It’s been a busy and at times tumultuous few years for Jim Norton. The veteran co-host on SiriusXM’s controversial Opie and Anthony Show, he became Opie’s official partner when the titular Anthony Cumia was fired in July 2014 over a series of angry tweets. But it didn’t take long for tensions to arise on the new Opie with Jim Norton show, resulting in some horrific on-air altercations, in April 2015, and again in December 2015. In September 2016 Opie was moved to afternoons, while Norton remained in the prestigious morning slot, with Sam Roberts—Opie’s former intern—being elevated to co-host. Within a year, Opie was fired.
In spite of the convoluted soap opera of his radio career, Norton still found time to record three specials for Epix, another one for Netflix, assume presenting duties on the official podcast of the UFC, and act alongside Robert DeNiro in The Comedian. And while he failed to crowdfund a cartoon series about his highly unappealing alter ego Chip Chipperson, the unfunniest man on the planet, he did succeed in converting the idea into a hugely popular podcast on the Riotcast network. It is said that the character’s fame actually surpasses that of the creator (though the massive gulf in Twitter followers confutes it). Either way, Jim Norton is now one of those rarest of creatures: a comedian’s comedian who is also a big name star.
Sadly, to judge by the crowd at the Leicester Square Theatre, none of these triumphs have registered in the UK. On the first night of his two London shows—part of his Kneeling Room Only tour—the 400-seater room is more than two-thirds empty, not that it can be that much of a surprise to his management. How many Brits, realistically, are glommed to YouTube, trawling the O&A archive? Can you get Sirius over here? Some of Norton’s most hilarious guest spots have been on Compound Media, but you can hardly fill a British theatre with Compound fans, given that (signalling alert) Chris Davies and Neil Showbiz are the network’s only UK subscribers (signalling alert 2: 2014 early adopters). If he wants to fill this room night after night, as Doug Stanhope did in his various residencies, Norton has a lot of work to do.
The opener is a female comic from New York. Her material has a familiar ring: I have body shape issues, I hate Trump, Brexit bad, Beyonce good, I really hate Trump, I have more body shape issues, how does my hair look, I really like Beyonce. She closes by complaining that female comics are stereotyped as having predictable material. She doesn’t seem to be joking.
Things get edgier when Sabbath clangs and Norton at last shambles on stage, to rapturous applause. He expresses his amazement at how, after all of the scandals in the entertainment industry, he, the biggest creep of all, looks by comparison like a pretty decent guy, and has the crowd convulsing with laughter. He isn’t peddling the safe, sanitised brand of standup that gets broadcast on British TV. He takes chances, assumes polarising postures; such as when he exonerates his pal Louis CK, whose kinks he distances from the outright depravity of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, both of whom he subjects to his vicious brand of insult comedy.
Norton seems to delight in disputing settled convictions, in probing other people’s sore spots. Another potentially alienating bit was his defence of Donald Trump—surely a first for the Leicester Square Theatre stage—which was impressive in its evenhanded mixing of praise with criticism, and its bilious dissection of cheap shot jokes and the political conformity among mainstream comics. Daring stuff, and worthy of a man who had publicly willed the eccentric billionaire to win the election. (Though mainly for reasons of mischief.)
And on he goes, all his dark obsessions enumerated with amazing aplomb: hookers, invalids, sexual health, pornography. His pathological self-loathing. Are these all-new jokes? Or is this a reprise of his Yellow Discipline set from 2003? And while other bits, about social ineptitude and relationship problems, might not sound that original, the gags are so good, and from such unlikely angles, it doesn’t matter.
The biggest laugh of the night comes when Chip Chipperson makes a brief cameo, and subjects the room to his agonising attempts at being funny. Bomb comics go back all the way to Milton Berle’s experiments of the early 40s, and trust little Jimmy Norton, a sadomasochist who once played a tape of his atrocious open mic debut to a room full of professional comedians, and seemed almost to luxuriate in their disgust, to conceive perhaps the worst one ever. His question of whether he should bring a Chip podcast to London was met with such wild applause that the word of mouth alone might make that one a sell out. You get the impression that being outdone by his own comic inferior would titillate Norton no end.
Although he does fill huge auditoriums for his specials, the small number of lucky Londoners who saw him this time got the best version of Jim Norton. He seems most at home in the noisy, informal confines of the club, interacting with voluble drunks, as he was here, doing things off the cuff, and traversing a set that feels only very loosely planned. It was like sampling the salty atmosphere of New York’s notorious ‘Cellar crowd,’ and when departing the room, and observing the promos for some famous British comics that were flashing on the monitors, it was hard not to think of the five or six times Norton had pilloried himself for going for the easy punchline—disparaging the very mechanics of the gag—when in each case that gag would likely be the big closer for the standups being advertised on screen. There can be very few British comedy fans who, having been exposed to the O&A family tree, go back to Rob Beckett.
Bill Burr drew a puny crowd when he made his UK debut in this same room in 2010, and has long since advanced to big venues, and with the force of his Chipperson persona Norton may yet do the same. If he does return, in whatever guise, and you want to experience a higher level of comedy, do go and see him, even if it means having to travel.
That warm up act you can probably catch on the next series of Live at the Apollo.