Talking to Jim Norton About Heckling, Canada and His New Talk Show on VICE

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Jim Norton’s unapologetic views on comedians’ right to free speech was an important talking point in his keynote address at the Just For Laughs festival this year, so it comes as no surprise that his willingness to embrace controversy has landed him a talk show on VICE. It’s quite an experiment not only for Norton, but for VICE, as well, who have yet to dabble in the format until now. We caught up with Norton in Montreal to talk about the new show, Canada, why hecklers are so awful and more.

Paste: I saw the first episode of your VICE Show and I really enjoyed it.
Jim Norton: Thank you.

Paste: How does writing for a talk show compare to writing new stand-up material? Is it just you writing for the show or are other people in the mix? How much preparation goes into writing the show?
Norton: I did a lot of writing for it. Kurt Metzger wrote for it. A guy named Jesse Joyce and a guy named John Kennedy helped with the monologue. We had a couple of writers but we were all kind of throwing it together because Vice has never done a talk show and I’ve never done a talk show. So we were just kind of feeling it out as we went along. But they gave me a lot of creative control. They didn’t edit my jokes. They didn’t bother with my monologues. No, “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” They were really great so it’s been fun. I love interviewing people and there’s another one coming out this week where I interview a guy named Freeway Rick. He’s the original Rick Ross who was a drug dealer in the ‘80s.

Paste: Wow, that’s very VICE.
Norton: It is very VICE. It was great. I talked to him in front of a live audience and we had a very good interview. He’s a fascinating guy.

Paste: How did you choose your co-host, Bailey Jay? I ‘d never heard of her before and then I looked her up. She’s got an interesting background.
Norton: Bailey is a transsexual porn star and she’s a friend of mine. I know her and her husband. I met them on a podcast that Robert Kelly did and she was a fan. I mean, I know the world of porn and I know a lot of people in it. We just became very friendly and I got along with her and her husband so well. Then when I was doing Opie and Anthony she’d come on once in awhile. People think that our audience is so hardcore, like ‘I’m homophobic,’ but they love Bailey.

Paste: Yes, in the first episode, Mike Tyson is open about his attraction to her. It was surprising.
Norton: Yeah a lot of men are attracted to her and it’s funny because you know, Bailey is so great and a lot of transsexual girls make you question what you thought you understood about yourself. Like, ‘Wow, I really am attracted to somebody I didn’t think I could be or didn’t think I would be.’ But she’s not on the show as a sideshow. She’s legitimately funny and really bright. I had an advice show that I did on the Opie and Anthony channel where people would just call in for addiction advice or whatever and whenever Bailey came on she’d give great sexual advice. The listeners loved her. So when I did this show on, I wanted her to be a part of it. I would like to utilize her more, but in the first four episodes she’s kind of the co-host and she introduces me. But they’ll be more with Bailey Jay. People demand it [laughs].

Paste: Who would you like to have on as guest in the future?
Norton: We want a tremendous amount of people. We had a hard time because we shot four episodes over two days, so people that I would love to have and that would do it couldn’t. I asked Ricky Gervais and he couldn’t because he wasn’t in New York. Seth Rogen I asked, but he wasn’t in New York. I asked Patton Oswalt…all these guys were out of town and they said, “Hey the week after I can do it,” but we weren’t shooting. There’s a million guys I would love to have on. Mike Tyson was the one I really wanted though, and both him and Dana White did tremendous favors by flying in. They were great together because they’re friends and Dana loves Mike. It was a fun a conversation.

Paste: Mike Tyson was surprisingly soft spoken.
Norton: I’ve interviewed him before on radio and he was really sweet. The more you talk to him, the more you realize that the perception about this guy is not what you thought it was. He’s more easily affected, more easily wounded by things than you think, just like we all are. He’s not that much different than anybody else. There’s these weird things that you wouldn’t expect from a guy that’s been perceived as ferocious as he is.

Paste: How do you split up your time between stand-up and the talk show? Does it get overwhelming?
Norton: It does get overwhelming but the way I do it is, when I was doing the VICE show, I did less road gigs. I still I did radio, but I pulled back on stuff. I can’t totally cut stuff out just to work on something. If the VICE show becomes a full time thing where we’re doing at least one a week, then I’m gonna have to make some decisions. Right now, I’d love to shoot another stand-up special. I still want to do radio. I like doing all that because I get in trouble when I’m left alone, but when I’m busy I feel good and I feel creative.

Paste: How many times have you done Just For Laughs?
Norton: I’ve done it maybe six or seven times. I’m not exactly sure.

Paste: Are there any places you like to go out while you’re here in Montreal?
Norton: No, I spend most of my time in the hotel. I wake up late because I don’t have to get up for radio. I usually just order room service. I’m weird on the road. I don’t like to get in trouble.

Paste: Do you ever go to the festival after parties? It’s so insane to me that people are out until 5 a.m. and can still perform the next day. Things get so wild at night here.
Norton: No I never go to them, not because I hate them but because everyone’s drinking and I don’t usually know where everyone ends up. People ask, “Were you at the party last night?” and I’m usually like, “No I wasn’t.”

Paste: Is there any difference between American and Canadian audiences? Are hecklers the same in every country?
Norton: The biggest killer to funny is hyper sensitivity to certain subject matter and Montreal is as guilty of that as L.A. or New York or San Francisco. All major cities are the same. People have the same sensibilities and they get afraid of the same subjects, groaning at the same things.

Paste: I haven’t heard any hecklers here.
Norton: No I haven’t gotten heckled at all.

Paste: I wonder if it’s a Canada thing. People are more polite.
Norton: Probably.

Paste: I’ve heard such terrible heckling in New York. Somebody does a joke and then an audience member will start yelling at them to get off the stage.
Norton: That should show you what a shit society we are, because the guy that does a joke that they don’t like…instead of just saying, ‘I didn’t like what he was performing. I’m gonna leave,’ what they did is the equivalent of watching a scene in a movie they object to and then getting up and tearing down the screen. They wouldn’t dream of doing that. They might walk outside and complain to the manager, but they would leave. People have this weird thing where they hear something they don’t like and they think they have the right to be heard. It’s not the way it works.

Paste: You talked about that in your keynote.
Norton: I did, yes and also in my stand-up special. It’s like if you’re in court, you can object and there’s a way to do it. But while a witness is talking, the defendant can’t just stand up and walk over and address him. It doesn’t work that way. But we’ve been taught that trigger words are hurtful. People have every right to be offended and find something repulsive, but to yell out in a public place like that and wreck a performance…like you think you’re part of the creative process? Who the fuck are you? Should everyone do that? If you do a Catholic church joke, should every Catholic in the audience yell out? If you mention Islam, should every Muslim in the crowd bang their glasses? Say you make a drunk driving reference like, “Boy was I drunk last night.” Should every mother who’s ever lost a child drunk driving scream at you? When you do that, when people justify that behavior, you are opening a can of worms that can’t be closed because everyone has things that are painful.

Anita Flores is the two time raffle-winning recipient of an iPod mini and a 25% off coupon to Bertucci’s. She has also written for Nerve and Portable TV. Follow her on twitter @anitajewtina.