Jim's Still Frank
Underground comic Jim Norton has changed the way he looks but not the way he speaks his mind
Jim Norton has long been the face of sin and vice in the comedy community. Ribald, crude, and slick, his stand-up often feels like it was co-written by early Howard Stern and the unmarried version of Bill Burr. But Norton's gradual evolution from underground comic to character actor to co-host of SiriusXM's Opie With Jim Norton show has recently brought him to higher ground, with starring roles in festival films and a new national tour, "Mouthful of Shame," that arrives at the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival Saturday, April 23. He spoke to the Chronicle about the tour, his health, and his upcoming projects.
Austin Chronicle: I saw that you were in a SXSW film, From Nowhere, and you have some big roles in upcoming films like Pitching Tents. I can remember seeing you act in small things here and there for years, but it seems like you've finally hit your stride, right?
Jim Norton: There was a moment around 2003 or '04 when things started to pick up, and I could feel that there was momentum. But I always feel like my career is horrible and I am literally invisible; that is what keeps me moving. I never really feel like things are going great. I'm one step from being driven out of this business.
AC: That cannot be true anymore. You've started to earn street cred. I mean, you're always in Louie.
JN: Well, I'm always grateful whenever somebody recognizes something I've done.
AC: Can you remember the project that made you feel like you were visible in the industry for the first time?
JN: It's hard to say exactly. The effect is more a cumulative thing. Like I'd do a small thing for television, and that felt like I was poking my head through the clouds ... until I would just fall back again. [Laughs] A lot of this is just my perception, you know? I tend to think that everyone else is doing better than me and that I'm a nobody. It is a great thing to think like this when I realize, "Oh, there's so much work to be done!" But then there are other times when I realize I'm delusional and think I've done nothing in my entire twentysomething-year career. Actually, I think it is going okay.
AC: On Louie, we got to watch you transform physically, and now you look better than anyone who's been a fan of yours for years has ever seen you look. How have your weight loss, your increase in fitness, and the improvement in your health factored into the work you've been getting?
JN: It makes me feel better about myself, for sure. But I don't get "leading man" stuff – I like to think that I would have gotten the roles I am now getting anyway. Usually, it's a case of someone saying, "We like Jim – let's use him!" Nothing that I do is looks-contingent, thank God.
AC: How has your renewed body image changed both your current act and your comedy in general, if at all?
JN: I always talk about where I am at and whatever it is that's happening to me mentally anyway. Body image is certainly one of the things I think about, but now that my body looks decent, I have other aspects of myself that need to be broken down. For example, I still talk about my enjoyment of transgender women and questioning my own sexuality. I still have a point of view about that, even though I might think, "Okay, I won't be talking about my fat tits this year."
AC: There was a time when a lot of what you talked about seemed vile or disgusting to some people. The first time I heard you perform, I was driving through Los Angeles with my dad and you were doing a bit on the radio about being pissed on. We were laughing hysterically, but at the time I think it was a bit much for my dad, who's from an older generation. Now, if you talk about being urinated on by a transgender prostitute, people are like, "So what? Get on board. We all love Transparent."
JN: It is actually so nice to see people turning the corner on that stuff and not being so freaked out by what they think is different from themselves. It's like anything else: The more people talk about their sexuality, the more it becomes normalized. Then people are less surprised when they hear about it, which is very good.
AC: Has the fact that American society is turning a corner on transgender and queer issues normalized your perception of yourself? Do you see yourself as being "just a guy" nowadays?
JN: In all honesty, I have no respect for the way society sees things, and society does not dictate whether or not I enjoy anything. There are so many people that enjoy things they can't talk about. I understand that an attorney can't go into the workplace and start talking about the different kinds of porn they watch. As a comedian, you have a certain amount of freedom that most jobs don't have. I'm happy when people come around, but I also liked Black Sabbath long before they were in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
AC: Do you ever get people saying, "Jim, gosh, I wish you wouldn't talk about that!" when you tour?
JN: I'm sure I do, but I never notice it, probably because people are smart enough not to yell that out. I hope so, at least. I haven't had any unpleasant experiences like that in a while. I don't even really get emails like that; no one is writing to me, "Hey, you faggot, kill yourself!" Now, do people feel those aggressive feelings at what I'm saying, and not vocalize them? Probably. "Hey, you faggot, kill yourself!" It's like, enough, Dad.
AC: Austin is moving the direction of Nashville, where things that were once culturally cool and exciting are being over-celebrated and gentrified. As a result, some people who once defined an "alternative" scene here, like Maggie Maye or Martha Kelly, are moving toward the comedic center. You are also an acquired taste as comedians go, so I'm wondering where you find your strongest centers of fandom and praise around the country.
JN: The places where they get more sensitive are also the places that are, quote-unquote, progressive. So in places like Boston, Philly, Cleveland, you'd think that these hardcore white, male audiences would say "fuck you" to the stuff that I admit to onstage. Yet they respond very well to it. It's the more "progressive" places that tend to get more sensitive. In L.A., I don't do too well at all. Portland, I do okay but not great. Places where Patton Oswalt would sell out, basically.
Jim Norton performs "Mouthful of Shame" Sat., April 23, 7:30 & 9:30pm, at Stateside at the Paramount, 719 Congress. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.