I first heard of, and saw, Jim Norton in a smallish late-night room at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal in 2003. The producer explained that all the comics must stick to their relatively short times—with the exception of Norton, who could go as long as he liked. Who was this guy?
He was a powerhouse, it turned out. He went for at least an hour and slayed. This was a guy I obviously needed to pay attention to. But with his risqué talk about his sexual proclivities and his constant search for lines of decency to cross, it was unlikely I’d ever see him on television.
How wrong I was. Norton started turning up regularly on, of all places, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, generally thought to be the most milquetoast of the late-night talk shows.
“But they weren’t,” Norton insists over the phone from a New York City taxicab. “They edited me less than Letterman did. They were more liberal with language and all that stuff than any other show I did.”
It was a risk for The Tonight Show to give this potentially troublesome comic airtime, and it was scary for Norton, too.
“I think they just have to see that you’re able to do the gig and that you’re able to be clean,” he says. “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.’ ”
He had 14 years under his belt by this point, and so was accomplished enough to pull it off. Now, through all his credits on TV, film, and radio, his two books, and seven standup specials, he’s seemingly done it all. But he’s never played Vancouver before. He vacationed here in 1990, the year he first tried standup, but hasn’t been back since. Until now.
“Best-looking people I’ve ever seen in my life were in Vancouver,” he says. “So I’ve been dying to get back.”
With all his work across the media landscape, you’d think his live performances would suffer. But they, in fact, spur him on.
“It aids because it’s making you think of stuff,” he says of the output overload. “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.”
Did I mention the self-deprecation? He’s also a master at that, which comes into play when discussing aspects of his life most people would be too mortified to bring up in any company, mixed or otherwise.
“I try to be really open because I hate the shame associated with certain things,” he says. “It’s very freeing to discuss stuff.”
On his Kneeling Room Only tour, Norton will delve into such light topics as the 45th president of the United States, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, #metoo, the sexual history of men, and women being creeped out by men. And a whole lot on his own personal life.
As of yet, he hasn’t found a way to get into the subject of his friend Louis C.K., who finds himself out of work after admitting to a history of private masturbation shows for unwitting viewers.
“To me, Harvey Weinstein is much more interesting to talk about because there’s such a variety of behaviour,” he says. “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.”
While many believe C.K.’s career is kaput, Norton, who starred on C.K.’s TV series Louie for 10 episodes, thinks otherwise.
“I think that he’s good enough and honest enough to talk about what happened and to give a really, really honest point of view on it,” he says. “I do think he has a future, of course.”
Jim Norton’s Kneeling Room Only tour plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (March 2) as part of the JFL NorthWest comedy festival.