Jim Norton has always milked his creepiness for uneasy laughs, but he tops himself within the first minute of his new special, American Degenerate. And it involves a celebrity cameo, to boot. Without ruining the surprise, suffice to say Norton leaves viewers with an image that will sear itself into the crevices of the brain where most people hide only their lizard instincts.
Of course, Norton is at his best when he’s revealing precisely these parts of himself. He cops to getting weirder as he’s gotten older, how he’s turned on by a bit of a stinky foot these days. He shows a photo of himself in his sleep apnea mask, noting it dries up a vagina quicker than a hot fan. He doesn’t think anyone should be mad if they get lured into an intimate moment by a deceptive transsexual. They should congratulate that person and laugh like they just opened a can of peanut brittle with coiled-spring snakes inside. He celebrates his hedonistic weirdness, and by extension, anyone’s weirdness.
Norton also feels lucky that celebration is part of his job description, and that he’s not a “real celebrity.” “It’s never going to hurt me to talk about my personal life,” he says. “Like if I ever get busted with a prostitute, no Jim Norton fan is gonna go, ‘Well, I won’t be buying his DVDs anymore.’” Instead, he thinks they’d probably run to the show to hear exactly what happened. Every creepy thing John Travolta’s masseuses have accused him of doing in highly publicized court cases, Norton says, felt like a manual for what he does all the time.
He takes on the subject of addressing rape in comedy with strong language, condemning the woman who stood up and complained during a Daniel Tosh performance. That incident helped spark a debate about using the word “rape” in any context, one that Norton commented on much more eloquently on W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased than he does here. In Norton’s eyes, the woman was a whiny heckler and deserved whatever retort Tosh came back with. The woman had every right to leave, but not to heckle. He makes a similar point about censorship here, that no one is allowed to walk through a museum and cover up paintings they think are offensive, so why should someone be able to interrupt a comedy show? On Biased, he made the point much more calmly than on Degenerate, where it becomes a rallying cry about America as a nation of self-made victims.
Norton can be philosophically and physically unsettling (he has a habit of blinking a lot when he’s making more impassioned points), but he is also intensely self-aware. At his core, he’s a highly skilled observational comedian who happens to be observing a neighborhood most try to walk through quickly without making eye contact. Norton is happy to take a good long look and tell us what we’re missing.