Within three years, he was at it full-time, and soon thereafter he went on the road. In L.A., he met Andrew Dice Clay at the Comedy Store. They hit it off; when Clay’s opener canceled at the last minute, he asked Norton to fill in. They toured together for a while, and at Clay’s urging, Norton ended up on “Opie and Anthony,” the crude morning radio show that was later bounced off the air for inciting a couple to perform a sexual prank in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Norton endeared himself by getting arrested for riding around on “the voyeur bus,” a conveyance full of naked women.
Norton now does about fourteen club sets a week, bolstered by regular appearances on Tough Crowd. After just eight years in New York, he’s praised by club owners and his colleagues as one of the best in the business. “Norton’s very smart and very funny,” says Quinn, who befriended him at the Comedy Cellar. “Most importantly, he’s always got new material. He works extremely hard.”
the set of tough crowd is littered with masculine signifiers (pool table, punching bag, bowling pins, leather couch); the crowd is heavily male. Norton’s a guest tonight, along with with the liberal comic Marc Maron and a six-foot-five former football player named Patrice O’Neal, who can be found in the greenroom before the taping yelling, “No don’t mean fucking no! If it does, I’ve raped a lot of women.” One of the four slots is occasionally filled by an elder statesman like George Carlin; tonight, it’s Jackie Mason.
Once the show starts, the yelling begins in earnest as the foursome sounds off on blackface, Mel Gibson, and each other’s physical flaws, with Quinn’s skinny legs and bulging waistline a favorite target. Sitting next to the imposing O’Neal, Mason looks like a dissipated child, and a lot of the back-and-forth appears to be sailing over his head. He seems so lost at one point that O’Neal hands his cell phone to Quinn and says, “Colin, explain to Jackie what this is.”
If liquor were involved, the show might end with chairs flying, but instead it’s just a bunch of guys having what seems to be a great time. Several comics are kept in rapid rotation because few newcomers can keep up. In the final minutes of one recent taping, first-timer Orny Adams, infamous for his egomaniacal turn in the Jerry Seinfeld documentary Comedian, looked wrecked. “Comedy doesn’t have to be about tearing down all the time,” he said plaintively. The others stared at him like he was insane.
There’s a big incentive for comics to go with nasty stuff. If you’re not on a sitcom, you’ve got to work awfully hard to make a living. Most of the money to be had comes from doing the road. In New York, clubs pay $60 or so a set; the record for most guys is ten sets in a night, but that’s an unsustainable rate. A successful stand-up has to be able to read the crowd—and when the crowd is full of 25-year-old bridge-and-tunnel guys, that does not mean jokes about Proust.
“Dirty jokes are the easiest laughs,” says Eddie Brill, the teddy bear of the comedy world, who books the Letterman show and is a successful stand-up in his own right. Brill has little patience for insult comedy, not because it’s offensive but because it’s rarely done smartly. He can appreciate the coarse stuff, though, too: “There are times when Nick Di Paolo’s just really edgy, but it’s really honest, and speaks to a lot of people. Jim also is very honest and very intelligent. I think at times they can get too harsh, just for the sake of it, and when it isn’t clever, that turns me off.”
On the issue of blatantly offensive material, even the most cerebral or p.c. comics often shrug and say “Funny is funny.” Janeane Garofalo and Nick Di Paolo, for example, are fans of each other’s work. “My own politics could not be further from his,” says Garofalo, “but he always makes me laugh. He’s a genius.”
Lucien Hold, the booker of the Comic Strip and the man credited with discovering Chris Rock and Adam Sandler, has similar feelings about Jim Norton. “I like him quite a bit as a person. He’s very open. I’m not a fan of the decapitation stuff, but I like him for his honesty.”
A successful stand-up has to be able to read the crowd—and when the crowd is full of 25-year-old bridge-and-tunnel guys, that does not mean jokes about Proust.
There’s another, more practical reason why Norton can get away with violent jokes (like the decapitation one that Hold refers to, which is about a high-priced prostitute: “For $3,000, do I get to cut her head off and keep it?”) while other guys can’t: “Because Di Paolo and O’Neal are huge, scary-looking guys, and Jim Norton is short and looks so vulnerable,” says Hold, “you’re more willing to excuse him, because you think, well, he’s just an odd duck.”
“There’s a difference between being vulgar and being vicious,” explains Norton. “Like, if there’s a guy in the front row in a wheelchair, I won’t do wheelchair jokes. It’s bullshit when guys do them anyway, hiding behind ‘I’m just being honest.’ No, that’s vicious, because you’re obviously just being mean to that guy in the front row.”
Drawing distinctions between the good handicapped joke and the bad one seems absurd—until you hear the bad one. Though crass comedy is rising in popularity, it remains deadly in the wrong hands. To wit, one Ralphie May.
On the way down to Ludlow Street for a spot at Luna Lounge’s popular Monday-night showcase “Eating It,” Ralphie May, a 480-pound (that’s post-stomach-stapling) Texan, is staring blankly out the car window and rattling off platitudes about what a great city New York is. But May—whose DVD just went platinum—perks up when asked about political correctness. “I tell it like it is!” he crows. “I hit the N-word, racial shit . . . tar babies, coons. Everybody is a goddamned ‘blank-American’ now. It makes you sick.”
Asked if he’s concerned about facing the Lower East Side audience, May jokes that he’s only worried about breaking the thin wooden step that leads to the stage. (He does need a little help negotiating it.)
None of his preshow banter is funny, but what happens onstage is far worse. May bombs, big-time. “Oh, come on! Like black guys don’t fuck fat white bitches for good credit!” he pleads with the audience.
“Man, I fucking headlined Carolines all week and then I come here. It’s like having filet mignon all week and then a turd sandwich for dessert . . . I’m not gonna make this easy on you. You need me. I’m a dose of real up in this fucker. I’m the unexpected finger in the ass.” Finally, he gives up and heads for a gig at the Cellar. The comics who follow May onstage for the rest of the evening have better luck getting laughs—by taking shots at him.
“Ralphie’s a nice guy. he should have known better than to play Luna,” says Jim Norton, after being told about it later. “You can’t do race jokes there, because it’s full of white people in John Lennon spectacles who ‘don’t notice’ if people are a different color.”
While May was tanking on Ludlow Street, Norton was on the beach in Cancún shooting a show called “Camp Cool” for MTV Spring Break, which is airing this Tuesday and Wednesday. The network had him give dating tips to nerds. “I was in charge of building up their self-esteem, because I know about that,” says Norton. “I came up with a bunch of advice for them: It’s all right to lie. Don’t be impressed by muscular retards. Of course, my real advice would have been to get a job, make some money, and get a prostitute. But you can’t say that on MTV.”