“By keeping prostitution illegal because we find it morally objectionable,” writes comedian Jim Norton in Time magazine, “we allow (or, more accurately, you allow) sex workers to constantly be put into dangerous situations.” I hate to use the words “raw” or “edgy” when describing comedians because most often that is code for “likes to say dick a lot, and that’s about it,” but in Norton’s case, I can use it legitimately. Norton, who will be at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (1701 Fourth Street SW) on Saturday, July 18, has a kind of comedy that is raw in that it tears at your nerve endings and edgy in that it makes you feel like you’re on the brink of a cliff.
Norton knew he wanted to be a comedian from a young age. “It’s all I ever wanted to do after I saw Richard Pryor when I was 12,” he says. Years later he went on stage for the first time and made his childhood dreams come true. “I was about 21, and I was in a relationship that was falling apart and figured she’d think I was cool if I went on stage,” he says. “And I did, but our relationship still ended.” Despite this heartbreak, Norton continued with comedy and seemed to be better for it. “People have these little dreams we keep secret,” he says. “The fact that I was forced into trying it just made it a reality.” And though he may have gone on stage on a whim for a girl, he stayed with comedy. For Norton, being a comic is something he really wanted to work on and admits it still surprises him that he’s made a career out of it. “I always think I’m going to wake up and realize, ‘you’re not really doing this, you fucking idiot.’”
On stage, Norton talks about his failures and inner demons, like his sex addiction. “I think it’s honest, and it’s self deprecating. You get my real opinion, and I try to explain why I feel a certain way,” he says. “I’m honest about myself and what’s wrong with me.” Because of this grisly sincerity, Norton is the subject of critique amongst internet bloggers who he says are obsessed with being PC. “Political correctness is, in a nutshell: ‘I’m not going to tell you what I think. I’m going to tell you what I think you want to hear,’” says Norton. “It’s our job in the media to tell the truth, and people obsessed with [being] PC don’t always do that.” Although he isn’t a PC proponent, Norton does admit it may have its place. “I think [political correctness] was born out of good motives. People want to right the wrongs. They want to uphold the people who have been pushed down by the system. I think the intent is good,” he contends, “but I think actions mean more than words.”
Norton has a kind of comedy that is raw in that it tears at your nerve endings and edgy in that it makes you feel like you’re on the brink of a cliff.
This is a common argument in the comedy world. There is a split between comics who are “anti-P,” the way Norton defines it, and comics who say words matter and try to stop a growing trend towards offensive comedy. Norton isn’t convinced that comedy has changed all that much; it’s just maybe shifted a little. “The sacred cows have changed; that’s about it,” he says. “In the 1950s you couldn’t make fun of the Catholic church, and you could do whatever you wanted to with Islam. Now you can’t touch Islam. You couldn’t talk about homosexuality; now you can.” Norton sees this shift as being a common theme in the history of our country. “America has always been a place where there are certain things we hold up and don’t allow to be ridiculed. They just change from time to time,” he says. “We are basically the same sensitive assholes we were in the ’50s. We’re not more advanced.”
Comedy might not be different, but perhaps the American public has changed, or at least changed how we receive information. Rather than it being a product of shittier people, Norton says that the trend toward being offended is that we now see every mistake people make out of context without any chance for them to make amends. “It’s immediacy. It’s the thing in the bar that gets you punched in the face. You can act immediately,” says Norton. “All of us are guinea pigs right now, and instead of giving each other contextual breaks, we allow each other to be crucified for small mistakes out of context.” If nothing else, Norton is authentic. He reaches into the depths of his neurosis, takes out those guts and spreads them all over the stage, radio airwaves and the printed page.