"The way I look at it is I don't do any one thing particularly well so it's good to have a whole bunch of things that you're juggling. So if somebody hates you in one area, they can give you a shot in another."
– Jim Norton
Guy MacPherson: Where are you right now?
Jim Norton: I'm in New York right now.
GM: I don't recall you ever coming to Vancouver before.
JN: I've never been there, no. I was there on vacation when I was like 21 in 1990. I have not been there since.
GM: What did you do here? Who did you come with?
JN: Just a bunch of people from New Jersey that went on vacation. We popped in for a couple of days. I had a good time. We just hung out for a couple of days. Best looking people I've ever seen in my life were in Vancouver. So I've been dying to get back.
GM: That's us, what can I say? I first saw you in 2003.
JN: Oh, you did?
GM: Yeah. I'm just wondering where your career was in 2003.
JN: It's funny you should ask that. As you and I are talking I'm just hugging Colin Quinn goodbye. In 2003 I was on Tough Crowd. I'd been on the radio show and we'd gotten thrown off the radio in New York so I was on that Comedy Central show that Colin hosted.
GM: I was in Montreal. You did JFL that year, right?
JN: 2003? I don't remember. I've done it so many times, I don't remember that year, honestly.
GM: I remember being in this room. It was upstairs and it was late at night. I heard the producer telling the person who gives the light, "Everyone gets x minutes... except Jim Norton. He comes on at the end and can do as long as he wants."
JN: I don't even remember that, but again, I don't remember what show it was. I have no memory. But I've gone up so many times to the festival. And now JFL is in Vancouver, they're in Toronto, they do Australia. JFL is everywhere. It's one of the best comedy festivals in the world because you can go to ten different cities.
GM: But this is also part of your tour. You'd be here whether there was a festival or not, right?
JN: Oh, I would, yeah. This just saves me advertising money. Festivals are always better to do because they advertise for you.
GM: Your tour is called Kneeling Room Only. Where'd you get that from?
JN: Honestly? Someone said Standing Room Only and it made me sick so I just said the opposite to be obnoxious and one of the comedians I was with liked it. So I'm like, I'll just go with that. It had nothing to do with the NFL, there was no political statement to it. There really was no reason. I wish I had like a really smart answer for you but I don't.
GM: On your special, you say you're not "mainstream famous like Kevin Hart" but you get a lot of mainstream gigs. Given your subject matter through the years, did you have to go out of your way to prove yourself early on that you weren't going to derail things or get them in trouble.
JN: Yeah, I think they just have to see that you're able to do the gig and that you're able to be clean. But the first Tonight Show you do, it's always scary. Or the first Letterman or any late-night show. But once you do it once, you start to realize, 'Oh, okay, I can just change this and change that and it'll work on TV.' But yeah, for a long time, I mean, I was doing comedy for fourteen years before I did a Tonight Show. It helps to be ready and have some experience.
GM: Who was it that took that first risk – even though it wasn't a risk, it turns out – with you, knowing what kind of club comic you were?
JN: The Tonight Show. I would say Leno and The Tonight Show did because they were the first real late-night show... I mean, Dice Clay took me on tour but as far as TV is concerned, it would definitely be The Tonight Show.
GM: It's funny because Jay and The Tonight Show back then had the reputation of being kind of bland.
JN: But they weren't. They edited me less than Letterman did. They were more liberal with language and all that stuff than any other show I did.
GM: Who are some comics you love that haven't it huge in a broader sense, but maybe well-respected within comedy circles?
JN: The guys I love the most, I love, of course, Dave Attell, Quinn. Those guys are famous guys, though. But I would say Dave Attell and Colin Quinn are probably two of the funniest guys. Michael Che is very funny, too, but again he's getting very, very famous very, very fast. I don't watch many guys, to be honest, because I'm on the road. When I go to the Comedy Cellar, which I was just at doing a promo video, I wind up leaving right after. I never watch other people. Keith Robinson makes me laugh really hard. Keith Robinson is a guy who Kevin Hart credits for really taking him under his wing and bringing him to New York. Keith, I think, is one of the most under-rated comics.
GM: I just figured out I had Amazon Prime yesterday and I couldn't stop watching Evening at the Improv. Some of the comics I knew, but some I had no idea of. They obviously had enough of a name to get this TV credit. But what happened to them? Some of them are great; some are terrible. But not everybody sticks with it. Are there comics that you were sure were going to hit it big but then dropped out of the business?
JN: You know, over the years, yes, there were, when you first start because you don't realize that a guy just getting laughs isn't enough. Maybe that guy's material is hacky or maybe he's doing cheap tricks to get laughs. When you're brand new, it's kind of hard to tell which guy is really great. I thought Otto & George was one of the funniest guys ever. He was a ventriloquist. I thought Otto & George should have been much more famous. I thought Patrice O'Neil should have been much more famous.
GM: He was just getting there.
JN: He was getting there, yeah. It's unfortunate he died right before it happened.
GM: You do radio, UFC, books, guest spots. Does all that stuff aid or hinder your standup?
JN: It aids because it's making you think of stuff. It keeps your mind moving. The way I look at it is I don't do any one thing particularly well so it's good to have a whole bunch of things that you're juggling. So if somebody hates you in one area, they can give you a shot in another.
GM: You do a ton of interviews, from both sides. Do you have more sympathy for us interviewers now than when you started?
JN: Well, you know, I've been doing it for so many years. To me the worst thing a subject can do is not answer your question. There are guys who want to give a loose answer, they don't want to address something. I think the worst part of doing an interview is with someone who's way too protective of something. When people are too protective, they clam up or they give bullshit answers and it's just very, very frustrating.
GM: That's never been your case, being too protective or your personal life.
JN: No, I don't think so, because I'm so filled with shame as it is that I don't need to be ashamed of my answers. If it's got a name, somebody's already done it. I'm not doing anything particularly crazy. So I try to be really open because I hate the shame associated with certain things. It's very freeing to discuss stuff.
GM: What about from an interviewer?
JN: The worst thing they can do is be robotic about your Wikipedia page, which means that they read it and they ask lazy questions. I don't mind someone who's a lazy interviewer if they're a good conversationalist, but when they're neither it can be frustrating.
GM: When it's questions one after another that don't link up at all?
JN: Exactly, and they're not even interesting questions and they leave no room for an interesting answer.
GM: Do people prep you on radio or do you do the research yourself? Or do you just rely on conversation?
JN: A little bit of both. We have a prep sheet with the interviews. Sometimes I like to learn not that much about the person I'm talking to. Like, I'll know something about them but it's kinda fun just to go in and have a conversation with them. My other guy is very prepared. I sometimes enjoy doing that and it's just more fun for me to ask questions – sometimes they're obvious questions. But you have to do some prep work.
GM: People that really love the guest will hammer you if you ask an obvious question but you gotta remember that some people don't even know who the guest is.
JN: Yes, that is very true so you have to ask certain questions that answer who they are, unless they're really famous, and why you're interviewing them – what are they promoting. One thing is people just want to plug their stuff but you gotta get people to give you an interesting interview first before they plug. This is not a six-minute TV spot; it's a 25-minute, 30-minute radio interview.
GM: The Larry King method was to do no research and just be an Everyman asking a question.
JN: We do a little bit of both. I've interviewed Larry a few times. I enjoy talking to him. He's a fascinating interview. But I never prepare for my Larry King interviews. Whenever I would have him on, I would just literally ask questions about, 'Hey, talk about Marlon Brando a little bit or Sinatra or people that you knew.' And he's got these great stories. The best guys you can interview are showbiz guys over 65. They're not afraid of screwing up. George Hamilton is one of the best interviews I've ever done because he doesn't give a shit. He's not afraid, he's not a coward. He's an old-school guy and he'll tell you anything you want to know. Those guys are the best.
GM: And he's not going to lose work now out of it.
JN: Oh, please, he's George Hamilton. You know what I mean? Guys like that, guys like Larry King, they're above it. They can say whatever they want.
GM: Worst people to interview?
JN: Sometimes reality show people. Actors can be great or they can be bad, it depends on what they're trying to protect. Athletes can be very bad because they're coddled and treated a certain way and they're not really a lot of fun in interviews. Some of them. Some of them are great. So I can't pick one genre that sucks. The worst people are people, like I said, who are protective and who are afraid to say the wrong thing.
GM: You're always very personal in your standup and you grew up in a fairly conservative house. What has your family said over the years, particularly before you really made it, about your subject matter on stage?
JN: I made them wait seven years before they came and saw it for the first time so I was already kind of okay by then. But they've been very, very supportive of my work and stuff like that. They're really great. I'm lucky to have that.
GM: They must be proud of your successes. And especially given your earlier troubles in your teens and early twenties, it's a relief that you're a success no matter what you're talking about.
JN: They're just happy I'm not a disaster. That really is the truth. They're just happy that my life doesn't suck and that I'm doing something decent.
GM: Why aren't you a disaster, given what you went through?
JN: I got sober young. I was very lucky. And I always wanted to do this. Once I started doing this when I was 21, I got so addicted to it that I realized I didn't want to make any bad decision to screw it up. Wanting to straighten my life out and then once it was straightened out, wanting to keep it straightened out is kind of why I never went back to it.
GM: There are a lot of addictions around show business and standup that could tempt you, so you always kept that goal in mind?
JN: Absolutely. Look, there's addictions everywhere. Every office, lawyers, guys on Wall Street all burn out when they're 30; half of them are doing coke and drinking. So it's any job. Look at the priesthood – it has plenty of alcoholism. So it's common everywhere. I think in show business it's just more acceptable because being a mess if you're a performer or a musician or whatever is okay because your job expectations, your job title is a little different.
GM: You talked a little bit about Cosby on your latest special. Are you going to talk about Louis, your buddy?
JN: The fact Louis got lumped in with Harvey Weinstein because he did a few stupid things... To me, Harvey Weinstein is much more interesting to talk about because there's such a variety of behaviour. I did talk about Louis a little bit but I didn't have any great jokes for it because we saw what the whole story was, whereas with Harvey Weinstein it's much more symbolic of what's the matter with Hollywood.
GM: People who just read headlines just assume Louis is a rapist.
JN: It's amazing how people just read the headlines. I don't know what to tell people who don't read the whole story. People hear what they want to hear and they see what they want to see. I was doing a bit last night, the bit I'm doing on Harvey Weinstein, and some woman interrupts and she's like, 'So you agree with gender roles?' What I was saying was the complete opposite; I was saying that we are raised with these things and the problem is that we're not honest with each other. So literally she just knee-jerk reactioned something and that's what social media is. People don't listen and they just react to one word out of a sentence.
GM: Have you checked in with Louis to see how he's doing?
JN: I have not talked to him, no. I talked to him the day before. We just had a regular conversation. So I hope he's okay. I mean, he's a guy I'm friends with for twenty years and I love him so I definitely want to talk to him. I haven't seen him around so hopefully I will see him.
GM: Do you think he's got a future in comedy?
JN: Yes, he definitely does. Because I think that he's good enough and honest enough to talk abut what happened and to give a really, really honest point of view on it. I do think he has a future, of course.
GM: You talk a lot about personal stuff. Do you also now venture into politics and Trump? Do you challenge your crowds with anti-anti-Trump stuff?
JN: Well, my crowds are 50-50 like the rest of the country. I'll talk about it but I never try to make fun of the thing that's obvious because to me that's just boring. I give an honest opinion on the things I like abut Trump and the things I don't like abut Trump. It's the same as I would with Obama or Bush or Clinton or any of those. To me, he's no different. His method of communication is poor but I don't think he's that much different than people think he is.
JN: Yeah, not at all. Not at all. A lot of politicians are able to put it into a certain palatable package and I think he's not as good at that. But when you look at his policies – deregulation, typical kind of conservative policies, undo what the last guy did, and if a Democrat is next, undo what Trump did. Most of those guys are cut from the same or similar mold. I like him a lot better than I like Mike Pence, I'll tell you that much. I talk about him for a few minutes but I don't go crazy with it because it gets boring.
GM:I don't think there's anything good with Trump but sometimes I see what everybody's railing about and to me it looks like it's just Trump trying to be funny and everyone takes it seriously.
JN: Yeah, they really do. One thing he's exposed is his blistering attacks on the press. I know you're in the press, and I am in a different way, but the fact that he calls them out for the fact that they want to operate with impunity and above being questioned is fantastic. They hate him because they can't control the narrative. I've been sick of the press for such a long time that I kinda like seeing somebody go after them. That I find very, very refreshing. Don't tell me that Obama didn't want to go after Fox, but he just didn't. So the fact that Trump goes after the press and calls them out, I respect a lot.
GM: Even though he just calls them fake?
JN: Yes, I think he's right in a lot of cases.
GM: Oh yeah?
JN: In a lot of cases, sure.
GM: I think the media may not like the fact they can't control the narrative but I don't think that's the reason they go after him.
JN: Maybe not. The bottom line is I would respect the press if they admitted their bias, but they don't. They want to operate like they're impartial and they're not. Everyone knows Fox is a conservative network. We can all see that. Just like CNN is more of a liberal network. I don't know why there's such shame in those labels. I think it's the lack of acknowledgement that they're coming from a biased point of view that bothers me so much.
GM: Everyone has biases.
JN: Yes, absolutely. But that's what the editorial page is for. An editorial is one thing, where a guy's giving an opinion, but when they're actually structuring and editing... Like what they did with that Japanese – and this is CNN, one of the biggest news organizations in the world – he goes over to Japan and he's following protocol, he's following the lead of the Japanese prime minister, and they try to make him look like a buffoon making it look like he just couldn't... Do you know the clip I'm talking about? Look up 'feeding the fish' clip. It sounds silly but it is basically what the press does where he's following what the Japanese prime minister does and they edit it to make it look like Trump was just a clumsy buffoon who had no respect for Japanese culture.
GM: Oh, I did see that. I saw that he started to feed the fish and then threw the rest of the food in the water.
JN: Yes, that's exactly it. Now watch the unedited clip where he's following exactly. He does feed them properly and then he watches what the Japanese prime minister does and then Trump just follows suit. He actually takes the other guy's lead. But they made it look a certain way and that's a very, very subtle non-earth-shattering example. Watch what they did. CNN is just repulsive. And I hate saying that because I really like Anderson Cooper, I like Don Lemon.
GM: Have you ever interviewed Trump?
JN: Yes. I did The Tonight Show with him once and I interviewed him on the phone. I like Trump. I know his son pretty well. As a person I enjoy talking to him. But I disagree with him. It was after bin Laden was killed and I gave Obama credit for having the guts to go into Pakistan, a nuclear country, without permission. And Trump goes, 'Any politician would have done that.' And I'm like, 'Well, no. Jimmy Carter took the hit when they died during a rescue mission, so Obama should get the credit because if it failed, Obama would get killed for it. Everybody would go after him.' Basically I was saying I thought it was a courageous call and I gave him credit for it, and Trump just wouldn't bend. I think I asked him, 'Can you name one thing that you liked that Obama has done?' And he said no. When you ask that question that bluntly, it shows how biased and unbending people are.
GM: Most of what we see from comedians is making fun of the buffoon.
JN: Yeah, and look, he says a lot of things that are make-funnable. One of the reasons he won the election is because so many Americans were arrogant and didn't understand what his real appeal was. They thought his appeal was a bunch of dumb rednecks going, 'Git him!' when the reality was he was a giant middle finger to the system and Bernie Sanders would have had a shot at beating him if he didn't get in line and get behind Hillary. The Democratic Party screwed him and he still got in line. There were pockets of Obama supporters who were Bernie supporters who voted for Trump because they were furious of the way Bernie got treated. That was what basically lost the election for her. And it was so funny how he was questioning the election results and she was saying we have to have a peaceful transfer of power, but he wins so he's not questioning it and she... They're all full of shit. So to think that he's different is silly. He's not. He operates in that circle better than most people because he was putting money into both sides so he knows intimately how they operate. But his Twitter sucks, let's be honest.
GM: What are you talking about in your tour?
JN: I do talk about Trump, I do talk about Harvey and metoo, I talk about Kevin Spacey, I talk about men and our sexual histories and about women being creeped out by men. And I talk a lot about my own personal life. It feels good. It's a brand new hour, which feels really nice because you get so bored of material so fast. I know I do. I shot this special and was very happy with it but I'm just happy to be on to new things.
GM: How long have you been doing this one?
JN: This one for about a year. The special I shot last December and I immediately dropped my act and started over in the Comedy Cellar.
GM:I look forward to seeing it and seeing you for the first time here.
JN: Good, man, thank you. Come up and say hello. It's been a fun interview. I appreciate it.