This American comedian hated “the whole f***ing region” of Europe
PUBLISHED: 14:45 21 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:49 21 May 2017
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Now, he’s on his way over – but what really changed his mind?
“I don’t do Europe. They hate Americans,” said American comedian Jim Norton in 2011, at the start of an eight-minute vilification of Europe which was broadcast on the New York-based Opie & Anthony radio show (which Norton co-hosted). I was listening to the clip online because Norton, one of the top tier comedians in America (485k Twitter followers, a popular Netflix special, dozens of television credits), is coming to Europe. I was intrigued by his six-year volte-face.
One of the reasons for it, he told me, was peer pressure. Last year Norton’s friend Louis CK came to Europe to perform in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Helsinki, Paris and Prague. Also last year, another of Norton’s friends, Amy Schumer, performed in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Oslo and Stockholm. But it was the nagging of his friend Bill Burr, who has toured Europe a several times, which finally persuaded him, and it was Burr who was trying to persuade him in that radio studio in 2011.
“All you’ve got to say when they give you shit,” said Burr in 2011, “is you just go, ‘Do you really think I determine our foreign policy you fucking moron?’”
“I don’t even want to do that, it’s just that they annoy me,” said Norton.
“Have you gone over?” asked Burr.
“No, I have not,” said Norton.
Norton continued, saying he didn’t want to be one of those comedians who goes to Europe and says, in his words, ‘Oh the US is stupid, Americans are stupid’.
Burr replied, “I was over there trashing them: ‘I’m so sick of you guys acting like you’re better than us. You’re just as fucking dumb as we are. You’re not as fat as us, but you’re definitely mushy with your fish and chips torsos.’ They died laughing. Jim, you’re going to go over there you’re going to have an accent, you’re instantly going to be mysterious, Jim. For the first time in your life you’re going to be mysterious. They’re going to find you as interesting as you find yourself Jim.”
“I don’t fucking want to go to Europe,” said Norton. “Fuck them. Fuck Europe. Fuck ‘em. I hate the whole fucking region.” He ranted about foreign policy, the Soviet Union and the euro. He was being funny, but it was clear: he did not like Europe.
At the end of the clip, Burr said, “I’m starting the Get Jimmy to Europe Foundation.”
Norton replied, “Never gonna happen,”
Yet Norton is now making his first ever trip to Europe for shows in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm at the end of May. “Bill Burr is the one who got me to do this,” he said. “Bill has been telling me for years, ‘Dude, you got to go to Europe, dude, just get out of your fucking comfort zone.’ And, you know, Bill Burr screaming in your head is unpleasant, so I’m going over there just basically to stop Bill Burr’s voice from playing in my head on a loop.”
Which is funny, but there is more to it than that. American audiences are very familiar with Jim Norton (often uncomfortably familiar). He was born in 1968, grew up in New Jersey, drank a lot as a teenager, and ended up in rehab in 1986 after ‘a halfhearted, insincere suicide attempt’, which is how he described it in his book, Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch, the first of his two New York Times bestsellers. Both books peddled honesty – Norton’s hilarious forte.
Throughout his career he has talked about potentially alienating subjects, such as hiring prostitutes, hiring transgender prostitutes, or going to Brazil to hire prostitutes, all of which could be misread as bravado or cheap laughs, but Norton uses for intimacy. As another of his friends, comedian Colin Quinn, wrote in the foreword to Happy Endings: “To describe Jim as ‘dirty’ or ‘shocking’ is to miss the point. He’s not trying to be dirty or shocking. He’s revealing himself, warts and all.”
It works. Norton has a loyal following from his radio show, is a regular on television (including Louis CK’s Louie, and Amy Schumer’s Inside Amy Schumer), and his specials are now reaching a wider audience, particularly his latest, A Mouthful of Shame, which is on Netflix and is introduced by Ricky Gervais, Louis CK and Robert De Niro, the latter of whom spanks Norton’s bare bottom (he met De Niro while helping him to act like a stand-up for the film The Comedian).
There was also another big change in Norton’s life since he ranted about Europe back in 2011. A few weeks after that broadcast, his friend and fellow comedian Patrice O’Neal, who spent a lot of time in Europe, died from complications following a stroke (O’Neal was already in hospital when Norton had his anti-Europe rant). Afterwards Norton lost a lot of weight (I interviewed him in New York in 2012 and he looked like a different person), and as his stand-up has hit and he’s gained his own radio show, he seems to have opened up to the world.
“You might be right,” he said. “That might be what I’m doing because of these changes. Maybe it is just a change of attitude. That might have been the problem. It was probably fear-based. Whenever we paint these stupid reasons that we’re not doing something, it’s usually because we’re afraid it’s not going to work, and now I’m not afraid it’s not going to work. I don’t expect it to work. I’ve accepted it’s not going to work. So I’m not afraid – just go over there and let it not work.”
By ‘not work’, he means the shows might not sell out (“Even if it’s not sold-out shows who cares,” he said, “you’re still going to Europe”), rather than any fear that the material might not work. He is confident in the material, all new since his Netflix special. “I’m doing a lot of Trump stuff,” he said, “and current affairs, talking about how great it is that people are being dragged off the airlines like animals.” Not that he’s simply Trump-bashing: “I know it’s popular to go over there and just go, ‘Trump is stupid,’ but I try to be really even with politics.”
I asked if he will do any material on Brexit, and whether it’s had much analysis in American stand-up. “It’s a very similar feeling to what got Trump elected,” he said. “I think that whenever people have thoughts or feelings that aren’t 100% in line with a certain ideology, you’re accused of being racist, you’re accused of being xenophobic, and I think people were sick and tired of being told that just because they’re not 100% on board that they’re shitty and they’re racist.”
He said he won’t pander to the European audience, but he also won’t be as defensive about anticipated anti-Americanism as he was in 2011. “I was just setting myself up to not go, thinking they were going to hate my guts before I went, which is stupid.” Listening back to that clip from 2011, there is a heartening moment when Bill Burr said, “Jimmy, they would accept you with open arms.” No doubt Norton has his fingers crossed for another happy ending.
Andrew Hankinson is the author of award-winning book You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] and contributes to the Observer and Wired