Comedy “really is the greatest job in the world,” according to Jim Norton. “It allows me to stand up and say things that would get me punched in the face, without getting me punched in the face. It allows me to give my opinion and be funny and be silly and talk about whatever I want.”
Now 49, the comedian, radio personality, best-selling author and actor discovered his calling in his youth, watching a Richard Pryor special on TV.
“Woody Allen also made me interested, and Robert Klein, but I think it was seeing Pryor filmed live in concert that got me truly interested in standup,” he said by phone from his home in New York. “The movement of the audience” is what reeled him in.
He was a funny kid, but didn’t know how to channel that, until he saw Pryor in action. “But then I saw that (show), and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what you do with that thing — with making people laugh. This is the job you get with that.’
“It just kinda made sense then. I understood this is what I would do. I got really lucky that at age 12, I knew I just wanted to be a dancing monkey in front of people and entertain them, or try to. It’s amazing that at age 12 I realized what a needy life I was gonna have.”
Listening to Pryor helped shape his comedic style, which he’ll put on full display when he brings his “Kneeling Room Only” tour to the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Saturday night (5/12).
“The thing that I learned from Pryor ... was about being personal and telling the truth about yourself,” Norton said. “That is what I tried to do. My life is much different than his, my style is much different than his, but the idea about telling the truth and saying how you feel about yourself and your life ... it just felt natural to do that. It was comfortable to do that.”
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Self-deprecating humor is part of his thing, so when he’s talking about a hot-button issue of the day, he generally begins with an indictment against himself.
“You have to personalize it a little bit,” he said. “If I’m gonna make fun of Trump, I’m gonna tell you things that I’ve done that are similar. I like to tell on myself, as well as make fun of the people I’m talking about. I feel like it gives me more of a right to make fun of them if I am talking about myself, too. It’s more fun for me that way, honestly.”
Growing up in North Brunswick, N.J., he was physically about 45 minutes from New York City, but worlds away in quiet suburbia — for which he’s grateful.
“I’m glad grew up there,” he said of his hometown. “I don’t know what kind of trouble I would have gotten into growing up here. It would have been a total disaster, had I grown up in New York. I made a mess out of things (in New Jersey), I would have done a lot worse here.”
Sober since a stint in rehab at age 18, his parents sent him there after he spiraled down a rabbit hole, first turning to booze at age 13. “It’s what my friends were doing,” he said. “I think I was predisposed to have an addictive behavior, and as soon as I did it, it made me feel something that I hadn’t felt before. It made me comfortable, and from there on out, I just loved it. I got very, very lucky to get out early.”
Getting sober also changed his perspective.
“You start to realize there are things in life — you don’t have to be afraid of everything,” he said. “You realize, ‘Wow, I do have some good qualities, some worthwhile qualities. Life can be good — there’s somewhere to go from here, and succeed from here.’ That is the best thing I got from it, and the fact that you don’t have to drink your life away.”
Comedy also threw him a lifeline. “It’s a validation of everything you thought of yourself that was good,” he said. “I know I’m funny, and I like to be in front of people, and the fact that I’m good at that. It’s the one thing that gave me self-esteem. Plus, you can see progress in it, because the more people are laughing and the more money you’re making, you can see how well or poorly you’re doing.”
He also thrives on the give and take with his live audiences, most of whom are middle-class people ages 20 to 40. “I want them to feel like, when they walk in there, they can hear anything and laugh at anything,” he said. “I want people to feel like there’s nothing they have to be worried about laughing at. There’s nothing that can’t be made fun of.”
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Their laughter is music to his ears. “When you’re getting big laughs and the crowd is loving what you do, there’s just nothing like it,” he said. “There’s no high like it.”
WHAT: Comedian Jim Norton: Kneeling Room Only Tour
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday (5/12)
TICKETS: $33.50 to $83.50 VIP, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/jim-norton/
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com