I was delighted to hear earlier this week a little spot on NPR about The Graham Norton Show. Basically, the story was praising this brilliant British gem of a talk show and slightly criticizing the American public for investing in the wrong program in this “war of late night.” Now, I’m an ardent supporter of Conan O’Brien, particularly as a human being and comedic genius, but I know that CONAN on TBS, while having its moments, doesn’t have the same flare as his spectacular absurdist rendition of Late Night. But of the American late night hosts, he and David Letterman are my preferred go-tos. However, over the years I’ve caught bits of Graham Norton here and there, and was happy to watch a bit more of him in 2011-2012 during a stint of grad school in London.
What Jimmy Fallon tries to do on The Tonight Show, as well as previously on his Late Night, Graham Norton does better. As likeable as I think Jimmy Fallon is, the show seems to overcompensate on his lack of poignant interview skills. He constantly brings in guests just to dress them up in costume for a segment of “Ew!” or has them smash eggs on their heads. This can certainly be endearing, and I love seeing Jennifer Lawrence be feisty and off-the-cuff at an incomprehensibly stupid game just as the next person. But it’s all a bit showboat-y and meaningless, wouldn’t you say? You get a sense of “Hey look! Celebrities are just like us!” but we’re left not feeling a part of what we’re watching. Nor do we learn much more about our guests other than that they are good sports.
The Graham Norton Show has a similar intent, but for whatever reason it’s more engaging. Maybe it’s because it’s British, and it has a lot of British guests, so it inherently has more appeal for me, an American with an Anglophile tendency. Or maybe because Norton is openly gay or that he makes raunchy jokes and similarly has celebrities tell raunchy stories (which of course is possible because this is British television after all!). But I think the real catch is that Norton has all his guests come out at once. I think this works incredibly well. While some talk shows will have guests out at the same time, each segment is clearly designated as a particular guest’s time slot – there may be some humorous interaction, but we always go back to the current guest.
There’s something about having Kylie Minogue, Russell Crowe, Cameron Diaz and British comedian Richard Ayoade all out at once sharing stories that feels much more entertaining than simply participating in a PR gimmick. Norton is able to get unexpected groupings of people in the entertainment industry for an hour that feels surprisingly more human than anything else on TV at the midnight hour.