Jim Norton: Fighting Bull With Belligerence

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Jim Norton is in the middle of a promotional frenzy.

“I landed yesterday at 4 o’clock and I went directly to do Joe Rogan’s podcast,” he says, his voice edged with the ghostly echo of his speakerphone during a rare moment of downtime during a recent trip to Los Angeles. “From there, I did another podcast. I checked into the hotel at midnight and then got up at six this morning to do radio. I literally haven’t showered since I got here. My asshole smells like a sub sandwich.”

This is the life of a modern stand-up comedian. Always on the move and filling nearly every hour of the day with projects, podcast appearances, and TV and radio spots. Somewhere in there they find the time to log some stage time, trying out new material and honing bits that they’ll take on the road and eventually record for posterity. Then all that stuff gets thrown out and they start all over again.

It is, as Norton refers to it, a tap dance. And he’s hoofing harder than ever these days. Outside of his notable guest spots on Louie and his frequent appearances on talk shows, the 46-year-old comic spends most mornings as the co-host of Opie with Jim Norton (formerly The Opie and Anthony Show, about which more later), the Sirius XM radio show he has been a part of for over a decade. And, of course, he spends his evenings plying his trade as a stand-up, both in and around his hometown of New York City and at headlining dates throughout the U.S.

If you know anything about his satellite radio work or his stand-up sets, you likely know more about Norton’s life and inner workings than you do some of your closest relatives. He’s a self-proclaimed deviant, unashamed of his sexual proclivities and quite comfortable sharing them in a room of 300 ticket holders or a nationwide audience of radio listeners. He’s also unafraid to state his unfiltered opinions to anyone who listens, exposing his own weaknesses and failings with the same volume that he uses to highlight the hypocrisies of the world and defend free speech.

That’s why Norton’s become the go-to guy for the media to call on for comment when someone in the comedy world gets in trouble for saying something unpleasant in a public forum. He’s the one that W. Kamau Bell tapped to defend Daniel Tosh and rape jokes in a debate with feminist critic Lindy West on Totally Biased. More recently, Time Magazine called on Norton to write an op-ed about Trevor Noah in the wake of the “kerfuffle” regarding the future Daily Show host’s unsavory tweets.

“They know they’re going to get a real opinion from me that’s at least thought out,” Norton says of his role as cultural commentator. “I may be right or I may be wrong. Like every other dumbbell in the country, I bat about .500. Half the time, I make great sense. Half the time, I’m just a pontificating asshole.”

Currently, Norton’s a pontificating asshole with a comedy special to promote. Contextually Inadequate, his current hour-long stand-up showcase, hits Epix this week. In it, he balances his time throwing himself under the bus with commentary on his weight loss and with a particularly raw bit involving himself and a prostitute wearing a strap-on and offering up his opinions on a pair of scandals that broke right before he was set to tape the show: the many rape allegations involving Bill Cosby and Sirius XM’s dismissal of Norton’s former radio co-host Anthony Cumia.

“My whole set had to be restructured,” he says. “A few months before I shot, Anthony got fired and Cosby broke. There was a lot dirtier stuff in there. With the Cosby stuff, I cover shooting my own jizz all over myself and my own sexual stuff, but then Anthony happened and that took the set in a different direction.”

Cumia’s firing resonates most strongly with Norton. And not only because he had to say goodbye to a trusted compatriot who gave him the platform that helped launch his career as a stand-up into a new tax bracket. In Norton’s view, Cumia got brought down by an outrage-hungry press, who pounced on the radio host after he tweeted some particularly insensitive things about a woman that he says attacked him in Times Square.

In his special, Norton doesn’t defend what his friend and former co-worker said but instead questions the one-sided quality of the reporting about it. Or as he told me: “The putrid press in our country took the narrative of ‘A naughty boy who said something naughty,’ instead of, ‘Some bitch punched a guy in the face and, instead of knocking her teeth out, he put his hands up and walked away nonviolently.’ That was the much more important part of the story.”

While Cumia has since started up his own online radio venture out of his home on Long Island, Norton and co-host Gregg “Opie” Hughes have stuck it out with Sirius XM, even opting to re-sign with the network last year after some chatter that the two would walk once their contracts were up.

“It was a hard decision,” Norton says. “I called Anthony the night before we signed. He’s like, ‘I understand. I would have done the same thing.’ My hopes are still that Anthony comes back. I don’t want it to be Opie and Jimmy. I want it to be Opie and Anthony and I’m on the show. I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility.”

What is somewhat surprising is that, for as unscrupulous and coarse as Norton can be, he’s managed to avoid the slings and arrows of the outrage-hungry world we live in. Heck, he was even a regular guest on The Tonight Show during Jay Leno’s reign, when the audience skewed far more conservative and elderly. By his own account, though, he’s having one of his best years yet. The stand-up special is about to be unleashed. He’s working on turning some of the characters he does on the radio show into cartoon form. And he’s getting closer and closer to bringing his own TV talk show into the world.

And if he does find himself in the fray of an online generated controversy, he’s ready.

“I find that when you meet their dishonest outrage with hesitation, like, ‘Oh, you know, guys, I really didn’t mean that,’ then you’re sunk. If you meet their bullshit with belligerence, if you criticize them for what they are and you call them out on their own inconsistencies and their own phoniness, it makes it a little easier to navigate. I’m not worried about it. I’m sure it will happen to me and ruin me sooner or later.”

Jim Norton: Contextually Inadequate premieres on Epix on Friday April 24 at 10 PM ET/PT, 9 PM CT.

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.