There's an old saying that laughter is the best medicine. Comedian Jeff Norris believes it. In fact, he's seen it in action.
Norris, from Brick, NJ, is known for his dead-on impressions of both Archie and Edith Bunker from the classic All In The Family television show. In addition to being a stand-up, he's had roles in films like My Super Ex Girlfriend and Anger Management, and has been seen on popular tv shows like Boardwalk Empire and Oz. He also believes in giving back to the community, something that helps him out on stage — especially when he cracks jokes about state troopers.
"The state trooper is a classic bit, always gets a laugh!" says Norris. "I've never had any bad feelings or ‘broken tail lights' after a gig. I guess having a gold PBA card from the head of the New Jersey Police doesn't hurt! Truth be told, I do a lot of fundraisers for local and state PBA functions as well as for the military. These shows are for men and women who risk their lives daily, so when the opportunity comes for a night out in a safe, stress-free environment with great food, drink, and laughter, everyone is in good spirits.
"There are some topics that I can't always include in my set, but you have to know the audience," he explains. "I always stand in the corner of the room before a show and get a visual on the crowd. You can read them: age, sex, race, happy, talkative, and so on. It's a good guide on show prep. It's a very ‘sensitive' society today, so you feel like you're on eggshells at times. I try to make it as relatable as possible. Everyone has family stories or a driving experience and who doesn't love a pet? I try to add things to the show, but often times it just happens on stage while doing a routine; something clicks and you build it new. Impressions are always fun and a good laugh when you take famous people and put them in totally different situations than normal."
Norris credits his grandfather Charlie Jones for inspiring him to be a comic. Jones was a World War II Battle of the Bulge survivor that was awarded the Purple Heart. He used laughter to help keep his troops in positive spirits during the darkest of times. Jeff remembers him saying, "When you laugh you feel great, but when you can make somebody laugh you really feel amazing" — something Jeff saw first hand during the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
"As everyone knows, Hurricane Sandy was horrific," said Norris. "Destroying homes and lives as well as communities. If you were not displaced from the storm, you loved someone who was. During the aftermath of the damage, I personally saw so many people helping one another, either in a physical way by moving trees and pushing cars or on Facebook by offering up their homes for people to stay or by lending a generator. This inspired me to believe that I too could make a difference, so I started the ‘Restore the Shore Comedy Tour.' We did a series of shows with great entertainers and raised over $250,000 for the storm victims — all through laughter. The money was distributed to Monmouth and Ocean County food banks, as well as other local charities. To see people have tears from laughing instead of tears from crying was very rewarding. I received a key to the city in Brick for the tour. It doesn't open anything, but it's a beautiful key and it holds some incredible memories."
K9's for Warriors is Jeff's favorite charity. The organization pairs up fully trained service dogs with wounded soldiers. As Jeff says, "They save both the dog and the warrior. They rescue each other and a lifelong friendship is bonded." Jeff recently helped raise over $100,000 for the charity thanks to a show that also included Big Joe Henry and Steve Trevelise from NJ 101.5, John Pizzi, Renee De Lorenzo, and Alexa Pantelo.
In addition to comedy, Norris is developing a bit of a niche as an actor, usually cast in roles as a police officer or bodyguard type. While many people have bit roles to put on their resume, Norris actually has scenes where he's talking directly to the star — something that definitely helps build a brand.
"All of the experiences with acting have been great, I'm just learning as I go," he explained. "Working on the series Oz on HBO was great and I met some wonderful people. Boardwalk Empire was incredible — to be on set with the ‘big shots' was like a dream. And I was proud of My Super Ex-Girlfriend movie. It was the first time I'd ever been on the big screen and to see myself on a screen in a movie theatre was pretty cool."
His dream role would be to be in an action film with Mark Wahlberg and if they ever decide to make a remake of All In the Family he'd probably be first in line for Archie's role, but above all he simply hopes to continue acting. Norris envisions a role in a tv series, maybe as a cop or in a show about the ups and downs of a comic's life and the people involved. As someone married to a comedian, Norris knows the environment very well. He says it's great to be married to someone who understands the business and its crazy schedule in which he's working the nights of the week and the holidays when most people are off. It's also nice to have someone who knows the money and the amount of work will always be a bit unpredictable.
Thankfully, Norris is part of a roster of entertainers with Royal Caribbean cruises that provides him with work and allows him to see the world while doing what he loves. He's also fortunate to live close to Uncle Vinnie's Comedy Club in Point Pleasant where he's a regular and his commute is less than 20 minutes with traffic.
"I love working Uncle Vinnie's," said Norris. "It's got a great atmosphere with fun locals and out of town people. There's always a great show at the club, because Dino cares about the chemistry of the show. Quality shows bring back regular guests, which is great because you build a relationship with the audience. Above that, Uncle Vinnie's was the one comedy club in Jersey that opened its doors free of charge to the Restore the Shore Comedy Tour, which played a big part of its success. I always look forward to shows there, both as an entertainer and as a guest."
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.