READER ADVISORY: FOUL AND INSENSITIVE HUMOR AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
“Can you imagine having to fuck Jim Norton?” asks Bob Levy from the dais at Carolines comedy club. “It must be like hooker Fear Factor.”
“Jim, you look like a piece of Play-Doh with hep C,” deadpans Colin Quinn.
“You heinous, putrid little creep,” spits out Ben Bailey.
Roasts are never gentle affairs, but this one is brutal.
Ross Bennett takes his turn. “We all wish we lived 50 years ago, so we wouldn’t have to look over our shoulder before doing a nigger joke.” The crowd roars its approval.
A joke by Vanessa Hollingshead, one of the few women in the room, bombs. Nick Di Paolo shouts from across the dais: “Why don’t you sew up that pussy and grow a dick and maybe we’ll get a joke out of you?” Big laugh from the sold-out crowd, a sea of blissed-out baseball-capped guys, most of whom know Norton from the TV show Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn or the canceled (but soon to return) radio show “Opie and Anthony.”
Throughout, Norton looks admiringly at his roasters, dear friends all. He says little, except when Jim Florentine says Norton likes having hookers defecate on his chest, to which the man of the hour responds: “I wouldn’t waste it on my chest. If you’re not gonna eat ’em, don’t get in the game.”
At the end, Norton takes the podium to return fire. “Wow, this is a real Who’s Who of Queens and Essex County,” he begins.
“Bob, you do so much road work, you oughtta walk onstage in a reflective orange vest.”
“Opie and Anthony, too bad your show’s not on now—you could have had someone fuck Spalding Gray’s corpse in a mosque.”
“Oh, man! Oh, man!” exclaim fans in wonder between guffaws. Implausibly, the paunchy, bald, 35-year-old, five-foot-seven Norton is a comic’s comic, a Jersey frat boy’s comic, and the golden child in a new wave of rough-and-tumble stand-up.
There was a ghost hovering outside Carolines the night of Jim Norton’s roast, and he was shouting, over and over, to a driving beat, the indelicate terms for a couple of body parts. The voice, oddly familiar, came from a boom box held by a smirking Norton fan, and it belonged to Andrew Dice Clay.
The Diceman has not been heard much in Times Square since about 1989, when he capped a comedy boom that spanned the eighties and gave us Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and about 150,000 others, on every TV channel and in every bar. Back then, brick walls could not be mortared together fast enough to serve as backdrops for the hacks with pushed-up sport-jacket sleeves and “What’s up with that?” routines. Inevitably, the flood of shows like Comic Strip Live! simply wore out the country on stand-up. Clubs emptied, then closed; comics marched to Hollywood for sitcom auditions.
But the long winter is over. Stand-ups from the boom years, along with many younger performers, are back at the microphone, fans are back in the seats, and entrepreneurs are taking note. This month, two big new clubs are opening near Times Square, already home to Carolines and Ha! Comedy Club. Damon Wayans and Jamie Masada (lately in the news for having introduced Michael Jackson to a certain sick child and future litigant) are opening the three-room Laugh Factory at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street with a party hosted by Dave Chappelle. Shortly thereafter, the Boston Comedy Club’s Al Martin and others will be launching a club on West 53rd Street, and he’s negotiating to make it the New York franchise of a prominent club chain last seen here in the mid-nineties.
Add to that the 125-seat Laugh Lounge, which opened on the Lower East Side in January, plus old standbys like the Comic Strip, Gotham Comedy Club, the Comedy Cellar, and Stand-Up NY, and it’s safe to say the lean years are over. By the end of this month, there will be more full-time clubs in New York than there were even at the peak of the eighties boom. As Jim Norton grumbles, “I’m so glad we learned from the eighties not to oversaturate the market.”
If there’s a scoutmaster figure in all this, it’s Norton’s pal Colin Quinn. Quinn is familiar to national audiences from a couple of TV shows (the best-known was probably MTV’s Remote Control) and served as anchor for Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” from 1998 to 2000. Obsessed with race relations after growing up in a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood, he started doing stand-up on a whim during his arrest-filled, hard-drinking years, and began building a career when he sobered up twenty years ago. On Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, which airs weeknights on Comedy Central, he leads four comics, drawn from a rotating cast, through spirited political arguments. He says he came up with the format for the show while bickering with another comic late one night at the legendary “comics only” table at the Olive Tree, the restaurant over the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street. On the show as there, roughhousing is the rule.
“You have to go out there prepared to hear the meanest thing you can imagine,” Quinn says. “It’s that insult code all guys have, like if you’re happy to see someone you say, ‘Hey, you fat fuck!’ ” The brand of humor favored by comics like Norton and Quinn is not a universal taste. The practitioners are almost all guys, and the world they conjure up is inhabited by gold-digging women who won’t give it up unless they are forced or paid, and minorities who get all the breaks. (Terms like “African-American” are uttered only through gritted teeth.) The constant smashing of political taboos can be—is—boorish and just plain offensive, though the most talented comics go beyond easy, tasteless material.
Macho comedy has always gone over in most of the country and on TV (just look at the number of Comedy Central shows geared toward men—Tough Crowd, Crank Yankers, Chappelle’s Show, Insomniac With Dave Attell, Banzai). But traditionally, New York club audiences have been more of the Woody Allen school, with more neurosis than righteous indignation. As Cary Hoffman, the longtime owner of Stand-Up NY, puts it, “New York comics lean against the brick wall.” The city’s taste is coarsening, however. Although the more liberal world of alternative comedy is also flourishing, and less vulgar acts like Janeane Garofalo are doing fine, the ones with open invites to headline practically anywhere in town, and at these new clubs, are trash-talking stand-ups. Like Nick Di Paolo, a grinning bully with a thick Boston accent and a penchant for vicious swipes at political correctness. Or Greg Giraldo, a Harvard Law School graduate who chucked it all a decade ago to do comedy and now brings down the house with scenes from his lousy marriage. Or Jim Norton.
On his website, Jim Norton has posted dozens of photos of himself with celebrities as varied as Ozzy Osbourne, LL Cool J, and Laura Bush. He also has photos of himself growing up in North Brunswick, New Jersey, under the heading a photographic list of reasons i am obsessed with blowing my brains out. He looks like a cute, ordinary kid (“very molestable,” as he puts it) until he hits 11, when he gets huge glasses and lapses into what appears to be acute adolescent misery. The son of a librarian mother and an ex-military-postal-worker father, Norton attempted suicide and landed in rehab before he was out of high school.
Sober at 18 (he remains straight-edge to this day) but still battling depression, Norton says, “The only way I was able to face awful things was to be funny about them, gallows-humor-type stuff. Being funny was also the only way I ever got laid.” He tried to go back to school to study law, but flunked out after one semester, realizing that the only reason he’d wanted to be a lawyer was for the undivided attention a jury provides.
Then Norton discovered another kind of captive audience: the barflies at the Varsity Pub in central Jersey. He made his debut there while holding down a day job as a forklift operator. These years are represented on his Website by photos of him with a crew cut, pretending to have sex with a series of creatures—a cat, the porn star Marilyn Chambers. He looks happy in the pictures.
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.”