The Way We Get By: Jim Norton on Tiger King

For the standup comedy stalwart, the new Netflix sensation is not only highly entertaining but also strangely uplifting.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

I’m trying to keep busy at the moment. In the mornings, I do my radio show with Sam Roberts and that keeps me sane. A while back, Sirius XM anticipated the coronavirus situation getting worse, so they gave me equipment which allows me to do the show from home.

The thing I’m recommending to people is probably what everybody is recommending at the moment: Tiger King. The show is weirdly uplifting, in a way – because at the end, you feel so much better than everybody in it. You think, “I’m not such a bad person. I’m better than all of them!” I don’t do meth, I’ve never had a spouse killed, I don’t keep wild cats, I don’t have jewelry in my face – there’s so many things about that show that make me feel good about myself!

I avoided Tiger King at first and only watched it because I knew we were going to talk about it on the radio show. But 10 minutes into the first episode, I was in love with it. In these trying times, everybody’s stuck in the house going stir crazy – we miss our freedom – so it’s nice to watch something which helps you realize that even with your freedom, you can be a complete ass and ruin your life – like everybody in Tiger King did. It’s very funny to see how stupidly some people behave in real life.

The main character, Joe Exotic, is not a good guy – he’s basically a bum and a shyster – but you like him anyway. And Carole Baskin, the woman who is behind most of the conflict, turns out to be awful as well. Some people say coronavirus is a great equalizer, but I would say Tiger King is a good equalizer too: it shows you that no matter what angle you’re coming from, if you’re somehow involved in the wild cat business, you’re probably a psychopath. As a comedian, I’ve worked with enough mental patients to be able to immediately spot people with major mental health problems. In Tiger King, they’re all narcissists or have borderline personality disorder – every one of them. You don’t need a degree to see that. I’m a high school dropout, and I can spot a narcissist from a mile away. In show business, you run into them all the time.

Tiger King is a great tutorial on how unchecked anger can ruin your life, and it’s also a microcosm for the way America is in 2020, because we’re split down the middle – conservatives hate liberals, liberals hate conservatives – and everybody is just blaming the other side. No one is saying, “All of us are self-centered, we are all part of the problem,” people are standing on their ideological side, shouting, “My side is right! You suck, you’re wrong!” And nobody wants to admit that they suck as well. What Tiger King shows is that no matter which side of the aggression you’re on, no one is right. Carole Baskin was trying to take away Joe Exotic’s zoo because she felt she was in the right because she was a conservationist, but if you go back into her past, you learn she was a breeder herself. And Joe Exotic thought he was on the right side of the issue because he was the victim, but he was also a self-centered, abusive asshole. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they were both equally irritating, equally self-righteous, equally flawed, and neither of them could see it on their own side. They could only allow their anger to drive them to win. And when it becomes about winning, and not ever about compromising or listening to the other side, you wind up in a disastrous situation – which is exactly what happened.

Once the lockdown is over, I’m not sure things are going to be radically different than before. Plastic glove sales and Purell sales are going to remain high, we’re not going to shake hands as much (we’ll fist bump), and we’re going to practice a little more social distancing. But I think as soon as there’s a vaccine – assuming we’ve not all dropped dead – people are going to go right back the way they were before, except a little bit more germaphobic. We may have more appreciation for the little things in life, though, like sitting with your friends or walking into a Starbucks. I’ve never realized how much that stuff is important to me. Because everyone is in the same boat right now, maybe there will also be a greater sense of community. The whole planet going through this right now, and there’s a certain comfort in the fact that nobody has this thing licked. We are all dealing with it, and everybody is doing what they can.

Jim Norton has emerged as one of the most versatile, unique voices in comedy; he is a two-time NY Times bestselling author, sells out theaters nationwide as a standup comedian, and can be heard every morning on The Jim Norton & Sam Roberts Show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. He can currently be seen in the Martin Scorsese-directed Netflix feature The Irishman, and his episode of Netflix’s The Degenerates premiered at the beginning of 2020. Jim’s fifth hour standup special Mouthful of Shame is currently streaming on Netflix; his other one-hour comedy specials can be seen on Hulu, Amazon and HBO GO. He has also co-hosted UFC’s wildly popular Unfiltered Podcast with Jim Norton & Matt Serra since 2016 and he has appeared in several comedy fan-favorite TV series, including Louie, Crashing, and Power. Since 2014, Jim has been a contributor to Time Magazine. Both of Jim’s books, I Hate Your Guts (2008) and Happy Endings: The Tales of a Meaty-Breasted Zilch (2007), published by Simon & Schuster, spent several weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He lives in New York City. For more information, go to