While watching a viral video of a family with a pet deer, Jim Norton, the third mic on Sirus/XM's Opie & Anthony Show, confesses sweetly, "I want to pet a deer." Host Anthony Cumia gears up to lob insults his way, but Norton continues, "I want to pet a deer, with brass knuckles ... and gently stroke his chin with a roundhouse." The studio erupts in laughter.
It's easy to see how that joke could bother some people, despite the inherent ridiculousness of the premise. And while Norton understands why some people simply don't find such jokes funny, the nationally known comedian absolutely doesn't care if they are offended. In fact, Norton is often outspoken about why he dislikes circuses, Sea World, and the practice of raising conservation funds by selling permits to kill endangered animals like the black rhino. "I loathe cruelty to animals," said Norton from New York City in a recent phone interview with City Paper. But, he explains, "I can make fun of things even if I find them repulsive."
Norton, who's 45, has also been very outspoken about recent controversies faced by comedians, celebrities and even everyday people who lose their jobs simply because of something they said. Norton doesn't believe the sort of outrage such controversies generate is genuine. "I think their outrage is fake," he says, calling it "arbitrary" and "convenient" because it's a way for people to force their views on society at large.
Take Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. When A&E suspended the reality-TV star for homophobic comments he made to GQ, Norton criticized the channel even though he thinks that religious arguments against homosexuality are nonsense. "I don't have to agree with somebody to not want to see them penalized for saying something," Norton says, adding, "You can't just always defend things you like."
Like all great comedians, Norton worships at the altar of unbridled honesty. "I never go onstage and lie," he says. Whether discussing sexuality, his problems with addiction (he has been sober since he was 18), or his own insecurities, Norton exposes everything through his art. He feels compelled to speak out whenever anyone's right to expression is being suppressed. "I think all comedians should do that," he says.
What Norton values about working on the Opie & Anthony Show is its free-range format — so free-range that in 2000, he and Lewis Black spent a night in jail because of a stunt for the show that involved driving around New York City with a busload of naked women.
One of the reasons he likes Pittsburgh — which he likens in temperament to New Jersey and blue-collar New York — is because it is also a great city for radio, which translates to good audiences for comedy. "They don't want you to try to be better than they are," he says. "If you're funny they respond to it."
Norton loves radio almost as much as he loves standup. Last year, he hosted a weekly one-hour call-in show on Sirius/XM. Although its original billing as an "advice show" was meant as a goof, from the start listeners were calling in for help with real problems. Despite all of his trashing of public figures, and punchlines that are just as likely to make one cringe as laugh, Norton revealed himself to be a remarkably sensitive and caring advocate for his listeners, and never judgmental.
Unlike such call-in advice hosts as Dr. Drew, Norton never set himself above the callers. He also never claimed to be able to solve their problems. Instead, he listened. And often, guided by deliberate questions from Norton, even callers in denial about their problems realized those problems were self-evident.
Most often, the calls focused on addiction, and Norton served as a rational voice, encouraging callers to seek programs in their neighborhoods or professional help. One exchange, conducted via email, involved a veteran who felt suicidal, another issue Norton has dealt with personally.
Along with teenage alcoholism and drug addiction, Norton used to cut himself — "Norton's forearms look like a roadmap," Gregg "Opie" Hughes once said on the show — and even attempted suicide. All of his struggles have been discussed in a funny and cathartic way on radio, in his act, and in his two bestselling memoirs, Happy Endings and I Hate Your Guts. "I humiliate myself, because then I think people feel more comfortable being made fun of," says Norton.
But Norton's comedy is not really about making fun of other people or intentionally embarrassing anyone. Instead, he hilariously shows audiences that, deep down, we have all got a little scumbag inside of us.