Another interview with a funny guy called ‘Graham’

The interview opportunity with Graham Norton came as a result of Hopscotch deciding to issue the latest incarnation of Norton’s chat show, The Graham Norton Effect, on DVD. I’ve got to say that although it’s entirely disposable as television, it is also really addictive. If there was no such thing as cable or DVD and we didn’t have access to this show, it’s 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 don’t 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 who’d 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 isn’t 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 – I was more a ‘middling’ act. I’d compare, or I’d be in the middle of the bill. But I was never like a ‘closer’. 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 that’s 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 didn’t go well. It was good because it kind of saved me from myself, because I’d never won anything in my entire life. If there hadn’t 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 couldn’t have gone worse.

Demetrius Romeo: And you scored your own chat show out of it, ultimately?

GRAHAM NORTON: Yes. That’s 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 you’re 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 – I really wanted to work the audience. Also, the phone calls came out of that Perrier Award-nominated show I was doing called ‘Men’ [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 – ‘it’ll go away, why bother?’ He was right, I was wrong.

Demetrius Romeo: How did the phone calls element of your show come about? A few comics do the ‘prank phone call’ humour.

GRAHAM NORTON: I used to do this thing – it’s bizarre. In the back of gay magazines in Britain – and it’s probably because of me that they’ve stopped doing it now – but they used to put in – if you put in an ad saying really ‘out there’ things - they wanted anything to happen to them. They really did not care what happened to them. Then at the end of the ad, they’d 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 ‘out there’. 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: You’ve had a series of chat shows, the latest of which is The Graham Norton Effect, which is the first one that we’ve gotten to seen here in Australia because it’s 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 it’s much faster than the other shows we’ve done. The other shows were more kind of organic – 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 don’t know what it’s going to be like for Australians watching it, because we have done so many shows previously, so we kind of know what we’re doing; we know what we’re about. But for that to be the first show you see, I don’t know how it will play. Well, I hope. I mean, there is funny stuff in there. Hopefully they’ll like it.

Demetrius Romeo: What sets you apart from your David Lettermans and your Conan O’Briens and your Jay Lenos is that you can talk dirty to your guests and they think it’s funny. You can actually go out on a limb and challenge your celebrity guests to do the sort of things they wouldn’t normally do.

GRAHAM NORTON: Basically, I’m a really bad interviewer. I love meeting celebrities, but then I get a bit bored. Once you meet them you thing, ‘really, what an ordinary person’. That’s why there’s a lot of stuff going on in the show, because I’ve 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. I’m not asking them questions they know how to answer. I’m letting them react to stuff. And actually, you get to know a celebrity in a different way because you’re seeing what makes them laugh, what shocks them, what doesn’t shock them, and they seem to relax into it because they realize that it’s not about them. It’s more like them, as if they’ve 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 doesn’t quite work the way you expected it to?

GRAHAM NORTON: The Internet on the show is all previously downloaded so it’s 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 you’re going ‘what the hell is that?! Why would anyone do it?’ Occasionally we’ve made the mistake of seeing those things in the office, thinking them hilarious, and then showing them to an audience in the studio and it’s a very different thing. The audience is looking at it thinking, ‘that’s disgusting! Why is Graham making us look at that?’ I’m glad to say we’ve only made that mistake a couple of times, but it is interesting, taking something that’s 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 they’ve wanted to go back and self-censor because you’ve caught them off their guard?

GRAHAM NORTON: Who was eggy? Twiggy was upset. Now why was Twiggy upset? I can’t remember what we showed her. It was women, they were naked, but I don’t know what the hell they were doing, but she didn’t 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 we’re not in the business of upsetting guests. We want the guests to leave happy. They are my guests; I’ve invited them. To really goad them… I don’t think I could do it. It would be like inviting a vegetarian to your house and then making them eat meat. It’s 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 we’re desperate not to have on the show. It’s that classic talk show thing. Talk to anyone who has a talk show and they’ll say the same thing: the only people who ring up and say ‘can I be on?’ are the people you don’t 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, ‘okay, if that’s what you want’. And he was a very good guest. That’s 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 ‘coerce’ is a big word; we certainly have to pay them. Occasionally we get people on the ‘plugging’ 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, here’s some cash. And they know they’re going to have a nice time – 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. It’s 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 it’s a miracle we get any guests at all. But we have been very lucky.

Demetrius Romeo: What sort of stuff is in a ‘goody bag’?

GRAHAM NORTON: You know, I don’t 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. It’s not just something you buy at the chemist!

Demetrius Romeo: One of the people you’ve had on is John Voigt – what’s he like? Did you get to see a side of him that was a little unexpected?

GRAHAM NORTON: Well, what you don’t see on the show – he’s the only guest that we’ve ever had who cried. But he cried in the middle of a story that went on for about twenty-five minutes, and because he’s John Voigt, I wasn’t 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 we’ve ever had who made himself cry telling a dull story.

Demetrius Romeo: But that’s what a DVD’s for: that should have been a special feature – the extended version of interviews.

GRAHAM NORTON: You’re quite right, I had nothing to do with it. You complain. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Sign it ‘Outraged of Sydney’.

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 – actually, maybe this was the series before this. We dressed peoples’ parents as superheroes. The bits I always like about the show are the bits we don’t plan. What’s 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 can’t script that. So it doesn’t matter how prepared I am, there’s a big hunk of the show that is just up for grabs. That’s the bit that excites me, and that’s the bit that keeps me interested.

Demetrius Romeo: That sounds a bit like Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope, when he interviews what he refers to as “the so-called ‘ordinary people’”, the audience members who have stories as interesting or perhaps more interesting than the celebrities, that you don’t 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 – that’s their job. If they’ve got a funny story to tell, it’s only as funny as someone in the audience, and probably someone in the audience has a funnier story to tell. It’s just a matter of finding a way to tap into those stories. It’s lovely meeting celebrities, don’t get me wrong; I do like meeting them. But once that’s happened, your interest does wane. Unless you’re a big fan of them; unless you want to ask them ‘ooh, in that scene in such-and-such a movie when you blah-blah-blah-blah-blah’. But I’m not a ‘fan’ kind of person; I’ve never collected autographs, I’ve never tracked down celebrities.

Demetrius Romeo: What happens now that you’re becoming a celebrity yourself. How do you draw the line? At some point you start throwing stones in the glass house.

GRAHAM NORTON: That’s always a danger and I try to keep on top of it. I don’t really go to all those showbiz parties and that sort of stuff because I don’t want to meet people I’ve done jokes about. Once you meet people, you realize, ‘oh, they’re sweet really’ and then it’s 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 I’d made my friends, I knew the value of money. I had my life. You know what I mean? Hopefully I don’t 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. ‘Just stop it, this is pathetic’. And I didn’t. I kept going, and then, lo and behold! a miracle occurred. What’s good and bad about that is I’m an example to people to keep plugging away, but sadly, I’m an example to people who are just never, ever going to get anywhere. They keep plugging away and you feel like saying to them, ‘no, no miracle will ever, ever happen. It just happened to me. Stop now. Go get a proper job.’

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 didn’t care. I just wanted to make money doing something other than waiting tables. That was my ambition. My ambition wasn’t 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 – quite theatrical things. And I think that’s why I got a Perrier nomination, because my show wasn’t 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 you’re 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 don’t have one. Is there anything I’ve missed? Anything I should know? I know – How did you end up on American television?

GRAHAM NORTON: D’you know, again, it’s a slight mystery to me! In that kind of desperate thing they have in America where they’re desperate for success on television because television is such a big business, they’re trying to look for guarantees; they’re trying to look for certainties. So they come to Britain, they see what shows are doing well and they wonder, ‘ooh, could we transplant that to America?’ What was lucky about my show is that it wasn’t a sitcom or anything. It wasn’t a question of recasting it or re-writing it. It was just our show in America.