Inside the Internet Outrage Machine with Jim Norton
After 2012’s Please Be Offended and 2013’s American Degenerate, standup Jim Norton returns to television tonight with his third Epix special Contextually Inadequate. Filmed at Boston’s Somerville Theatre in January, the special dives deep into recent pop culture scandals and their internet backlash aftermaths, covering everything from the demise of Bill Cosby and Donald Sterling to his own personal experience after the firing of his friend and Opie and Anthony Show cohost Anthony Cumia last July. Ahead of Contextually Adequate’s premiere, Norton spoke with us about hosting his own show on Vice, the difference between online criticism and outrage, and what projects he has planned for the year ahead.
It’s been a while since we interviewed you. How’s your year been? What was it like hosting that show for Vice?
Things have been great. The Vice show experience was really good — I enjoyed doing that, it taught me a lot. I’m very happy with how the special came out, I’m working on an animation, and I’m looking to do the talk show but I’ll probably do it elsewhere. I’m actually really psyched about this coming year. Normally I’m not; normally every year seems like one deeper layer of failure, but this coming year I’m actually looking forward to.
So the Vice show was just a teaser? You plan to do more of it?
Oh I’m definitely gonna do more of that, I just don’t know if it’ll be with Vice. I have a great relationship with those guys, but they’re just very very busy and they’re working on news stuff, and I just can’t wait anymore. So we have talked to other networks, so we’ll see. We still have some meetings to go to, but I liked what I did with Vice and and the people I’ve talked to liked it very much as well. I can’t say who it is because I think they want to announce it if it happens — I don’t wanna blow it — but the reality is I want it to be very close to the show at Vice, because I was really happy with it.
This new standup special is your third special with Epix. Why did you stick with them?
They allow me total creative freedom and they’re willing to promote, and I like those guys and I trust them. I think they’re a great network.
Contextually Inadequate is largely about internet outrage and shaming. Some of the stories — the Duck Dynasty guy, Donald Sterling, and a couple others — have already been outdated by a whole new round of “internet outrage” stories in the past few months.
Yeah, well even though okay, Donald Sterling is an older reference, the references change but I think what it implies culturally is the same, and we’re so guilty of the same thing. So there’s still something very topical about it because people are still behaving that way.
The special has a really tight focus, and you cover so many different stories under that umbrella. When you’re developing an act like that, how do you figure out the best way to order things and make sure you weave a theme throughout everything?
Well it just kinda happens. I mean, I was doing a lot of that material, and then in July, Anthony [Cumia] got fired, so I worked on material on that, and it seemed like that kind of kicked off the scene for “What you say is important, and what you do is not,” which is just the opposite of how I was raised.
What do you think separates genuine critique from more of a knee-jerk outrage?
Normally, with fake outrage, people expect a penalty. If someone doesn’t like a comedian that’s fine; a lot of people probably don’t like my standup, and that’s fine. But I think that the problem is people want you to get in trouble. That’s the issue.
Do you think that sometimes, though, responding to the “fake outrage” tweets or articles just feeds into it all and makes it worse?
Well you have to respond though, because if you don’t respond — it’s hard not to, I’m sure — but if you don’t, the outrage continues, because people who are outraged like to hear themselves talk and they feel good doing that. So if you respond to it intelligently, it helps. I think if you lash out it’s stupid, but there is a way to respond to it intelligently and show them what nonsense it is.
I think when today’s teenagers turn into adults it’ll stop happening as much, because they were all born into the internet and cell phones and they’ll all have at least a few dumb or shameful things somewhere on the internet, so the novelty of it all will fade.
Absolutely. We all penalize each other like it’s a novelty. That’s why people are so stupid, because we’re all vulnerable to it, and yet we all attack each other with it. It’s amazing.
You mention in your special how, when these things happen in the news, the press always takes the “easy angle.” Can you expand on that?
I think what happens is they take the angle that’s gonna get them the most clicks, like “Oooh, look at this outrageous behavior!” But first of all, they’re full of shit, because how come they never have the same outrage towards the fact that the media has contributed to mass shootings by giving these shooters what they want? They’ll focus on the outrage around a racist joke or racist bit or a sexually inappropriate joke, but they don’t attack each other for putting James Holmes’s photo on the front page and calling him the Joker, even though FBI profilers have said that is truly something that motivates people to kill. So they just don’t care that they’re motivating people to commit crimes — they’d much rather focus on the outrage at someone. It’s garbage.
As a comedian, how do you keep one ear open to criticism while also staying true to yourself and the material you want to perform?
You just have to believe in what you’re saying and be able to explain why you said it. There’s nothing I say that I can’t back up or at least explain why I came to that conclusion, so I’m not afraid of getting in trouble.
And look, if I said something truly horrible people would come after me, but I think on the average thing, people know there’s nothing to “get” here because this is exactly what I do, so I’m not afraid of it. If you’re not afraid of it and you’re willing to address it and combat it, I think they’re less likely to come after you.
Contextually Inadequate premieres tonight at 10:00pm on Epix.