In the acknowledgements section of Carrie Fisher’s recent memoir The Princess Diarist, she thanks Graham Norton “for keeping secrets-ish.” Fisher made one of her last TV appearances before her death on Norton’s BBC show, where she discussed the revelation of her affair with Harrison Ford and joked about her comments ending up in the Daily Mail the next day. On the couch with her was an eclectic bunch: artist Grayson Perry, dressed in drag; Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain; and quiz show host Sandi Toksvig. They talked about gender, arranged marriage, and the Queen Of England. It was an insightful, intelligent back-and-forth.
I don’t expect every episode of The Graham Norton Show to have that elevated level of dialogue, but the BBC series is reliably the best provider of celebrity anecdotes out there. Although Norton himself isn’t a well-known quantity on these shores, the stories that come out on his show invariably spread across the internet, sometimes courting controversy. (See: Jennifer Lawrence’s recent admission involving the desecration of sacred rocks.) But more frequently, they are flat-out funny. Where else can you watch Ryan Gosling lose his shit while Welsh comedian Greg Davies talks about the time he shat himself while wearing his mother’s underwear?
Or see John Cleese slander Taylor Swift’s cat to the point where the pop star looks visibly upset?
Here’s an admission: I don’t typically sit down for full episodes of The Graham Norton Show on BBC America. Instead, I consume it en masse on YouTube, where the most amusing bits are highlighted. This, of course, is the way many people get their fix of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Late Late Show With James Corden. Still, I’d venture to say that watching Norton in this fashion yields different results than watching those other programs. The most popular videos on his YouTube channel don’t involve elaborately produced lip sync battles or karaoke, and they aren’t political monologues. (Here’s looking at you, Late Night With Seth Meyers.) The clips from Graham largely consist of celebrities gabbing. In an age when American talk show hosts seem to have forsaken the part of their job that involves talking to people, Norton is excelling at it.
Norton has honed his formula over the years. His first talk show, So Graham Norton, ran from 1998 to 2002. His attempt in 2004 to recreate his success at an American network, Comedy Central, was packed with gimmicks and flopped. These days, Norton has no lengthy monologue; he gets straight into the chatter. A 2012 profile of Norton noted that he’s both “easy to talk to” and “he actively listens.” That attentiveness pervades his entire operation. His primary recurring bit isn’t an attempt to show off his singing or dancing. Instead, it speaks to his love of a good, well-constructed story. In the “red chair” segment that closes each episode, an intrepid person will take a seat in—you guessed it—a red chair, and try to weave a tale that impresses the host and whoever else happens to be on. If Norton and the day’s posse dislike what’s unfolding, someone will pull a lever and the seat will tip over, sending the brave soul backward.
You can find hints of Norton’s strategy in the U.S. On Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen shares Norton’s love for getting stars a little tipsy. But Cohen is primarily invested in getting dirt out of his visitors with segments like “Plead The Fifth.” The gossip comes more naturally on The Graham Norton Show. (Enjoying Watch What Happens Live also requires a passing interest in Cohen’s Real Housewives franchise, which not everyone possesses.) James Corden, meanwhile, copied Norton by having all of his guests on at once. It doesn’t work as well, though, because too often Corden makes the conversation all about himself. Norton is comfortable with letting others do the work, and is keenly interested in reaction and perception. “Harrison Ford and Robert De Niro will never represent their country in the Chatting Olympics, but our challenge is to put them on the couch with people they will enjoy so that they reveal themselves not through their own stories, but in how they react to the anecdotes of others,” he wrote in his book The Life And Loves Of A He Devil. On Graham the taciturn De Niro only has to respond briefly when Norton asks him about whether he enjoys people’s impressions of him. Then Norton can turn to Tom Hiddleston, who will start rattling off a series of imitations, culminating in a lengthy and extremely nerdy recreation of De Niro’s and Al Pacino’s face-off in Heat. Hiddleston is good, but De Niro’s face is better. He thoroughly enjoys Hiddleston’s Pacino, but is actually touched by the younger actor’s homage to him. “That was my favorite scene in the movie,” he says almost tenderly.
As someone who enjoys “Carpool Karaoke,” the odd Fallon drinking game, and a fiery topical takedown, I don’t mean to bash the Stateside late-night crew. I’m partial to Norton’s interviews in part because I’m not overly familiar with him. In the U.K. he’s popular in his own right. He hosts Eurovision; he’s written memoirs and a novel. But for his work as an emcee, I respect his willingness to just sit back and listen. By doing that, he’s putting his peers on this side of the pond to shame.