Between Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special and two comedy hours from Dave Chappelle, March has been a good month for Netflix. Yet big names like these aren’t the only reason the streaming comedy boom is alive and well for the dominant media platform. Lesser known, but nonetheless successful stand-ups are dropping new specials with the streaming service regularly, and even sketch films like Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special are getting their turn. Whether or not this surplus is ultimately good remains to be seen, but one thing is clear — those who came before are here to stay.
Like Jim Norton, the former Opie and Anthony co-host who runs his own show on Sirius XM with Sam Roberts. Two years ago he released his third comedy special, Contextually Inadequate on Epix, a Netflix rival. The longtime stand-up has since joined forces with the latter, resulting in Mouthful of Shame, one of many original Netflix comedy specials to premiere in March. Despite the crowded room, however, Norton doesn’t mind the company it affords him, like none other than legendary actor Robert De Niro, whose bare ass-spanking cameo in Mouthful of Shame‘s opener stands among Norton’s favorite memories.
I re-watched Mouthful of Shame and Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special over the weekend, then woke up early to see Dave Chappelle’s latest. You’re right in the middle of Netflix’s boom.
You made your previous special, Contextually Inadequate, with Epix. You’d already done several with them at that point, while Burr was doing the same over at Netflix. Now there’s a big push, but you were at the forefront of it before everybody else.
This is my first Netflix original, which is great. Obviously you want to be here. It’s shown over all the world and there’s no premiere. You can just say, “Okay, it’s up and streaming. Go check it out.” It’s such a great place to be. I think it’s where most of us want to do specials. I’m really, really happy to be on Netflix. Honestly.
Why do you think most comics want to be on Netflix?
I think mostly because it’s up all the time. They don’t put the pressure on you for the premiere. You know what I mean? They say, “Hey, you can just go out and promote it.” Also, they’re hands-off creatively. They let me do whatever I wanted. They had faith in the fact that I was going to do a decent special, and they seem happy with it. It was an amazing experience working with them. I’d love to do it again.
Subscribers pay for constant access, and there’s no commercials. You don’t have to edit the final hour for commercial breaks, which cuts up jokes.
Even HBO and Showtime are great places to be, but you have to aim for a very specific time. 56 minutes, so they can put a few promos in before. The great thing about Netflix is when you ask, “How long?” they say, “I don’t give a shit.” An hour, an hour and 10 minutes — whatever works. They really couldn’t care less, which was so much fun. It was really satisfying to deal with people like that, because they make you feel like they actually have faith in what you do.
Sure, but is that also more of a challenge? I can imagine the temptation is strong to leave in a lot of material you would otherwise cut. Stuff that may not ultimately work.
There were 12 minutes I cut out of it. I was happy with it. As long as it was at least an hour, I was good. Mouthful of Shame is like an hour and one, an hour and two with the opening. I didn’t even tell them I was doing the opening. I just did it. They had no idea about any of it until it was already shot. They were like, “You could have let us know you were doing this.” Now I don’t care if people know because it’s already out there, but I didn’t want anybody knowing that I was doing it because once you tell one agent or one lawyer, all of a sudden it gets leaked somewhere. I was really happy it didn’t get leaked.
That’s especially impressive since you showed it to the audience while taping.
A couple of people tweeted it, but not many. It was really weird. I think that they knew I wanted it kept secret if possible, so as not to spoil it for the people who’d watch it later. The fact they kept it a secret was amazing. That was all the fans. I was really happy they did that.
The shot of Robert De Niro spanking your ass is burned into my eyeballs.
You know what’s so funny? I talked to him the night before on the phone just to go over the script. He wanted to go over it. We went over it and he knew there were slaps in there, but I purposely kept the spanking out of the script. I’m like, “There’s no way I’m letting anyone see that. I’m just going to ask him when I get there.” We were going through the shoot in the middle of it and he was slapping me. I actually had bought a brush. I told my director, I’m like, “Bring a brush.” I said, “Look, Bob. I’d like you to spank me too, but I’ve got a brush if you don’t want to touch my bare ass. I understand.” He’s like, “Nah, I don’t care.”
The first three takes were over his lap, which I think gave him the creeps. That’s when he suggested we do one take while standing. I think he just didn’t want me on his lap anymore. So we did the one standing and it turned out to be the best one. That was his goal. It could not have been a better experience. He was just amazing. Also, Ricky Gervais actually improvised many of the lines at the end of his segment. He just improvised all of that and I had to keep it in, because it was so funny. He said, “I just want to insult you,” so I told him to go ahead and do it.
It’s not like Netflix would censor it.
They were so good with the trailer. I warned them I might put a harsh line in it, and they said, “Good. We don’t care. This isn’t regular television.” It was amazing how freeing they were to work with. I’ve never had an experience like that. I’ve had good experiences before, but I’ve never had one as freeing as Netflix.
There’s a fantastic viral video of Robert De Niro getting angry while filming a commercial from many years back. Was your bit with him a callback to that?
No, not really. Did you see at the very end, with the few extra minutes of blooper reels? I was just doing it because the nerve of me to tell this great actor how to do lines made me laugh. Plus, I had to give him a reason to slap me in the face, so I figured if I told him how to act, he would. He was such a nice guy about it.
Yeah, I saw the reel. It’s hilarious.
As written he was supposed to say, “Say it again, you ugly worm!” Instead De Niro improved “slug,” which was fucking meaner. It made me laugh so hard. “Say it again, you ugly slug!” It just caught me off guard that he improvised something meaner than what I wrote. That was a real laugh. He was so great. I had him for about an hour. He didn’t mind being directed, though. He was constantly saying, “You want me to do this? I’ll do that.” Then he would slap me and do another take without pause. “Did I do that right? Was that hard enough?” I kept telling him to slap me as hard as he could. “Do you want me to fake it and put in the sound?” Nope, I wanted a real slap with a real sound. He really did it. If you watch that again, you can see how red my face is in the beginning from all the previous takes. My left cheek especially, because he’d been slapping me for about a half hour at that point.
I get the sense you’re incredibly proud of the De Niro segment.
When I walked out on stage, I didn’t really have time to come up with a good opening line for the video. There was no way to test it unless without giving away the surprise, so I did it live. The first time you do that line was right there on the stage because no audience had ever seen that before. I was so happy it killed as hard as it did. I was just overjoyed. I didn’t even know what to say about it. The moment hit me when it played as well as I wanted it to, and the audience was happy. I know De Niro has starred in fucking 500 movies, but he will never forget me. If you talk to him on his deathbed, “Do you remember bare bottom-spanking that creepy comedian?” He will remember. He’ll nod his head, close his eyes and be sad about it, but he will remember it.
Contextually Inadequate came out two years ago. Between your daily radio work and preparing the hour that would become Mouthful of Shame, how long did it actually take to get this off the ground?
I was ready to shoot in a little over a year. I had enough material then, but Netflix was already so busy with their schedule. They had so much other stuff going on, so we pushed back the release date until they were ready. All of this is new material, but there are a few old bits in there. Every once in awhile, I’ll pull back bits I stopped doing six or seven years ago. On the road, you wind up getting bored with your act. You’ve got to keep it fresh. To do that, I’ll pull a line back I wound up doing years ago that I never filmed or taped for anything else. There are things I’ll wind up doing I toyed with eight years ago. It was just fun to bring a few things back like that, and it was all new for the audience. None of it was stuff I’d done recently.
I was so happy with this tour and the way the special came out. And the fans, dude. The fans are pretty honest. They had made me feel so good about my special. I can’t believe the reaction it’s gotten from the fans. Sometimes they’re very, very harsh, but they’ve mostly been on point with everything they’ve had to say about it. Their critique means everything to me.
I noticed you’ve been retweeting many of your fans’ reactions lately — their favorite parts, images or short video clips captured with their smartphones. Especially the darker stuff, of course.
You know what it is? This is a dirtier special than I’ve done, but it’s also a very autobiographical one. Most of them are opinion-based, but this is a lot of stuff from my personal life, and it’s all true. Getting caught cheating is true. The story about the Star Wars toys is true. (I can’t believe I blacked that one out for 30 years.) It’s dirty, but again, a lot of my life has revolved around sexual stuff. That’s why whenever I do something autobiographical, most people think I’m just a really dirty person. But it’s true.
Even torturing your manager?
I do torture my manager. My manager is one of my favorite people, but I love ruining his conversations like that. He’s just such a fun guy. I was happy I get to talk about him because I probably talk to my manager more than anybody else in the world. The fact I got to actually include him in this, and part of our interaction together, felt great.
And he’s cool with the attention?
He laughed. He didn’t care. It was a true story. He really did tell me about his dumb watch and I had been ruining his stories for years. He’s my friend, you know? He’s one of my closest friends. With most managers and staff, it’s probably nontraditional to have a relationship with a client like this — especially it’s such a weird friendship with — but we’re genuinely friends. He traveled to Australia with me. He’s married. We’re not an “alternative couple” or anything. Though he hates the people on the radio show I do with Sam Roberts. They always say John is my travel companion, which makes it sound like it’s a sexual relationship. It makes me laugh, but his wife hates it.
Let’s circle back to Schumer’s special for a moment. Unsurprisingly, she caught crap for joke stealing and the usual arguments, which cause some to launch a campaign to try and tank her Netflix ratings.
Did they really?
Wow. I didn’t read that. I did not read that. I knew they were giving her shit, but I didn’t know it was connected to my tweet. Amy is my friend. She used to tour with and open for me. She’s been a good friend for a long time. I would tweet any of my friends that have a special coming out. When Colin Quinn had a special come out, I tweeted it. Of course I’m going to tweet my friends’ stuff, even though it might do nothing. I mean, she has way more followers than I do. It’s not even necessarily helping, probably. But when your friend has something come out, you tweet it. Bob Kelly did it for me. I would do the same thing for him.
That subreddit can be a really rough place. They give me a beating, too. They even give Opie and Anthony beatings. The key with those guys is they can be really, really harsh. Some are absolutely unreasonable and unreachable, but a lot of them are really funny. I’ve read things about myself over the years there that were really angering and wrong, but also criticisms that were true. I’m not saying this in relation to Amy, of course. I’m saying this in relation to myself. There are times they’ve said things that rang horribly true, that I knew had some merit. It bothered me, but I couldn’t deny there was some truth to it. Does that make any sense?
Just because they fuck with people doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. It’s really a weird place. I’ve read some really unreasonable shit about myself there, but also some true shit.
Most comics tend to avoid that kind of stuff. Sounds like you don’t mind it, though.
I haven’t been to the subreddit in a little while. Maybe a month or so. The only reason is, I found that checking it or checking my Twitter mentions (since the special came out) can be helpful. At the same time, I don’t think it’s healthy to have immediate feedback — even when it’s positive. It feels amazing, what the fans have said to me. It’s overwhelming how good they’ve been to me about this special, but when it becomes that constant feedback… I’ll probably stop checking it all again because if you’re checking Twitter and those things constantly, even when they’re being nice, you’re constantly looking for immediate applause. “Did I do good?” It’s almost like the immediacy of the feedback you often get on stage, but nowhere near as healthy. But I can’t totally discount it either because the fans’ opinions count. When they speak, I can’t totally ignore what they have to say.
Jim Norton: Mouthful of Shame is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.