Talk Shows

21 Jan

What makes a successful talk show on television? The English and the American audiences are sharply different. Some years back as an experiment Johnny Carson arranged for the Tonight Show to appear on British televison for a 13 week trial. Well, the Brits tuned in on the first night and were instantly baffled. What was this monologue that kept making jokes about the medfly? And the guests – they were wheeled on for an exchange of pleasantries that lasted about two minutes before they were demoted out of the guest chair. That’s not how they did talk shows in England. The Tonight Show was not picked up. It wasn’t that Carson didn’t come across. It was the format.

In England talk shows are paced more slowly. Michael Parkinson, probably the most famous UK talkshow host, would get Orson Welles or David Niven on, ask them one question and get out of the way. All he had to do was be an appreciative audience and feed them the occasional query. If you, the guest, were a sporting or entertainment celebrity, Parkinson might keep you on for the entire hour. He was less enthusiastic about politicians. You could always tell because that was when he had to resort to the security of prepared questions on his clipboard.

The format of all the late night talks shows in America has become locked in stone. I guess Dick Cavett in his day and Charlie Rose now are the hosts that the UK audience would most respond to. I can’t think of any others. Though I have hopes for Fallon to shake things up.

But there is a talk show in England that America is responding to, one that has rethought the format. It’s the Graham Norton Show. Norton is a gay Irishman with a camp flair, a fast tongue – a worthy link in the chain of Irish TV personalities like Terry Wogan who are adored by the British audience. But it is the rethought out format of the show that gives it its special appeal. One of the pleasures of the show is watching a first time American celebrity guest, obviously nervous, step onto the stage. The arena is different. There is not the anchoring security of the host’s desk that you sit beside. And the guests do not appear sequentially. They all come on stage at the start and are invited to sit on a plump orange sofa in a row. There is a coffee table in front of them with their pre requested alcoholic beverages positioned to hand – a nice touch.

Norton performs a remarkable juggling act, balancing the specific attention he gives each guest, encouraging byplay between them while keeping the audience interaction going. He makes it look easy and it’s not. Last Saturday for example his four guests were De Niro, Stallone, Jonah Hill and Carey Mulligan. Hill, a first timer on the show looked a little guarded and tentative to start, not sure if he was in front of a firing squad. But he quickly loosened up and started telling self deprecating anecdotes. Carey Mulligan, supposedly a difficult interview, was bubbly, relaxed, at her ease. Stallone and De Niro traded veteran’s one liners. The feel was that of a party where the guests were enjoying themselves. It became a communal experience.

The conventional part of the format is a musical number by some artist with product to plug. It could be Paul McCartney or, as it was, last Saturday Jake Bugg, a rising UK star. There is also one traditional custom to wind up the show. It’s called the Red Chair. Members of the audience dare to sit in it and tell a funny or remarkable story. The second Norton loses interest he pulls a lever by his seat and the Red Chair does a backward flip, disappearing the story teller in an undignified head over heels somersault. There is no fairness to the proceedings. And few survive unscathed.

I write about the liberating effect of the format on the show. But you have to give credit to Norton. He’s like a man spinning plates and dancing at the same time. And he is as good with ad lib off the cuff responses as his great predecessor Terry Wogan was. I remember watching Mel Brooks years ago on Wogan. Brooks made a quip. Wogan returned it with spin. Half a dozen exchanges later, Brooks threw up his hands in surrender, turned to the audience and asked plaintively “Who is this guy?” He looked like he had been ambushed by some unknown Robin Williams. Norton is equally fast with the rapier quip. But it’s his ability to get his guests loosened up and relaxed  and prepared to make fools of themselves and interact with the audience that makes it all so remarkable. The energy level soars. And there is none of that stop and start a segment that you get on most talk shows. The Norton Show is like a  hot air balloon that floats up into the rafters, buoyed up by that communal animated mood. It airs on Saturdays.

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