continues: “I have meltdowns a lot. Part of it is that I’m afraid if things are good, I won’t know how to handle that. I’m afraid if I start to enjoy life, the rug will be yanked out from beneath me. It’s a stupid, self-fulfilling prophecy. I have depression a lot. I’m always tail-spinning myself. It’s like I feel good about something, and then a couple of things go wrong, and I convince myself that the only answer is to jump off the Queensborough Bridge.”
As if suddenly remembering the purpose of this lunch, Norton adds brightly: “I feel very positive about the Vice show!”