Jim Norton recently appeared on an episode of The James Altucher Show podcast where he discussed his early days in comedy, how he deals with crowds (and nerves), and what he’s working on to improve his act.
You can listen to the full episode here, or read up on some of the highlights below.
1. Sometimes It Helps To Have No Other Options
At around the 7-minute mark, Norton reflects back on how he got his start in comedy and points out that he had essentially abandoned his education and put himself in a position where he had no choice but to succeed at comedy.
“I purposely left myself no safety net,” he says. “It’s got to be standup or it’s going to be nothing.”
He admits that like all comics, he struggled initially and he wonders whether he would have abandoned comedy if he had any other realistic career options at the time.
“I can’t believe I made myself continue to perform, because you bomb a lot (in the beginning),” he says. “If I had a good education, maybe I wouldn’t have stuck with it.”
He goes on to point out that there wasn’t necessarily anything special about him in the early days – noting that, “there’s a million funny people out there,” but that the only difference with him was that he put in the time and effort to learn how to do comedy the right way.
“I worked at it,” he says.
2. Be Honest, Except About How Nervous You Are
At around the 12-minute mark he talks about how he believes comedians should deal with crowds and how you should present yourself on stage.
“The audience likes to think you’re confident, and they don’t know if you’re not unless you show them,” he says. “Act as if.”
But while Norton believes it’s important to convey a certain confidence on stage (even if you’re not), he also explains that honest helps when it comes to other situations on stage.
“I’ll acknowledge if something doesn’t work,” he says. Ultimately, he suggests that you, “Be honest about your surroundings and project confidence.”
3. Don’t Do The Emotional Work For The Audience
At around the 26-minute mark, Norton is asked what part of his act he’s trying to improve at the moment and he explains that he’s trying to do less of the “emotional work” for his audience. He says he admires Colin Quinn because, “What makes Colin great is that he doesn’t do the audience’s emotional work for them.”
What he means by that is that you can do a joke about being angry, without actually being angry in your delivery of that joke on stage.
“You don’t want anger to block your creativity,” he explains.
He also says he’s trying to display a more complete side of himself and make sure he never loses sight of his mission.
“I want to make a point, but that’s not my job – anybody can make a point,” he says. “My job is to be funny.”
4. You Probably Can’t Do What Louis CK Can Do
At around the 33-minute mark, Norton discusses his various experiences working in television and shares his observations about the success and impact of Louis CK’s FX series. While he admires Louis and thinks the control he’s managed to get over his show is great for comedians, he points out that most people don’t realize that the major reason Louis can have that control is because of his diverse skill set as a filmmaker and editor in addition to being a talented comedian, actor and writer.
“There are things Louis does in that show that nobody else can do because of all his skills,” says Norton. “His skills enable him to do that.” He then points out that most comedians are never going to be able to do what Louis does.
5. Lead With Logic…Just Like Carlin Did
At around the 42-minute mark, Norton circles back to further explain his thoughts about not doing the emotional work for the audience. This time he uses George Carlin’s work as an example and points out that, “People respond better if they’re not being preached to.”
He adds, “George Carlin had anger, but look how silly a lot of his delivery was. He let his words talk for him and let the audience come with him…or not. He led them with logic instead of doing the emotional work for them.”
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