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Graham goes west

By |2004-07-15T09:00:00-04:00July 15th, 2004|Uncategorized|

By Lawrence Ferber

Without a doubt, Graham Norton has altered the UK’s pop cultural landscape. Through his highly-rated Channel 4 talk shows, “So Graham Norton,” and “V(ery) Graham Norton,” the openly gay comedian became a household name and garnered fans of every age, sexuality, and social standing across England, from gay teen boys to married housewives to sporty working class lads. Not that all of these people would admit their fandom, of course. “I get lots of straight guys coming up going ‘oh, my girlfriend loves your show,'” he admits. “They neevveer [like it themselves]. Or they’ll say it in a begrudging way, like ‘I have to admit it’s quite funny, that show.’ And the little [unspoken] end brackets are ‘despite you being a great big screaming faggot!’ It’s weird because there is something odd in that I’m out and the show is quite campy and gay, but at the same time the show must work on some other level if they all like it.”
Norton brought his campy, screaming queerness to American households, when Comedy Central launched his first American series, “The Graham Norton Effect.” Airing weekly, the show will echo the British incarnation’s format – celebrity interviews, elaborate pranks, skits, and loads of Norton’s hysterical, saucy banter – albeit in hourly instead of 30-minute doses. And as for its potential cultural impact? “I think it’s too late for my cultural effect here,” Norton muses with a laugh. “I think the cultural effect happened. There are enough gay people on TV now and there’s a wide range of them. So I just want to have fun and I hope people like the show.”
Today, Norton resides in an apartment located in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, a convenient stroll from his show’s Chelsea studio (“where else?” he quips). Having parted ways with Channel 4 back home, he’s freed up for the summer and Comedy Central’s thirteen weekly tapings. “Summer in New York and one show a week – look out liver!” he jokes. “It’s fantastic but worrying. In Britain the one thing that saved me is I learned how to drive essentially to cut down my drinking. And suddenly I’m in New York without a car. My car is like my AA sponsor! I’m unleashed. And the bars are open until 4! It’s good but I’m glad I’m leaving in September!”
New York is a place Norton’s visited quite frequently over the past couple of years – for sold-out standup comedy engagements, some episodes of his UK program, and a cameo in the “Absolutely Fabulous” New York special. Unlike in London, however, Norton can walk around NYC without being recognized at every turn. A blessing – and a drawback, depending on his mood. “If I’m having a Sally Field in ‘Soapdish’ moment I go to Times Square,” he proffers, “and there’s lots of tourists there to recognize me. I feel all good and loved and I can come home!”
Born Graham Walker in County Cork, Ireland, Norton admits he’s always – like most everybody – fostered childhood dreams of becoming a TV star. He sampled a first taste of public adoration during the 1990s through numerous Edinburgh Festival hit one-man shows, including “The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill” and “Charlie’s Angels Go To Hell.” But it was an inadvertent coup that led to TV fame: when he guest hosted talk show “Not The Jack Docherty Show” in 1997, both Norton and Docherty himself went head-to-head for “Best Newcomer” honors at the British Comedy Awards.
Norton won.
“Isn’t that awful,” Norton laughs with a wee dash of remorse. “It was very ‘All About Eve.’ And at the awards I was sitting at the same table as him! I had to go on stage [to get the award] and when I came back my boyfriend told me ‘it was really quiet.'”
Come 1999, Norton fulfilled his childhood ambition by landing his own television show, “So Graham Norton,” on Channel 4, winning numerous additional comedy/TV/gay awards over the years, including a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). In 2001, Norton famously turned down a five million pound (nine million dollar) contract from the BBC, fearing his show’s ribald and sometimes risquŽ elements would be toned down: keep in mind this is a man who brings out and shares items like “Microwavable Hot Cock” dildos and sex fetish personal ads with his highly amused guests and audiences.
Having interviewed such luminaries as Cher, Diana Ross, Heath Ledger, Shirley MacLaine, Lucy Lawless, Dustin Hoffman and Dolly Parton (one of his idols, he famously visited Dollywood for a special) over the years, Norton insists that his still elusive, ultimate dream guest would be Madonna, although he doesn’t have a single question in mind to ask her. “I’d stare and go ‘ooh, you’re Madonna.'” Queers have appeared in the hot seat as well, including Alan Cumming, Jean Paul Gaultier, Skin of Skunk Anansie, Boy George, and Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns.
Sometimes audience members find themselves in the spotlight. On one episode, Norton asked single audience members to stand up and, after weeding out who hadn’t dated in the longest time, a woman, he had her image and a phone number displayed on the huge screen at a soccer game going on. After a couple of minutes, someone rang up the studio and Norton tried to set them up (sadly, the woman declined a date). On another occasion, Norton had a young girl tell of a horrifically embarrassing incident – her father discovered her vibrator.
“I bumped into her sister about a year later and apparently her family hadn’t spoken to this girl since she told the story on TV,” Norton recalls. “And her sister had brokered a peace treaty, they were going to have a big dinner [and reconcile], and the night before the dinner they showed a ‘Best of Graham Norton’ show and there she was again!”
Although professing a low tolerance for pranks in life, Norton (and his team of writers and staff) is responsible for a share of tomfoolery on his show. After using a self-cleaning public restroom, a woman was tricked into going back inside before the door shut – then it promptly closed and began its machinations with her trapped inside. “Ooh yah she got cleaned,” he laughs. “It was funny though – she had a microphone on so we could hear.”
Yet while all of these delightful elements will be in place for Comedy Central’s incarnation, Norton admits that one British staple will be missing: Betty, an elderly woman who occupies a spot in the audience almost every night and has achieved her own fame as a result.
“We might have to recast,” Norton muses. “I had a weird dream about her last night where her mad friend came to me and told me how unhappy she was and she was trying to find other comedy work. And I was thinking ‘other comedy work? – what other comedy work has she had?’ She’s literally an audience member. We didn’t find her. She just shows up in the audience. But I wrote Betty a note before I went away. We’re due to have fish and chips supper when I get back.”
While Norton will return to London come fall, at which point he will commence a new UK talk show on the BBC (Americans have actually been able to sample Norton for a while through BBC America, which airs edited, compiled editions of his Channel 4 program, and “The Best of Graham Norton” is being released by BBC Video in the US on August 10), he is contracted by Comedy Central for two years of the show, plus his own hour-long standup special and hosting duties on four of the cable network’s “Reel Comedy” behind-the-scenes movie series. “I think if this show is a disaster we’ll all just quietly forget about them!” he laughs of these additional commitments.
Perhaps he may even be able to squeeze in a little time for love. Openly gay throughout his career, Norton’s currently single (he lived with an American, Scott Michaels, from 1995-2001), a status happily exploited for some while. “The upside [of being a celebrity] is you get a higher quality of casual sex,” he notes. “The downside is the chance of actually getting a boyfriend are tiny.” However, Norton admits to feeling “a little broody” lately and is itching for some steady lovin’É from a more mature partner.
“What I’m desperately aiming for now is an age-appropriate boyfriend,” the 41-year-old confesses. “I’ve been through a rash of ridiculously young guys, and it’s just stupid. One wanted to take my picture with his car. I thought thatÉ I don’t know what the fuck it was! I actually did refuse. Only because we already had sex – if it was part of foreplay, I was there!”

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.