There’s a type of comedian who’s seen less and less in today’s fractured, alternative-leaning comedy landscape. He subsists with little pretense and has a loud confidence that’s grounded in extreme self-awareness. This type of comic has an edge of alpha maleness kept in check by a willingness to declare his own shortcomings. Because he’s comfortable making himself the butt of a joke, he feels justified and well equipped to point his measured gaze at any and all targets. Comics of this ilk are a dying breed, epitomized by guys like Bill Burr, Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Nick DiPaolo, and, of course, Jim Norton.
Norton lives in a world he views rife with sanctimony, false outrage, political correctness, and far-reaching idiocy. And he sees these societal defects everywhere, so much so that his brand of comedy is best described as cultural commentary. Following 2012’s Please Be Offended and 2014’s American Degenerate, Norton’s newest hour, Contextually Inadequate, completes an evolution for Norton. He’s grown from an unabashed pervert whose way with words elevated the sexual subjects of his comedy to an authentic critic with a distinct perspective and something more meaningful to offer than a mere dick joke.
This is not to say, however, that Norton has abandoned his perversion (or even dick jokes). Far from it. In his opener, a biting appraisal of the Bill Cosby rape allegations, Norton proclaims that the one good thing to come out of the whole mess is that it “has made me realize I am not nearly as big a pervert as I thought I was.” Moreover, when Norton finds himself in a room with a view of the Washington Monument, he spends an entire hour lining up two apples and himself in-frame—because to every guy he knows, a photo of the comic “licking a 500-foot dick is hilarious.” And when Norton rides in a hotel elevator with three other men and a female employee asks one of them if there’s any way she can improve his stay, Norton’s mind immediately jumps to the woman putting her tongue in inappropriate places.
But rather than fashioning these moments of perversion as the meat of his act, Norton instead arranges them as interstitials—brief interludes between bits of more weight and substance, and occasionally as small pockets within the bits themselves. When harkening back to Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse scandal, Norton mimes the former coach saying in an interview, “I like when we would wrestle around and our scrotums would get tangled up like old phone cords.” One-line visuals like this—disgusting, no doubt—spin out of Norton’s mouth so effortlessly and steadily, burrowing the bit deeper and piling on the laughs. To that end, occasionally Norton will go on an extended stretch without aiming for a laugh, typically when setting up a bit. He’ll go half-a-minute at times to get all the expository information out of the way and convey the general point he’s going to make. But when he’s finished, he becomes relentless, trading between self-deprecation, sexuality, and outward insults to ram his point home.
It should be noted that as a cultural commentator, much of Norton’s comedy is far from evergreen. Bill Cosby’s allegations, Joan Rivers’ death, Anthony Cumia’s firing, Anthony Weiner’s scandal, Donald Sterling’s racism, Phil Robertson’s homophobia—these are subjects Norton can’t really discuss on stage five years from now, and they speak to his ability to consistently churn out a new hour roughly every year.
Norton does tackle some ideas with a lengthier shelf life, though, including responsible gun ownership, how white people address racism, the degeneration of the media, fat-shaming, and how phones have upended our lives. In his best moments, he’s able to hone in on one of the more ephemeral subjects and rip it open to point to the larger truth, as listed above. Sure, Norton piles on the raunch; it’s part of his voice and to temper it would be disingenuous. But it’s also part of the fun—a trip into the mind of someone who’s able to elucidate the heart of a serious issue while simultaneously declaring his loyalty to the filth.