Jim Norton doesn't mind offending you, he minds what you do after you've been offended.
Shortly after the debut of his new comedy special Please Be Offended on June 30, Norton spoke to Huffington Post about why he thinks Americans have gotten too sensitive and entitled when it comes to free speech and why there's a double standard with stand-up comedy.
He also told us the one thing — and there's only one — he likes about the Westboro Baptist Church.
HuffPost: Why did you name the special “Please Be Offended” and what do you hope people get out of it?
Jim Norton: The reason I called it “Please Be Offended” really was not about me thinking that I’m such a maverick with my material. It is because audiences have become so hypersensitive. There’s no profanity in it… it’s like, I’m making fun of the idea of the Ground Zero Mosque or talking about the way the media reports race or things like that which are socially offensive even though they don’t have language in them. So I think that’s the problem. People are too worried a lot of times what other people in the audience are going to think about them, so they like to feign offense so other people don’t think that they’re inappropriate for laughing at something.
HP: So it’s not even that they’re having a visceral “oh, that really bothers me”
reaction, it’s more of the fear of being thought of by others as callous?
JN: Yeah, because people are dumb and they think that laughing equals cosigning a belief in the ideology, which it doesn’t. It’s odd how when people go to watch a movie, and there’s a murder or a rape in the movie they don’t feel the need to stand up and tell the audience, “I don’t agree with murder and rape” you just kind of all go into it knowing “we’re watching a movie.” But when it comes to stand-up, people feel this need to voice their objection through groaning or being offended. It’s really irritating… I mean I love what I do, but that’s the irritating side of it.
HP: Why is standup comedy such an important vehicle for dealing with a lot of these darker issues?
JN: Well, I think that what a comic’s job is to do, we take these knots in society — like, you know how you get a knot in your neck — and our job as comedians is to take our knuckles and kind of work it out. But what political correctness has done to comedy is that comedians are avoiding those knots now. Like you know, Pryor talked about race, Carlin talked about everything, Lenny Bruce… all these guys talked about these very, very dangerous social issues. And now if you do it you have to apologize if you say it wrong. It’s embarrassing how this country has for some reason gone after comedians.
HP: How do you feel about comedians apologizing when they offend someone? Do they have to do it? Do you wish they wouldn’t do it?
JN: I have mixed feelings on it because, again, I don’t like the phony mavericks who claim they would never apologize. Tracy [Morgan] I don’t think did anything wrong. But Tracy has a network contract… I think NBC should have stuck up for him and said “Look, we don’t agree with him but it’s a free country and he has a right to say whatever he wants on the stage.” But I get why he apologized because, look, it’s easy for me to say “I wouldn’t say I’m sorry.” But if you’re paying me $80,000 or $100,000 dollars a week, I’m not gonna throw that out over one dumb joke. “Yeah sorry,” move on. I just don’t believe the outrage. Like I don’t believe it warranted that.
HP: Have you ever said something on stage that you apologized for or felt like you should apologize for?
JN: Sure… not actually on stage, but something I wrote in my book, yeah. But I was never pressured into apologizing. I blasted a lot of people in my book I Hate Your Guts. Like Al Sharpton. I blasted Keith Olbermann because he went after Imus for language. And one of the guys I blasted in the book was Steve Martin because he remade the “Pink Panther,” which I thought was kind of shitty of him to do. But the tone of the book was kind of angry and I should not have included him in that, cause I wasn’t angry, I just made fun of him. But I shouldn’t have come after another comedian like that. And it was something I kind of felt bad about just because he’s a comic and I have a weird camaraderie with comedians. Later, I was doing a red carpet thing for the Grammy’s and Steve Martin was nominated. He and his band were walking up, and I said to the segment producer, “If he knows who I am he probably won’t talk to me.” So he didn’t recognize my face, and I was doing a bit, and the bit was to get my CD held up for the Grammy’s. It was a joke. But then when he saw my name he goes, “Jim Norton, you said unkind things about me in your book.” And I felt really bad and I apologized to him. But the apology was genuine, and he said, “Don’t worry, it’s ok.” He didn’t make a big deal about it, but it embarrassed me because I had felt bad about it to begin with. I don’t even know if he cared that much. I’m not above saying, “I’m sorry,” if I’m genuinely sorry. Because when you talk for a living you’re going to say things you regret. I mean it’s human nature. I mean regular people all day think about little things they wish they had said better in arguments. So why would I be any different on the radio or when I’m writing you know? But I hate when people are pressured into apologizing and the apology is insincere. Normal human beings say, “Hey, look, you know, that was fucked up. I apologize.” But people who are just pressured into it... it’s the phoniness of the outrage behind it that drives me nuts.
HP: Is there something to be gained though, when someone is offended? It seems like people learn something new or get exposed to something they hadn’t really considered before by being offended. Do you think that pushing people’s buttons, having them react, and then having this national discussion serves a purpose?
JN: Here’s what being offended is, it’s a phony sense of empowerment. People have lost this ability to go, “Wow, I didn’t like that, that bothered me. I won’t watch that again.” People have lost the ability to just not like something and walk away. People now feel that if they object to something, nobody else should enjoy it either. It’s because we’ve seen enough people say they’re sorry, we’ve seen enough people fired where people now feel that, “if I’m offended, I voice my offense, people have to listen to me.”
It’s a really weird self-centered attention-seeking device people use. So I never buy the offense. … I think 90% of it is a lie. People say, “I don’t like stereotypes.” Bullshit. You don’t like negative stereotypes. People don’t mind positive stereotypes. People don’t mind positive assumptions. It’s only negative assumptions about them. So their outrage is so arbitrary. And I’m embarrassed for us as a free society that we actually want people punished for saying things we don’t like. The liberals are bad and the conservatives are bad. The liberals say things like “Well, that’s homophobic, that’s racist.” And the conservatives say things like, “You’re attacking our religion. You’re attacking family values.” Both sides are equally fraudulent when it comes to supporting unpopular speech. It’s easy to support popular speech. We’re supposed to stick up for things that do bother people. The rest of us are supposed to rally around and defend people’s rights to say what they want to say. That’s why I like the Westboro Baptist Church. I think they’re repulsive people. I think their message is repulsive. But I think they are good for society because it shows exactly what we will tolerate in a free-thinking society. Even pigs like that, and they are pigs.
HP: If people take one thing away from “Please Be Offended”, what would you want it to be?
JN: That they know where I stand and I made them laugh telling them that. It may sound like a cheesy point, but I don’t want them to walk away with one opinion or the other, because that’s not my job as a comic. My job is to express who I am and what I hate about the country and what I love about it and what I hate about myself and what I love about myself and to make you laugh while I’m doing it. So I hope people, whether they agree with it or disagree with it, know where I stand and think it was funny hearing me tell them. Because that’s what you should expect as a performer. I was talking to Leno recently about something — and he’s a much edgier comic than people think he is — and he said you never put the motive before the joke. Meaning: you don’t want to be like “My job is to convert you to this ideology” and then do the joke. Always put the joke first. It’s such a brilliant and simple point. But I think a lot of comedians get caught up trying to be proven right. And once you do that you become boring. And I want to be funny first.