In its inaugural year last April, the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas featured 200 performances on 12 separate stages over the course of four hilarious days. This year, the line-up of national acts has grown even bigger and more impressive, starting with comedian Jim Norton. Norton, who is a regular on SiriusXM’s “The Opie and Anthony Show” and former host of the short-lived HBO comedy showcase “Down and Dirty with Jim Norton,” brings his self-deprecating, personal, topical and often dirty and offensive material to the stage on Saturday, April 27at Midnight at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin.
Moontower is only in its second year of existence but they’ve been able to pull some really good acts. What about the festival appealed to you?
There are a lot of good acts working there. Amy’s [Schumer] working there, [Anthony] Jeselnik, [Marc] Maron. So the fact is when you see these really good comics doing something and you’re invited to do it you feel good to be associated with good comedians. And I like Austin. I’ve only done Austin once, but I loved it. The money was good and it’s a late-night show. It seemed like a really, really easy one to say yes to.
I saw last week that Louis CK was kind of criticized by a blogger about something he said during his HBO special. How frustrating is it as a comedian to see other comedians continue to be attacked for things they are saying on a stage in the context of their act?
It’s embarrassing for the country. It’s frustrating, but it makes me embarrassed for the country because we’re such a nation of twats. I mean that’s across all gender lines. We’re just babies. It makes me angry. Also, I find the outrage with all of them to be absolutely fraudulent and attention seeking. I have zero respect for the people offended by comedy or want to have comedy “taken to task.” Zero respect for them.
Right. It seems like in a lot of these cases you have these interest groups come out and basically try to dictate what is or isn’t okay to joke about. Do you think that makes things a lot more difficult for comedians who are trying to have their free speech and say what they want to say during their act?
Well, you have to take your free speech. You have to say what you want anyway. The interest groups are all selfish. All of them. Black groups care about black stuff, gay groups about gay stuff, Irish groups about Irish stuff. Every interest group is self-centered. So why anybody takes them seriously when they snivel about language is laughable. I respect a lot of what they do. I think that GLAAD is fighting for gay marriage and all these real things – these legitimate things – and then they get caught up on somebody’s language and I’m like, “Shut the fuck up.” Like, “That’s what you’re worried about?” Then they lose me. You know what I mean? Or all these other special-interest groups like women’s groups. They were all founded for a reason. They all started for a very legit reason and they’re all fighting for a real thing. But when they begin language policing it just makes me sick to my stomach. And I don’t believe that they’re truly offended. What they want to do is piggyback on the performer. Like when they catch you out there, “Gotcha!” They want to jump on your back and then you run around and parrot their message. It’s really weird. Special-interest groups are parasitic when they catch people saying something.
What about this past weekend when [Boston Red Sox player] David Ortiz dropped that F-bomb and the FCC came out and said that since he spoke from the heart it was OK. Were you annoyed by that?
No, I mean I liked the way they did it because they get letters from people like the Parents Television Counsel and all those other vomit-inducing groups. So, I think what happened is they were just kinda coming out and saying, “Everybody can just shut their mouths. We’re not changing anything.” I think that’s why the FCC did that. They kind of came by that to cut off any complaints that might come in.
Do you think the FCC doesn’t look at things circumstantial enough? Like they’ll just throw out a fine if you’re breaking a rule rather than looking at context?
Well, the FCC is a worthless organization. I mean, the content is everything and I can understand at one point where certain profanity wouldn’t be allowed but then they just, like everything else, over-extended and over-reached and they just became hateable thought-police. The reason cable is just kicking the shit out of radio and TV as far as all these awards are concerned is because a lot of the content can’t be done on regular TV. A lot of the honest language, they can’t have on regular TV. So I think the FCC has hopefully lost some steam.
Do you think it’s important that no subject is off-limits in terms of comedy?
Absolutely not. Of course, it’s all in terms of how you address the subject. Like, if you do a Boston Marathon joke, you might wanna be careful not to make fun of the people who got their legs blown off, you know, cause then people will be like, “Eh, we don’t see any joke there at all.” But the subject itself, why not talk about it? Why not talk about the incompetence of the attackers? Or make fun of their attraction to Islam? Whatever you want to make fun of. Usually you want to keep it off the victims, though. Or make fun of the media and the way covered it. But there’s no subject as a rule that is off-limits. Absolutely not.
Do you think in some cases it can make things like that easier to deal with? Just the fact that you can find a laugh somewhere in such serious subject matter?
It actually makes it easier for me. They call it gallows humor and I’ve always had that. So that’s what I think the great part of comedy is. People go, “Well, that’s not a funny subject.” Well, of course not. That’s the beauty of talking about it. The subject doesn’t have to be funny to talk about it. A comedian’s job is to take a subject, even an unfunny subject or a sad subject, and allow you to laugh at it. Or about it. Or with it.
You’ve been doing “Opie and Anthony” for many years now and I was wondering if being in that kind of environment where you’re always around funny people put some pressure on you to be funny or at least entertaining for four hours a day. Does that impact how you approach stand-up or do you see those as two different processes?
They’re different things. I hear Ant laugh or Opie laugh but with stand-up there’s an immediate reaction with strangers. So it makes you think more about topical stuff because we’re talking about them all morning. But it doesn’t really change the way I approach stand-up because I can’t meander on stage the way I can on radio. You can just talk about something for a little while.
Something I’ve heard you say on the show before is that you don’t really watch other comedians. Can you kind of elaborate a little on that?
I don’t want to know what they’re doing for a couple of reasons. A: it will depress me if it’s really good and B: I don’t want to be influenced by it. Like I’ve seen Louie (CK) do stand-up a million times, but I’ve never watched one of his stand-up specials. It’s not cause I don’t love him. I think he’s great. I think he’s hilarious. I just don’t want to see other people’s jokes, you know what I mean? I just don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what they’re doing. I’m only concerned with what I’m doing and this way I know any time I come up with a joke it has not been tainted or influenced by another person.
Does that make it any more difficult to know whether or not somebody has done a similar joke or a similar premise that you’ve done?
Yeah, I mean, it’s almost like if someone else is doing the exact same joke that I’m doing then one of us shouldn’t be doing it. But premise-wise, there are very few things that you can talk about that aren’t talked about. What can I talk about that no one else is? Which is why whenever I talk about stuff I try to put my own personal life into it and expose myself. Cause that part I own. I talked about Tiger Woods when that was topical. I can get my own destructive perversions and now I make fun of him. To me, that’s what makes it mine. That’s what makes it original. Owning up to my own bullshit, my own deviance.
That seems to be a trend that you see more and more often – comedians getting more personal with sometimes unflattering details about their lives. Do you think that’s something that is ingrained in a comedians DNA – to be able to talk about those things with no shame?
Some comedians. And sometimes even with shame. But I think comedians have learned how to take these demons and these horrible things, the things that hurt you or make you whatever, and make fun of them because it’s a way of getting power over them. That’s all it really is. Just a way of getting power over something that you feel is hurtful. Some comics don’t talk about stuff like that though. They don’t talk about personal stuff at all. So that kind of varies from comic to comic.
Something I feel like I’ve noticed is that there’s more comedians who are stepping away from the “joke-punchline” format and going to more anecdotal, long-form stories. Is that something you’ve noticed or picked up on?
Well, I mean again, I think that a comic should do all things. I think set up and punchlines are fine. But I also think you should be able to tell a story without making it such a joke-fest that there’s nothing believable about your story. But I think sometimes a laugh can come, not on an anti-punchline but on certain moments in your story. It doesn’t always have to be a rhythmic pounding. Any good comic, I think, is a little unpredictable. Whenever I see a comedian who is predictable in his rhythm or predictable in every opinion he has, I get immediately bored. When comics try and be right all the time, they get boring. I think you’re only obligated to be honest. You’re not obligated to always be right.
You’ve written two New York Times Best-selling books. I imagine that when you’re working out new stand-up material you have an instant sense of whether something works or not for an audience. Is not having that immediate feedback something that makes writing a book more challenging?
Well, I didn’t mind it because I’m a pretty good judge of my own writing. I re-write and re-write and edit and re-edit it so many times that by the time it got out, I was very confident in it. But it does make it a weird thing without any feedback, sure. But sometimes that can be an advantage because you get to look at it so many times before anybody else sees it. So I’ll get a good feeling whether or not it’s good. Like, I’ll read it and go, “Oh, that sucks!” Or, “Wow, that really holds up 10 days later.”
Has there ever been any point where you’ve gotten burned out on stand-up after doing it for so many years?
When I shoot a special, I’m done with that material. Like, “Please Be Offended,” I shot a year ago and it aired on Comedy Central and I haven’t done that material in a year. I just shot another special about a month ago which is going to be called “American Degenerate,” which will not air until June but I’m almost done with this material, too. So I don’t get burned out on it but I get burned out on certain material. I’m actually still enjoying the stuff I’m doing now cause I’ve been doing it less than a year, but after a year or 15 months I get burned out on certain jokes. As long as I’m switching out my material, I always find stand-up to be pretty fresh.
So your special will be running on Epix. Is there any kind of theme to it or is it just you doing your thing?
It’s me just talking about myself and what’s going on in the country and attacking the media. It’s like “Please Be Offended,” but the material is totally different. It’s me tying in my own dysfunction to what the rest of the country is going through.