The interview opportunity with Graham Norton came as a result of Hopscotch deciding to issue the latest incarnation of Nortonâs chat show, The Graham Norton Effect, on DVD. Iâve got to say that although itâs entirely disposable as television, it is also really addictive. If there was no such thing as cable or DVD and we didnât have access to this show, itâs the sort of thing some enterprising clever clogs would go to the US, see, and bring back to Australia without changing a thing except the title and the host. If you donât believe me, cast your mind back to the turn of the 90s, when television comic Steve Vizard reinvented himself as a talk show host with a program called Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. It took the better part of a decade for those of us whoâd never been to the US to find out that the entire show was leased holus bolus from David Letterman, right down to the forced banter between Vizard and orchestra leader Paul Grabowsky. Just as Vizard is no Letterman, Paul Grabowsky is no Paul Shaffer. But I now digress. Norton was an entertaining interviewer to interview and his show isnât half bad. A narrative version of this interview will appear in an impending issue of FilmInk.
Demetrius Romeo: I understand that you were a Perrier Award nominee in the late 90s. So before you were doing television, you were doing live comedy. Can you tell me a bit about your comedy career?
GRAHAM NORTON: Well I was never very good. [Laughs] It was a way of making a living, really. It was one of those things: I was a failed actor but I still wanted to show off, so I ended up doing live comedy. But I was never a headlining act â I was more a âmiddlingâ act. Iâd compare, or Iâd be in the middle of the bill. But I was never like a âcloserâ. Or at least, not a reliable closer. So drifting into television suited me very well. I seemed to be better at that than doing the stand-up.
Demetrius Romeo: If thatâs the case, how did you make it into television?
GRAHAM NORTON: Well, I guess the main thing was, I just kept plugging away. I did bits of radio. We had a new network called Channel 5 and I guest-hosted for a man who had a chat show there. That went well and I won a prize for guest-hosting on his show and then Channel 4, one of the bigger networks, came up with the idea of me doing my own chat show which, thank God in Heaven, took off; it did well, and, you know, hooray.
Demetrius Romeo: Did you say you won a prize for being a guest host?
GRAHAM NORTON: I did. It was all a bit eggy, because the actual host was nominated as well. So we were both nominated for his show.
Demetrius Romeo: How did that pan out?
GRAHAM NORTON: Not so good. Not so well.
Demetrius Romeo: Because you won?
GRAHAM NORTON: Essentially, yes. That was the bit that didnât go well. It was good because it kind of saved me from myself, because Iâd never won anything in my entire life. If there hadnât been any kind of emotional constraint on me, I would have just run around the room screaming. So it was quite good that there was a very, very, very, very grumpy man. We were sharing a table. We were at the same table at the awards show. Essentially, it couldnât have gone worse.
Demetrius Romeo: And you scored your own chat show out of it, ultimately?
GRAHAM NORTON: Yes. Thatâs kind of how it happened.
Demetrius Romeo: How much of the live comedy experience do you draw on, being a chat show host? Clearly having a quick wit, being able to think on you feet in order to deal with any challenge youâre given, helps.
GRAHAM NORTON: The main thing that came out of the stand-up, I think, was working the audience. Because I had very little material when I was a stand-up. To try and drag it out to twenty minutes I would just talk to the audience a lot. I really enjoyed talking to them, and that was always the bit in my act that always went best. So when the show came along, that was something I really wanted to feature â I really wanted to work the audience. Also, the phone calls came out of that Perrier Award-nominated show I was doing called âMenâ [check] and the producer was very keen to incorporate those into the show. It was also his idea to incorporate the Internet, which I thought was mad. I thought it was going to be like 8-track cartridge or laser discs â âitâll go away, why bother?â He was right, I was wrong.
Demetrius Romeo: How did the phone calls element of your show come about? A few comics do the âprank phone callâ humour.
GRAHAM NORTON: I used to do this thing â itâs bizarre. In the back of gay magazines in Britain â and itâs probably because of me that theyâve stopped doing it now â but they used to put in â if you put in an ad saying really âout thereâ things - they wanted anything to happen to them. They really did not care what happened to them. Then at the end of the ad, theyâd put in their home phone number. Which seemed like an invitation to me. They wanted people to call them. So I would call them. And it was pretty âout thereâ. It was pretty filthy. But audiences seemed to like it. And that kind of developed into ringing all those kind of sex workers and freaks and weirdos that I do in the show.
Demetrius Romeo: Youâve had a series of chat shows, the latest of which is The Graham Norton Effect, which is the first one that weâve gotten to seen here in Australia because itâs being released on DVD. How have the shows evolved? How is The Graham Norton Effect different to So Graham Norton or V Graham Norton?
GRAHAM NORTON: The big difference with The Graham Norton Effect is that it was made specifically for America, so itâs much faster than the other shows weâve done. The other shows were more kind of organic â items grew out of other items, there was a flow. When we made the American shows, suddenly we had seven commercial breaks. Previously we had two, sometimes three. We were really worried about that, but seven commercial breaks suit the show, because the show is quite beefy. So we kind of enjoyed it. I donât know what itâs going to be like for Australians watching it, because we have done so many shows previously, so we kind of know what weâre doing; we know what weâre about. But for that to be the first show you see, I donât know how it will play. Well, I hope. I mean, there is funny stuff in there. Hopefully theyâll like it.
Demetrius Romeo: What sets you apart from your David Lettermans and your Conan OâBriens and your Jay Lenos is that you can talk dirty to your guests and they think itâs funny. You can actually go out on a limb and challenge your celebrity guests to do the sort of things they wouldnât normally do.
GRAHAM NORTON: Basically, Iâm a really bad interviewer. I love meeting celebrities, but then I get a bit bored. Once you meet them you thing, âreally, what an ordinary personâ. Thatâs why thereâs a lot of stuff going on in the show, because Iâve nothing to ask them, really. In a way, that happened by accident, because I was rubbish. But the good thing to come out of that is the celebrities are quite revealed in a way. Iâm not asking them questions they know how to answer. Iâm letting them react to stuff. And actually, you get to know a celebrity in a different way because youâre seeing what makes them laugh, what shocks them, what doesnât shock them, and they seem to relax into it because they realize that itâs not about them. Itâs more like them, as if theyâve been invited to a party.
Demetrius Romeo: You still keep the internet content as part of your show. Is there every anything that takes you by surprise or that doesnât quite work the way you expected it to?
GRAHAM NORTON: The Internet on the show is all previously downloaded so itâs quick. In the office, patently, there are things that just take your breath away. You know, you must have seen those things. You download something and youâre going âwhat the hell is that?! Why would anyone do it?â Occasionally weâve made the mistake of seeing those things in the office, thinking them hilarious, and then showing them to an audience in the studio and itâs a very different thing. The audience is looking at it thinking, âthatâs disgusting! Why is Graham making us look at that?â Iâm glad to say weâve only made that mistake a couple of times, but it is interesting, taking something thatâs funny in the office and putting it on a stage totally alters it.
Demetrius Romeo: How about the reactions of the celebrities? Have there been times where theyâve wanted to go back and self-censor because youâve caught them off their guard?
GRAHAM NORTON: Who was eggy? Twiggy was upset. Now why was Twiggy upset? I canât remember what we showed her. It was women, they were naked, but I donât know what the hell they were doing, but she didnât like it. But what we did was edit around her, so she never appeared in the same shot as what was going on on the screens. It seems like a dangerous show, but actually weâre not in the business of upsetting guests. We want the guests to leave happy. They are my guests; Iâve invited them. To really goad themâ¦ I donât think I could do it. It would be like inviting a vegetarian to your house and then making them eat meat. Itâs just rude.
Demetrius Romeo: Does your show have the same sort of cache as being in a Woody Allen film or voicing a Simpsons character yet?
GRAHAM NORTON: Sadly, no. The only people who are desperate to go on the show are people weâre desperate not to have on the show. Itâs that classic talk show thing. Talk to anyone who has a talk show and theyâll say the same thing: the only people who ring up and say âcan I be on?â are the people you donât want. The only exception to that was George Michael. My mobile rang around lunchtime one day, and it was George Michael. He wanted to come in on Friday. We were like, âokay, if thatâs what you wantâ. And he was a very good guest. Thatâs a real exception to the rule.
Demetrius Romeo: What about the people you ring up and invite? Do you have to try to coerce them?
GRAHAM NORTON: I think âcoerceâ is a big word; we certainly have to pay them. Occasionally we get people on the âpluggingâ circuit who come on to talk about their movie or their book or their record, but we do also get a lot of guests because we pay them: show up, hereâs some cash. And they know theyâre going to have a nice time â we do treat them very well with nice goody bags and all of that, but that is absolutely the hardest part of putting the show together: booking the celebrities. Itâs very, very tough. The thing is, the people I want are very famous and very rich, and all I can offer them is a bit of exposure on TV and a bit of cash, so itâs a miracle we get any guests at all. But we have been very lucky.
Demetrius Romeo: What sort of stuff is in a âgoody bagâ?
GRAHAM NORTON: You know, I donât know. Somebody else takes care of that. But people often come to me and say how nice our goody bag was! I think you just get beauty products and stuff. But nice stuff. Itâs not just something you buy at the chemist!
Demetrius Romeo: One of the people youâve had on is John Voigt â whatâs he like? Did you get to see a side of him that was a little unexpected?
GRAHAM NORTON: Well, what you donât see on the show â heâs the only guest that weâve ever had who cried. But he cried in the middle of a story that went on for about twenty-five minutes, and because heâs John Voigt, I wasnât going to stop him. So I just let him go, knowing that this very long, essentially dull story is going to be cut out. But he was a very nice man; slightly doo-lally, but a very nice man. And as I say, the only guest weâve ever had who made himself cry telling a dull story.
Demetrius Romeo: But thatâs what a DVDâs for: that should have been a special feature â the extended version of interviews.
GRAHAM NORTON: Youâre quite right, I had nothing to do with it. You complain. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Sign it âOutraged of Sydneyâ.
Demetrius Romeo: What do you come away from this series feeling happy about, that sets it apart from your earlier series?
GRAHAM NORTON: There were a lot of nice moments with the audience that I really liked. There was a really nice bit where we dressed â actually, maybe this was the series before this. We dressed peoplesâ parents as superheroes. The bits I always like about the show are the bits we donât plan. Whatâs great about doing a talk show is that you can produce it and prepare it as much as you like, but in the end, half of the show is unpredictable. Half of the show is coming from a guest or an audience member, and you canât script that. So it doesnât matter how prepared I am, thereâs a big hunk of the show that is just up for grabs. Thatâs the bit that excites me, and thatâs the bit that keeps me interested.
Demetrius Romeo: That sounds a bit like Andrew Dentonâs Enough Rope, when he interviews what he refers to as âthe so-called âordinary peopleââ, the audience members who have stories as interesting or perhaps more interesting than the celebrities, that you donât always get to hear.
GRAHAM NORTON: Absolutely. That is the thing when you meet celebrities: the minute you meet them, you realize they are ordinary. Occasionally you meet an extraordinary celebrity, someone who has an aura around them like a Catherine Deneuve or a Sophia Loren; but by and large, actors, singers â thatâs their job. If theyâve got a funny story to tell, itâs only as funny as someone in the audience, and probably someone in the audience has a funnier story to tell. Itâs just a matter of finding a way to tap into those stories. Itâs lovely meeting celebrities, donât get me wrong; I do like meeting them. But once thatâs happened, your interest does wane. Unless youâre a big fan of them; unless you want to ask them âooh, in that scene in such-and-such a movie when you blah-blah-blah-blah-blahâ. But Iâm not a âfanâ kind of person; Iâve never collected autographs, Iâve never tracked down celebrities.
Demetrius Romeo: What happens now that youâre becoming a celebrity yourself. How do you draw the line? At some point you start throwing stones in the glass house.
GRAHAM NORTON: Thatâs always a danger and I try to keep on top of it. I donât really go to all those showbiz parties and that sort of stuff because I donât want to meet people Iâve done jokes about. Once you meet people, you realize, âoh, theyâre sweet reallyâ and then itâs very hard to do jokes about them, so I avoid those sorts of parties. What was lucky for me was I found success very late in life. I was about thirty-three, thirty-four before I started making any money, so Iâd made my friends, I knew the value of money. I had my life. You know what I mean? Hopefully I donât lose track of that and it keeps me grounded.
Demetrius Romeo: How did you feel at thirty-two, not having made it yet?
GRAHAM NORTON: It was terrible. If I had been my friend, I would have told me to give up. âJust stop it, this is patheticâ. And I didnât. I kept going, and then, lo and behold! a miracle occurred. Whatâs good and bad about that is Iâm an example to people to keep plugging away, but sadly, Iâm an example to people who are just never, ever going to get anywhere. They keep plugging away and you feel like saying to them, âno, no miracle will ever, ever happen. It just happened to me. Stop now. Go get a proper job.â
Demetrius Romeo: What were you thinking? What were you waiting for, before it all happened? Were you hanging out for a radio or television gig?
GRAHAM NORTON: I absolutely didnât care. I just wanted to make money doing something other than waiting tables. That was my ambition. My ambition wasnât to do anything. My ambition was to stop waiting tables. That was how I measured success: finally, I was able to stop waiting tables, and I was able to pay the rent, and that was by being a stand-up comic. Not a very good stand-up comic, but good enough to make a living.
Demetrius Romeo: How do you earn a Perrier Award nomination at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by being a not very good stand-up comic?
GRAHAM NORTON: I was lucky that the hour-long show suited me, in a way, more than doing those comedy clubs. Comedy clubs I find really tough, but doing an hour-long show gives you the freedom to chat on. I would do things like read from my childhood diaries, I would make the phone calls â quite theatrical things. And I think thatâs why I got a Perrier nomination, because my show wasnât just an hour of stand-up. There was stuff in it. It was kind of an event. Which is great in Edinburgh, but a fat lot of good it does you when youâre trying to amuse people in a smoky, drunken comedy club.
Demetrius Romeo: Fair enough. Now I feel we should round this off with one fairly decisive question. But I donât have one. Is there anything Iâve missed? Anything I should know? I know â How did you end up on American television?
GRAHAM NORTON: Dâyou know, again, itâs a slight mystery to me! In that kind of desperate thing they have in America where theyâre desperate for success on television because television is such a big business, theyâre trying to look for guarantees; theyâre trying to look for certainties. So they come to Britain, they see what shows are doing well and they wonder, âooh, could we transplant that to America?â What was lucky about my show is that it wasnât a sitcom or anything. It wasnât a question of recasting it or re-writing it. It was just our show in America.