Getting Fired Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Jim Norton
In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's comedian Jim Norton, whose latest stand-up special Mouthful of Shame was released on Netflix last month. Read on for his thoughts on the first time he met Andrew Dice Clay, dealing with depression, and the insecurities that come with growing up in New Jersey.
I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. My grandmother used to take me to New York City when I was a kid. One time, when I was really young in my carriage, I threw my bottle onto the train tracks and some guy jumped down and picked it up. She'd take me to the Chock Full o' Nuts diner and I'd walk around bothering everybody for their pickles.
When I meet people from the Midwest, they tend to have a slow, calm existence. Living in New Jersey gives you a sense of panic and urgency, because it's the most densely populated state per square mile and New York is always looking straight at you from 40 miles away. You always feel like you're not good enough. Growing up in Jersey gives you a complex—if you're close enough to New York or Philly, you see these places that are bigger and more respected than where you are. My whole feeling that I'm a hunk of shit probably comes from growing up in a place that compares itself to the place next to it as a hunk of shit.
I went to high school in North Brunswick. I sucked—I was an horrible student and I was insecure. The school voted me class clown, but I was in rehab from a suicide attempt, so I didn't get my picture in the yearbook. I don't have any fond memories from high school.
I wound up dropping out of high school to work for a copper company where I'd drive a forklift and unload bundled tubes of copper off the back of an 18-wheeler flatbed. I figured I'd just drive a forklift for the rest of my life. It was an awful job—especially in the winter, when I'd be unloading that stuff in 20-degree weather. I started at that job at 18 years old. I started doing stand-up when I was 21, and I got fired when I was 23.
We were unloading a truck and they were training this Italian guy in the warehouse with me—I was so stupid that I didn't realize they were training him to take my job. One day, they were like, "This is not working out, we don't think that you're very good here," and they just cut me loose. It was the best day of my life. I collected unemployment for a couple years and started doing stand-up full-time, pretending to look for work so that I could collect unemployment while doing gigs. The unemployment was just enough to pay my bills. I lived at home because I wanted to be a comedian, badly. When I was a kid, I was always making other kids laugh. Seeing Richard Pryor on television made me understand what you do with being funny.
I was out in LA [in the 90s], and I was sharing a hotel room with three other comedians at the Wyndham Bel Age—Jim Florentine, Lenny Marcus, and his friend Jason. I was going to do a seven-minute warm-up at the Comedy Store—my first time performing there—and they said Andrew Dice Clay was coming in, and he was going on in front of me. So Dice goes on and does and hour, and it's filthy, and he destroys. While Dice is on, I pick up the payphone and I call Jim, a huge Dice fan, and I hold up the phone and I'm like, "Fuckin' Dice is onstage!"
Dice brings me on with a miserable intro: "This next guy is really hilarious, I don't even know who the fuck he is." I did seven clean TV minutes, and I eat my dick horribly—it's silent, I bombed my face off. I came offstage, and Jim Florentine was talking to Dice, so we both talk to him about how we're both such big fans, and this album he did called The Day the Laughter Died—how ridiculous a lot of the jokes were, and how none of them make sense. Dice goes, "Would you guys go onstage and do my material?" So we go on and do random Dice lines that get absolute zero from the audience. I said to this woman, "I wanna eat your cunt in a big red chair." Silence. I have a tape of the set somewhere, where all you hear is Dice fuckin' howling in the background while we're bombing doing his jokes. That was my introduction to Andrew Dice Clay.
I started going to the gym regularly because I got sick and tired of the look on a woman's face where I know that she's not enjoying the view above her when we're having sex. So I've been going for about five years now and I've lost a good amount of weight—just some cardio, weights, full-body, and kettlebell stuff, nothing crazy. I'm in average shape, but it's better than I ever was, because I was always in shit shape. Patrice O'Neal once told me I look like a mollusk, so the fact that I'm not shaped like a mollusk anymore makes me happy.
I work out with trainers, because if I do it alone I'll just spend 45 minutes slowly meandering on the elliptical like an old woman. My trainers are women, and they're nice. If they say, "Hey, let's do this," I do it. I don't want some fuckin' Marine barking at me—"Let's go! Come on, lazy, two more!" That would drive me nuts. I like a nice girl to go, "Alright, one more." That's the sass I respond to, because it's a pleasant sass.
The only thing that's kept me from slipping into an unreachable place is the fact that I'm sober. For a long time, when the depression came I'd wallow in it—but the one thing I've done right, besides not drinking or getting high, is that I wind up doing something for my job instead. There's always that part in the back of my head that says, "Yeah, you could hang yourself, but you've gotten everything you've wanted."
There's so many people who have much harder lives, and the fact that I still think that the only answer is to hang myself three or four times a week is crazy and irrational. But I'm able to sit back and go, "You can't listen to this. It's not healthy thinking." I'm not telling other people not to be depressed, and I'm also not feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes you just gotta realize it's only a feeling—it's not real, it's bullshit, you don't really wanna throw yourself off a balcony, you have a great life, this will pass. Sometimes, just knowing something will pass helps me deal with it a lot.