BY EVAN HUNDELT American comedian Jim Norton’s self-deprecating jabs, sardonic wit, casually carnal pantomimes, and unabashed, caustic commentary, which he used to get chicks in grade school and avoid the eternally dreaded swirlie (the bullies dug his side-splitting humor), has landed him in the showbiz limelight with two New York Times best selling books, numerous standup specials on HBO GO, Hulu, Amazon, and most recently, his 5th hour standup special Mouthful of Shame, which premiered on Netflix last year. Additionally, he co-hosts UFC’s Unfiltered Podcast with Jim Norton & Matt Serra and can be heard weekdays on SiriusXm’s The Jim Norton & Sam Roberts Show. He has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with David Letterman, and has cameos in Lucky Louie, Inside Amy Schumer, and Trainwreck, to name a few. Ahead of his Kneeling Room Only tour, which stops at the Fillmore in Philadelphia on Thursday November 30th, I had the pleasure to talk with Jim Norton about Robert De Niro spanking his bare ass, his friend Louis CK’s recent allegations, the role of gun violence, suicide, and sensitive subjects in comedy, and the sexual assault epidemic in Hollywood.
PHAWKER: In your Netflix special Mouthful of Shame, the opening scene with Robert De Niro spanking your bare ass was pretty amazing. Can you tell me the story behind that? Are you guys good friends? Was he totally cool with it?
JIM NORTON: Well you know I had helped him with something—a project he had done where I was consulting—so I got to know him a little bit. And after the project was done, I emailed his assistant and sent him the script for Mouthful of Shame, and asked him if he’d do this. But I kept the spanking part out because I didn’t want to creep him out. So they wrote me back, saying that he’d love to do this with me. And then when we got there day of, I brought a hairbrush and was like: “Hey, I’m gonna ask you to spank me, but if you don’t want to touch my bare ass I have a brush.” I promised not to jizz on his leg—he laughed, and agreed to do it, to spank my bare bottom. It was lovely.
PHAWKER: Have you kept in touch with him since?
JIM NORTON: I’ve bumped into him every once in awhile. But the thing with someone like Robert De Niro, you have to realize, is when you’re done with the project your relationship is over for that period of time. He’s the type of guy that everyone wants to know, so you can’t think like: hey maybe we’ll be able to meet up for some coffee… No, he’s De Niro, so like, I did a couple of things with him—he’s awesome—but when I see him we’ll say hello. You can’t expect to hang out with a guy like that. That’s the problem people have where they start annoying him, because you just want that to continue. But you have to realize that I was lucky to have been able to do anything like that at all. I have a great picture hanging up in my apartment—it’s blown up, like fifteen inches by thirty inches, of me looking at the camera—my ass is out—and he’s about to spank me. That’s the greatest thing I’ve gotten in show business.
PHAWKER: What was your a-ha moment when you were young and you said to yourself “this is what I am going to do with my life, make people laugh for a living”? And when was that moment when you were able to tell yourself ‘yeah, I got this, I can do this”?
JIM NORTON: I didn’t realize I could do comedy seriously until I had done it for a couple years. It always just seemed like some bullshit dream. But when I was a kid, the only thing that made girls notice me was making them laugh. So I knew that being funny meant something. And it also prevented bigger kids from stuffing my dumb face into the toilet, with the fact that I could make them laugh. I saw Richard Pryor when I was eleven or twelve, and was like: oh this is what you do with this, that’s the next level, making people laugh on stage.
PHAWKER: Gun rights and suicide come up in your act. All kidding aside where do you stand on guns and why? Likewise, what is your take on suicide: Obviously it’s always sad and tragic, but do you think it is always wrong or should people have the right to make that ultimate choice?
JIM NORTON: My views on guns were never that radical. I despise the NRA. I’ve always hated them. I just think that citizens should be able to arm themselves—but I don’t think you need automatic weapons. I’m fine having a fucking rifle or shotgun in the house, but most people aren’t going on killing sprees with shotguns and rifles, it’s semiautomatic weapons. And the fact that it’s just so easy to get your hands on one—that’s why I despise the NRA. My gun stance was never that radical, I just think that people who are proven mentally qualified, and don’t have a history of mental illness, should have a right to have something to protect themselves. But as far as these semi and automatic weapons that cops are carrying, I have a serious problem with citizens carrying those. And as far as suicide, yeah obviously it’s wrong, but if you’re old and sick, and want to do some Doctor Kevorkian shit, they should have the right to.
PHAWKER: So the subject matter of your comedy doesn’t change at all with this heightened sensitivity for things like gun violence and suicide?
JIM NORTON: No, a comedian’s job is not to avoid sensitive subjects. A comedian’s job is to pick up a sensitive subject and examine it. You don’t have to brutalize it—any subject can be handled however you want to handle it as a comedian, however you feel the fair way to handle it is. I’ve made fun of Caitlyn Jenner, but I’ve also defended trans rights and have talked about liking trans girls. And if people don’t like the Caitlyn joke I do, that’s fine. But to imply that a Caitlyn joke is trans-phobic is insanity.
PHAWKER: Louis CK is a friend of yours and you’ve appeared on his show Lucky Louie. You’ve discussed the masturbating in front of women without their consent rumors on your Jim & Sam podcast back in August, back before it became public and he admitted publicly that it was true. And again after the New York Times story broke. Sarah Silverman made a very public statement a few days ago, essentially asking can you still love someone even though they have done a bad thing? What do you think is the answer to that question? Can Louis come back from this some day and if so what does he have to do to redeem himself?
JIM NORTON: I think the big question is are there more people? Let’s just say for the sake of argument, that his is all there is: there are no one people and nobody underage, and nobody was forced—that it’s just a bunch of selfish, shitty decisions by Louie. Even if you’re on a Tinder date, and you say, “Hey do you wanna come home and watch me jerk off?” it’s a crazy question but there’s no power dynamic, and she’ll say no and you’ll go your own ways. But there is a power dynamic when you’re working with somebody. You don’t want to make people uncomfortable who are in a professional environment, or when they have to submit to things because their manager asked—there’s a different dynamic there you understand. But if this all there is, is there a way back for him? Sure, I would think so, in a few years. It seems like he has addressed it honestly. And it also depends on how the women whom he has affected handle it publicly. And it depends on what he does: how honest he is, coming back. When a person acknowledges that they’ve fucked up, that’s great. Do they also acknowledge what it did to the people—the selfishness of it. Kevin Spacey took advantage of underage people; Harvey Weinstein is alleged to having raped people—that is a tremendous difference between what they did and what Louis did. And I’m not saying that what Louie did wasn’t selfish, or wasn’t fucked up—but there is a different level of offence I think. So yes I think you can still love somebody if they do dumb shit. Do I think you can love somebody who was a child molester? I don’t know—I mean I hope I’m never put a position to have to make that decision.
PHAWKER: And Louis CK is certainly not the first to have gone through this…
JIM NORTON: Roman Polanski fucked a thirteen-year-old, whom he drugged, and everyone in Hollywood worships this guy. Woody Allen—again only allegations—but the girl came out and spoke against him, but people in Hollywood are lining up to work with him. I think a guy who does something very stupid and selfish like Louie can survive it, but something monstrous on the level of what these guys did is unforgivable. I can understand, yeah Roman Polanski was a long time ago, but so was Hitler, and nobody has forgiven him. I love the fact that people who work with Polanski are just like: “Well it was a long time ago.” Who gives a shit he still fucked a thirteen-year-old.
PHAWKER: What about the whole Al Franken thing? Should he resign or can he somehow make things right?
JIM NORTON: No I don’t think he should resign—I mean I only know about the one incident. A lot of this depends on what else will come out, because you don’t want to say, “Yeah what he did was no big deal,” and then it comes out he did something horrible. It’s hard to judge something fifteen years ago by the standards of today and hold them under the same light—it doesn’t mean what he did wasn’t wrong. I think he looked at it as a joke, and then years later was like: “Wow that was fucking inappropriate.” But do I think he should resign? No. At least not if this is all there is. And I believe she came out and said she accepted the apology.
PHAWKER: How do you think all of these sexual allegations against powerful men in Hollywood will change things?
JIM NORTON: Well I think the good part of it is, is that people who are being sexually harassed or sexualized at all will not be afraid to speak up when it bothers them. Like if somebody hits on you, that’s fine—but if you’re uncomfortable, there should be nothing stopping you from saying, “Hey, I don’t want you doing that.” It’s when are afraid to express you concern, that it becomes a problem. But it’s a shame that somebody would be afraid to tell a guy “No” without turning to human resources because it would affect their career—that’s where the tragedy is. People are going to be pieces of shit, that’s not going to change, but the sad part is people are afraid to speak up and say something about it. Are you going to change predatory behavior? No. But maybe they’ll become more aware of the consequences they’re going to have to pay for doing it. But there is always going to be predators, so hopefully the good thing that’ll come from this whole purge is that people won’t be afraid to speak up, and they won’t be afraid for their careers.
PHAWKER: Do you think that comedy, which is candid and largely unfiltered, is a good platform for effectively discussing and criticizing these issues regarding gun violence, sexual assaults, et cetera?
JIM NORTON: What I tend to focus on is the delusion, selfishness, and narcissism of the guys doing it. I mean I’m a dirty guy and I admit to being a dirty guy. But my mind doesn’t work like that. I couldn’t jerk off in front of somebody who doesn’t want me to jerk off in front of them. It would turn me off and make me feel creepy. I like when another person’s dirtiness is on the same level as mine—that’s good for me. But for someone to not be enjoying themselves—how do you as a person not know that you’re making another person really uncomfortable? I tend to make fun of that. So there is a way to address these issues, it’s all about where you put the joke. And I try to put it on the guys that are doing it and not on their absolute, sometimes sociopathic inability to sympathize with the victims.