How To Be a Comedian

“I hope you accidentally drink leukemia at a picnic”

“You have the timing of diarrhea in the 9th inning”

“That’s an interesting accent you got there. Are you from stroke-victim?”

The jokes are offensive and depraved. The best comedians are truly twisted humans who have a private truth in the center of their black holes and they have the honesty and skill to share it with us.  I can’t stop laughing when I read his stuff or see him on TV or in a movie. That’s Jim Norton. He’s been around the block awhile as a standup comedian but I first saw him (as an adult) on the HBO series “Lucky Louie” (starring my favorite comedian, Louis CK) where he was the disgusting neighbor always popping in and making gross jokes. I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. An old man! I watched his HBO special and also his series where he’d bring on other new comedians. I then read his books “Happy Endings” and “I Hate Your Guts”.

The first time I heard him do standup-comedy was when we were in 4th grade together.

He was the new kid in school. Usually the new kids shut up and kept their head low while the rest of us “veterans” got used to them. Maybe we would be friends with them. Maybe not. I remember very clearly this new kid sitting about two rows from me, his head straight up, and on day one he was non-stop telling jokes and making the class laugh. I couldn’t stop laughing. My stomach hurt from laughing so much. I thought I was going to pee in my pants.  Mrs. Osborne, the teacher, even said he was a “natural comedian”. We all knew even then he was made to be a comedian.

Incidentally, the last and only time I had peed in my pants in school was when I was in first grade. I was trying to hold it in as long as possible. I couldn’t figure out how to use the zipper in the urinal like all of the other kids so I would try to wait until I was home. But on this particular day it was too long to wait. “Can I go to the bathroom,” I said to the teacher. And I ran out of the classroom straight to the urinal but… “what’s wrong,” said the kid next to me.

“Too late,” I said. And my pants were completely soaked from the urine before I had the chance to figure out the whole zipper/urinal thing. (To this day I’ve never attempted the urinal again and just use the stall like any normal woman does.) I had to spend the rest of the day in the nurse’s office and then my mom picked me up with a new pair of pants. Thank god I’m a grownup now.

I always think I’m funny. When I want to make people laugh with a post, I can. When I want to make people laugh when I do public speaking or I go on TV, I usually can. I always wonder, can I do this straight out – be a comedian? When I was single, right before I met Claudia, I would drink at my favorite restaurant and write down jokes on a pad that I thought I could perform. I’d then call my friend in California who writes sitcom comedy and run the jokes by him to see what he thought was funny. I wanted to be a comedian.

But I can’t.

I look back at Jim and the raw talent. Everything he said was funny. He couldn’t help himself. 4th grade was the only time we ever really hung out. He kept trying to tell me “KISS” was the greatest band ever but for me at that time I only listened to Billy Joel, or…Barry Manilow (hey, “Copacobana” could be the best song of all time).

 

“Two men spit in their hands, help each other out, then laugh about it later. Just to be silly”

“I don’t wear rubbers cause you can’t catch it twice”

“I am so ugly, if I got a girl pregnant she would throw herself down a flight of stairs”

 

And yet despite the fact that all of us were constantly laughing whenever he opened his mouth I still read about all the effort, the persistence, the sheer mania, he had to go through in order to rise up in the comedy world. How he studied the greats, emulated them, performed at the crappiest dives, rose up bit by bit despite the hardship. Nothing was easy for him. If he had ever given up, he never would’ve been the successful comedian we all took for granted he would be. His talent was worth nothing.  I was even surprised to read about a suicide attempt when he was 18. I didn’t know. I was too busy in my own fantasy world.

 

“I had AIDS, but I beat it with Advil”

“If I was a girl, I’d have a miscarriage right now”

“Look at that little bloody thump on the floor, that was gonna be something!”

 

I didn’t really know him at all when we were older. I wish I had made more of an effort to make more friends in high school with the people I legitimately liked. But I kept to myself. I played chess. I rode my bicycle in my neighborhood.

I waited for the hell of suburbia to be over, so that real life could begin. The suburban night comes to an end with the locks of the garage doors opening with metallic slowness, the extra-wide roads creeping to life, the pretentious cadillacs moving like reptiles in a fogged line so they can get to the city and begin ordering around the slaves around and climb on their backs to be Vice-Presidents of Something, Inc. They get to work, quickly wash their faces with daylight, their faces becoming pale, pasty, ugly, old, forgotten, in that order, as the humor leaves their bodies with their youth, and only the unlucky ones survive til death with nothing permanent to show for it other than another generation to take their place.

I didn’t make too many friends, thinking that one day the exact thing my parents generation worshipped: money, would be mine and I would be finally happy. As a youth I fantasized about the money. And when I had a bit of money, poverty grasped me like a scorned lover and wouldn’t let go. I fantasized about  the kids that tortured me. They would come to me when we were older,  looking for jobs and I would string them along until I finally said “NO!” and they would cry hopelessly. In my head I was as mean and cruel as any kid that tortured me. Now I want my youth back, to reverse those fantasies, to reverse that cruelty, to cure in advance the shame that plagued the next thirty years of my life. To become friends with the people who I had been afraid of.

Maybe Jim tried to kill himself at 18 because he saw the joke before the rest of us did. Jim Norton was funnier by far than all of the kids I grew up with. We were constipated with life and he had crapped it all out. But what made him a comedian was not his enormous talent, or his ability to see through the lies – so easily funnier than the rest of us, but the persistence, mania, tireless study of his peers, and the pursuance of the dream that left the rest of us behind when all we do is weep and sleep.

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  • Steven L Goff

    You dont ever piss in a urinal today? You dont sit down to pee in the stall….do ya?

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Sometimes! If I’m reading. (continuing my policy of giving too much information away here)

      • http://www.stockrake.com StockRake

        Smart phones were made for stalls.

        • Anonymous

          New game! Angry Turds!

      • THarrington

        It also alleviates over-spray.

    • Curtis Michelson

      If anyone ever doubted James Altucher seriousness about self honesty, that line about never using the urinal is proof positive.  Dude, you are putting out there.  (and giving me the courage to say, I’m a man, and I use stalls, too!)  Damnit.

  • Steven L Goff

    A lot of times when I am out with my friends at bar and a couple of us end up in bathroom standing next to each other…..I always try and piss on their legs/shoes standing next to me…..lol   I do a bank shot off of the low wall tiles onto thier shoes….lol   It’s a game to us…. to never be standing next to one another and always have missing urinal space between us.  if not…ya getting wet shoes. I dont be drunk (I am usually driver for nights cause I dont drink much if at all)…..so I have the best aim with my Coke Cola piss

  • http://twitter.com/arianna Arianna O’Dell

    The key to being funny : Just laugh after all your own jokes. It creates the allusion of being funny even when you’re not.

    At least that’s what I keep telling myself. 

    • John Klepper

      Selling siding, alluminum at that, is a greater factor in comedic output possible than talent, however raw.

      Dangerfield did it.

      Additionally, just think of this:

      Actor 1:  Who are you?  How did you get in here?

      Actor 2.  I’m a locksmith. And, I’m a locksmith.

  • C. Martin

    I love Jim Norton and I didn’t know all this about him! I wonder how one can develop comedy skills…I’d love to be a funnier guy! It’s great for picking up the ladies heh. Time to google search “how to be a comedian”!

  • Anonymous

    If Don Rickles were dead I would swear that Norton was his reincarnation

    • http://www.facebook.com/joehenriod Joe Henriod

      Can you imagine if they did a show together?

  • http://www.toddandelin.com Todd_Andelin

    One of the funniest guys I ever worked for always left the room telling a joke,  and when the room was at the peak of laughter, he would say “gotta go” and  exit quickly.  

    The last joke I remember him telling:

    A guy is on the side of the road wearing nothing black and white with his arm up a horses’ ass.
    What is he???
    …An amish mechanic….gotta go guys!

  • Anonymous

    You make me nervous for my 3 year old boy. He waits until the very last moment to go to the bathroom, and he barely makes it 95% of the time. The other 5% I have extra laundry. I never let him wear belts and mostly buy him elastic waist pants. Maybe I should be making him wear regular pants so he realizes he needs an extra minute or two…

  • Chris

    Wow, I follow you, @jimnorton and @opieradio. It’s weird when my circles overlap.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Suburban central new jersey RULES!

  • Salad

    Lol I know this is an original and insightful article James. Huge fan. But it sounds a lot like the comedian from the watchmen when u describe him like this

  • http://sayemislam.com sayem

    Love this post, reminds me of this interview between Jimmy Fallon and Sean Parker where they talk about their respective paths and the struggles they went through in pursuing their craft – http://fora.tv/2011/06/22/A_Conversation_with_Jimmy_Fallon_and_Sean_Parke#fullprogram

  • http://twitter.com/sandman_va Dave Sandrowitz

    Comic genius is a thing of beauty, but it so often born from pain and hardship.  All the comedians I love the most either use material from their own lives, spinning their stories of struggle and heartache into humor and laughter, or are extreme social critics who make us laugh while showing us what a bunch of horrifying animals we are.
    I sometimes think the only way we can actually talk about what life is really like, how it is much more like a constantly flowing river of shit than anything else, is to make jokes out of it.  We can’t swallow the truth any other way.

  • http://www.brookefarmer.com Brooke Farmer

    You have more real life stories than anyone I know and each of them are fascinating. 

    What’s even better is your ability to make them all relevant to the rest of us. Who among us doesn’t have some dream that will require hard work, persistence, patience and perseverance to achieve? 

    Thank you for this, James. It was so well timed. 

  • michalis p.

    what a great post. I see parts of myself in it.

  • http://twitter.com/fzeng96 Feng Z

    I think behind every funny people there are some sad stories, how can you be funny without experiencing some tragedies in life? often, i find that being funny is a good way to offset the sadness.

  • http://www.736hundred.tumblr.com 736hundred

    I would like to hear something funny…about now. 

    On a side note, we are all going to die.

  • http://www.736hundred.tumblr.com 736hundred

    I would like to hear something funny…about now. 

    On a side note, we are all going to die.

  • Anonymous

    What a great story, like another poster, I see some of myself in this article and I am rather surprised to not read a bunch of negative posts slamming one another as well as targeting the subject and writer. Nice to see there ARE decent people in the world. great story and normal people replied……wow, I think I am in a little shock.

  • nysepete

    I was that kid that everyone thought would be the comedian.  People still tell me I should be a comedian.  But I always thought “It’s a lot harder than it looks” or “You think I’m funny  because you know me and can relate – an audience of stranger’s wouldn’t think it’s funny” — and lastly – because no one influential in my life actually took me aside when I was young and told me I could actually do it.

    Is that a cop out of sort?  I guess so.
    It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I took a comedy class – and with too many inhibitions by then I saw all the 20-somethings [and younger] in the class as way more daring and free than I was.  So I coasted through the class and lost touch with all of them.

    I salute Norton [and others like him] for doing a difficult job – making the world laugh – when so many UN-funny things are happening around us.  ie. Al Franken used to be funny.

    But to your post – I unfortunately found this one a bit depressing in truth.  Maybe my own unfulfilled dreams are kicking me [it could just be my neighbors after my wife stuck the “Kick Me” sign on my back before I left this morning…

    • Dana Severson

      Rodney Dangerfield didn’t get his start until he was 42. Just saying …

  • nysepete

    I was that kid that everyone thought would be the comedian.  People still tell me I should be a comedian.  But I always thought “It’s a lot harder than it looks” or “You think I’m funny  because you know me and can relate – an audience of stranger’s wouldn’t think it’s funny” — and lastly – because no one influential in my life actually took me aside when I was young and told me I could actually do it.

    Is that a cop out of sort?  I guess so.
    It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that I took a comedy class – and with too many inhibitions by then I saw all the 20-somethings [and younger] in the class as way more daring and free than I was.  So I coasted through the class and lost touch with all of them.

    I salute Norton [and others like him] for doing a difficult job – making the world laugh – when so many UN-funny things are happening around us.  ie. Al Franken used to be funny.

    But to your post – I unfortunately found this one a bit depressing in truth.  Maybe my own unfulfilled dreams are kicking me [it could just be my neighbors after my wife stuck the “Kick Me” sign on my back before I left this morning…

  • Kevin M

    I always use a stall. Just like George Costanza. I think it comes from grade school when one of the bathrooms just had a trough to pee in. I don’t even think it flushed, it was angled so it just ran into the drain.

  • eric

    It must be in the delivery. In print none of Norton’s jokes are funny. But I don’t trust anyone who love KISS.

  • Mom043

    none of this is funny