As one of the most reliably entertaining and consistently provocative comedians working today, Jim Norton has crafted a persona in recent years that is as shameless as it is singular. And in Please Be Offended, his newest hour filmed at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland, Norton preserves the qualities that have made him one of his generation’s foremost comedic voices, while amplifying them in ways that only enhance his legacy.
Norton’s an asshole, a scumbag and a pervert. And he’ll readily assign himself any of those labels. Norton’s skill stems from his confidence: he knows who and what he is. He knows his style, he knows his cadence, he knows his audience. He’s depraved, but he’s not out for shock value. He’s intelligent, but he’s not verbose. Like any entertainer worth his salt, Norton knows his limitations. He’s entered that holy sphere of comedians in which we know what we’re getting with each new hour: while we have only a general idea of his specific subject matter, we know how he’s going to come at us, and we know he’ll split our sides throughout the process.
Norton has four modes: celebrity attack, self-deprecation, sexual humor and cultural commentary. While these four arenas are distinct—Norton will devote entire bits to each—they are exceedingly capable of being conflated. And to this end, Norton is something of a magician.
What is so paradoxically brilliant about Norton’s style is that even when he’s firing off a legitimate diatribe about something real and controversial, he is quite capable of bringing his primordial, sexual inclinations into the fold. In this way, he softens the blow to those who disagree by giving them something to laugh at. That said, if one doesn’t agree with Norton’s views, he couldn’t possibly care less. A look at his special’s title says it all: Please Be Offended. In Norton’s view, if you’re offended by comedy, you have no business listening.
A sound display of Norton’s sorcery arises when he discusses the merits of the TSA’s airport pat-downs. In the midst of responding to people’s continual complaints about invasion of privacy, Norton concedes the situation can be worse for women: “To have your breasts mushed together, and your own breast milk poured down your throat, and your buttocks separated… Whatever else I would do if I had that job.” He then mimes a TSA official abusing his power by inserting his fingers into a woman’s vagina, whisking away excess liquid, and giving them a creepily extended smell before oozing the confirmation, “You’re no terrorist.”
The eminently quotable George Carlin said that the comedian’s aim is to not only find the line and cross it, but to also make the audience glad that he did. To this end, we’d be disgusted if Norton were simply making crude jokes and gestures for the hell of it. But we know everything is with purpose; everything leads somewhere. Every detour has an ultimate destination. And with Norton—unlike the quintessential Bill Hicks acolyte—the level of comedy is never sacrificed for the sake of making a point.
Toward the end of his bit on invasion of privacy, Norton exclaims: “I would be very interested to hear anybody’s alternative solution, but how do you stop the mentality of a guy like the underwear bomber?… He was going to blow himself up, dick and balls first. All suicide bombers are repulsive, but dick and balls first. Even though it’s only a nanosecond, there’s still a nanosecond where you’re like, ‘My dick and balls are gone!’”
By Norton’s account, airport security is a necessary evil. What he’d prefer to direct his ire at is the hypocrisy of the American people when it comes to perceived injustices. In Norton’s view, we continually “act like civil-liberty victims,” yet, in reality, we’re nothing but “morbid jizzbuckets who like to watch other people’s lives go into the toilet.” After all, why didn’t anyone who complains about invasion of privacy speak out on behalf of Tiger Woods or Mel Gibson when their personal lives were public fodder?
There’s a striking disconnect between these two seemingly disparate ideas. But like a good cultural commentator, Norton is able to elucidate the substance below the surface. And like a good comedian, he’s able to do so with biting humor.
In the same breath that Norton mocks Woods and Gibson, he also humanizes them. As a self-avowed pervert, Norton empathizes with the two celebrities and points out our hypocrisy about and unfairness toward them. They’re human. They err. They’re not perfect and they’re not role models. But neither are we. We’re all as capable of bad as we are of good. And if that notion offends you, then so be it. Norton wouldn’t have it any other way.