Alibi V.13 No.30 • July 22-28, 2004 

Idiot Box

Bawdy Brit Loosens up Late Night

“The Graham Norton Effect” on Comedy Central

The Beatles did it big time. The Rolling Stones are still doing it. Robbie Williams tried several times and eventually gave up. At some point, it seems, every Brit has to try and conquer America. Now it's British talk show host Graham Norton's turn.

Norton, the flamboyant writer/star of the BBC hit “So Graham Norton” has been sneaking into America for some time now, thanks to a successful run on BBC America. Now, Norton is poised to conquer his biggest audience ever courtesy of Comedy Central.

Norton's new stateside talk show (or “chat show” as the Brits say) is more-or-less a transplantation of his English series. Like your average late-night talk show, Norton opens with a monologue, chats up assorted celebrities and jokes with his studio audience. Norton, gay and loving it, separates himself from the pack, however, with his often outrageous sense of camp. Dressed more or less like Elton John on his way to the senior prom, Norton presides over a three-ring circus of sex talk, genial smut and double entendre.

Guests are geared toward the host's sensibilities (Bound actress Jennifer Tilly, gay X-Men actor Alan Cumming and drag performer RuPaul), and Norton isn't shy about going straight for the naughty stuff. (Before the first commercial break, Norton and Cumming were cheerfully discussing the length of Sir Ian McKellan's, um, “Oscar.”) I'm fairly confident no other talk show host in America could conclude a joke about Martha Stewart's “eating” habits in jail by asking, “Excuse me, waiter, what kind of wine goes with vulva?” (Come to think of it, I'm not even sure that would make it past censors on any outlet but Comedy Central.) It's a fine line between naughty and raunchy, and Norton tightropes it like a pro.

Norton also peppers his show with some near-“Punk'd”-style pranks. The host gleefully recruits audience members for assorted “games”--like the one where RuPaul helps dress audience members in drag and one particularly strapping fellow is sent out to the streets of New York to hunt for “dates.” These bits are perhaps a little funnier in England, where the locals are a tad more repressed. (Americans will gladly do anything to get on camera.) Even so, they're some of the best audience interaction on late night TV.

Norton's greatest gift is that he never makes any of this seem crude. The guy just loves a good penis joke and, after an hour in his presence, you can hardly fault him for it.

Uninhibited, utterly original and occasionally explosively funny, “The Graham Norton Effect” is a fine addition to the crowded late-night airwaves. While Leno, Letterman and the others have been coasting on fumes for years, Norton is a fresh burst of energy. Welcome to America, my good man. Watch out for the FCC.

“The Graham Norton Effect” airs every Thursday night at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central.