By Curt Wagner
4:53 PM CST, January 13, 2012
When I talked to Graham Norton in December, his "scrappy mixed terrier thing" kept interrupting by attacking her loudest toy. Her name, he said, is Madge, which led me to ask if she's named after Madonna.
"Well yes, but I didn't do it! I don't want to lose my booking over this," he said, referring to finally landing his dream guest on his British chat show, "The Graham Norton Show."
He needn't have worried. Madonna showed up Wednesday to tape the episode, which will air at a special time, 9:45 p.m., this Saturday on BBC America. In December, Norton was beyond thrilled the Material Girl would be on the show, but concerned.
"It's such a big deal for us," he said. "I've bleeted on about wanting her for 12, 14 years or something, so it's finally happening. And listen, this is as close as we have ever got, but I won't believe until it's taped and broadcast."
Madonna appears on the show with actors James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough, the stars of the movie she directed, "W./E." She talks a bit about Lady Gaga with Norton, and even brings up the canine Madge. Watch below.
It isn't the first time Norton has talked to the non-canine Madge. "I met her really, really briefly and I had my picture taken with her and that's my Facebook picture," he said, laughing. "Me and Madonna, we look marvelous."
Now about his noisy dog Madge: How did she get her name? "At the rescue center they called her Madonna," Norton told me. "I can't have a dog called Madonna unless I change my other dog's name to Elton or something, so I just shortened it to Madge and it really suits her."
Norton and I talked more about his talk show, American guests and how he got to where he is today. I also played a little game of "Would You Rather?" with him, which you can find in this earlier post.
A lot of my friends say “TGNS” is their favorite talk show.
That’s very nice of you.
I do have friends with good taste.
Yes, I'm going to go yes.
Because I think so too. I love watching your show. It’s fun.
Thank you very much. Yeah, it’s kind of extraordinary people [from outside Britain see it] because we just make it here and then we just send it away. So it’s kind of amazing that we get all this nice feedback from around the world. It’s really nice.
Do you consider the American audience at all when you’re putting it together?
We do a bit in that we normally try to have one or two people on the show that you might have heard of. But our priority is always going to be the British market because BBC One pays for it, so we’ve got to keep them happy. So occasionally we’ll get a big guest and we’ll know in America no one will have a clue who it is, but they’re such a big domestic star we’ve got to take them. In a way I think that is what American audiences sometimes like about it, the foreigness of it, sometimes you don’t know who they are.
I think you’ve introduced me to a lot of comics I didn’t know.
Yeah, the comics you always wouldn’t know who they were. Have you seen when we’ve had Fern Millican on our show? … She is my favorite new comedian. I just adore her. She is really funny, really, really funny, yeah.
When I was doing research I saw in an interview you said you didn’t think you were a good interviewer. I would disagree with that.
Well, that’s very nice of you to say. I do sometimes think at the end of a show, “What have we learned? Nothing.” [Laughs.] Hopefully we’ve had a good time. But I always kind of think why would anybody tell me anything because people are so good at being interviewed now, particularly stars that are so kind of “on message.”
So there’s no real point asking them those big, burning questions you want to know the answers to because they’re not going to answer them. It just makes them a bit tense and a bit uncomfortable and I think you end up looking sort of unfriendly. You end up looking kind of confrontational as the host if you’re asking questions people don’t want to answer. Unless I don’t care about the guest. [Laughs.] I'll ask them whatever, but mostly I do like the people, so you don’t want to upset them. You want them to come back—you know what this is like—you want the PR [people] to give you others, so you have to kind of think of the long term I think when you’re doing interviews.
Well it’s not a news show. It’s not like you’re trying to do this hard hitting news program.
No, exactly. That is what I think, but you know people—
I don’t expect that. That’s not what I tune in for anyway.
Yeah, well, you sound like an intelligent viewer. Some people are still surprised when I don’t ask somebody about a death in their family or a divorce, you know what I mean? All that kind of stuff. Well no, that is just not going to happen. Sometimes people bring those things up themselves in which case great, off you go love, but I'm not going to do it.
Right, but I think you—[sound os squeak toy interrupts.]
I apologize for that noise. One of my dogs sees I'm on the phone and thinks, “I will get attention come hell or high water!” She’s found her one noisy toy.
I think part of having a good conversation is it leads to a lot of revelations. I mean you dig a little and brings up fun things maybe from their pasts, which I always enjoy.
But also I think what is good is that they’re on with each other at the same time and they’re reacting to other people’s stories. My favorite bit is when somebody tells a story which is in the research notes and I've prompted, but then that triggers a story in someone else and they’ll go, “Well when I was a kid blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and you’re like, “We didn’t know that. What a good story.”
You provide a totally relaxed atmosphere as well, which helps.
It is quite relaxing. I think it does take the pressure off of them because they’re not by themselves. Even Tom Hanks said that when he came on. He said it’s kind of you don’t feel lonely up there because there is other people to play with.
And on no American talk show have I ever seen, let’s see, Glenn Close kick her shoes off or Cameron Diaz drink sock water.
That was weird. Why she did that? She’s game.
I think that’s fun and that helps you learn more about individuals.
Well seeing how people react to stuff I think is very illuminating. Glenn Close, I just think she is fabulous. I like Cameron Diaz too, but Glenn Close because she is such a kind of serious actress you sort of expect her to be a serious person, but in fact she loves life. She is great.
The Bear Grylls-Cam Diaz episode was one of my favorites I think just because it’s so bizarre.
It was very odd. I love Bear Grylls just flirting so much with Cameron Diaz. He got Kathy Griffin’s name wrong. He was not interested in her at all.
It was funny because she kept butting in with a joke and it just wasn’t working. Speaking of that, have you ever had any challenging guests that it was hard to get them to do or say anything?
You do. I think in the end you do get challenging guests, but they’re not challenging guests in a way in that why would anybody—it’s nobody’s job to be a good chat show host. Wait, that’s my job. [Laughs.] It’s nobody’s job to be a good chat show guest. These are actors, musicians, whatever. The days of Peter Ustinov and David Niven and these kind of professional chat show guests are gone.
So if you get somebody who is good on the couch that is just a bonus and if they’re not I don’t judge them. I sort of feel sorry for them in a way because nowadays you have to get out there and sell. You’ve got to do all the junkets and if you don’t enjoy that it must be horrible. It’s sort of worth thinking about whether or not you want to be an actor because you’ve got to do so much of it, but equally I don’t judge them if they’re bad on the couch.
When you put the show together do you think about guests together or does it just happen?
That actually is kind of the most production that goes into the show really is putting the people together on the couch and thinking who will work with whom. Sometimes if we get a big star or an American actor and we’ve have already booked a comedian we might move that comedian because you’re going to think, “Well they might not gel,” or that kind of thing. Or if you’ve got two ugly people you try to book a pretty person. [Laughs.]
I won’t to ask you to give me an example of the show where you did that.
[Laughs. It’s clear. It’s very obvious. [Laughs.] It’s very, very obvious.
Have you ever thought about putting stars in the red chair?
Occasionally stars have volunteered to go in the red chair, but I think that’s—well sometimes it’s tempting to put a star in the red chair, to have a lever on the couch—but that’s kind of the chance for the audience to shine or not [laughs], so we leave it to them.
I do like how you engage with the audience and mock them, which I think is fun.
Well, the audience likes it too. Also I'm not picking on them in that they have volunteered for this. It’s not like I've hijacked them in the audience. They’ve stood up and said, “OK I want you to talk to me.”
What I always say is “We tease because we love.”
Exactly. Well, I try not to be mean to people in the chair so I hope it doesn’t come across as mean.
Doing the flip too soon is kind of mean, but that’s cool.
Well they really know that that is happening. Cccasionally yes, I will be horrible and I’ll flip them before they speak or something. Yeah, that is mean. [Laughs.]
Do you think that the American celebrities you have on understand sort of the format of the show very well or do you have to explain it to them ahead of time?
I think now we’ve been around for long enough and a lot of the stars have been on before, so they do understand it. You just have to kind of I suppose the thing that surprises them is that they don’t just get their little eight minutes and then shuffle off. They are there for the duration and I guess some people prefer the American style chat show where you’re in, you’re out. I think most people like ours because there is no pressure. If you’re walking out and you’re doing a live eight minutes because they don’t really edit the American chat shows you better be good in it. Whereas on ours if you don’t say something hilarious or that interesting to begin with there is time. There is always time and even if you don’t say anything we’ll still show the clip of movie and hopefully somebody else will have said something funny. So my hope would be that they have a good time on the sofa whatever happens.
I just always wonder if it’s odd for them because of that. “What do I mean I have to share the stage with three other people?”
Sometimes that is kind of a weird pill for them to swallow, but I still make a fuss of them. You know what I mean? So it’s not like I'm making them less of a star. I think the audience’s response reassures them. When they come out they get that almighty roar from the crowd, so that kind of makes them feel good about themselves.
And do you chat with them beforehand or do you wait until onstage?
There is no fixed rule about that. Sometimes I say hi to them. Sometimes I don’t. It all depends whether they’re running late, I'm running late, what’s going on and I don’t really have a—I don’t care [laughs]. I'm quite happy to talk to them beforehand. It’s really better if I do talk to them beforehand just so that’s some of the chat out of the way.
Tell me about growing up. What got you interested in doing this acting, comedian stuff?
It’s that thing just growing up being a bit of a show off, thinking I wanted to be an actor because that’s the most obvious outlet for someone who can’t sing or play a musical instrument or essentially do anything. So you kind of think, “Well anyone can do that.” So I went off and got into drama school and everything, but then nothing really happened. I still wanted to show off, so drifted into stand up and then I got really lucky and got the show.
Sort of more miraculous than getting the show was the show worked and so we’ve been going now for a long time and yeah, I'm really still enjoying it. And the team at the beginning of every series kind of looks at each other and kind of like, “Isn’t this weird that we’re here and we’re looking forward to this series and we sort of like doing this?” Because if someone had told me 14 years ago, “You will be doing this job in 14 years and liking it,” I would have been amazed.
And you still get time to do these other things too, which must be nice for you.
Yeah, bit and bobs. I do the chat show for a lot of the year, but the summers are sort of off. I get about three, four months off in the summer.
Like “Would you Rather?”
Yes, I'm doing “Would you Rather,” but that we cram that into sort of two weeks in the summer in New York and it was sort of like a holiday job. It’s like picking grapes, but it’s very fun, so it’s fun to do.
Does it surprise you some of the questions?
I love the questions. I mean the game is as old as time. People have played that in pubs forever, but the guys who actually put together are two British guys and so we have the show here and then BBC America came to us and said look we really want to do a panel game, so we said well we’ve got this one and they took it. So we might make a little version here. I don’t know.
I want to talk about your influences a little bit. I read that when you were growing up you watched Lucille Ball.
Because I grew up in Ireland we got loads of American TV, so in a way I was kind of much more drawn to America than Britain, but Britain was closer and kind of culturally we are much closer, so that is probably why I ended up here. I loved American television quite a lot, Lucille Ball and I used to watch Dick Cavett and Flip Wilson. I used to watch Flip Wilson. We got kind of really random shows, so we’d get kind of like newish things like “Charlie’s Angels,” but at the same time like Irish TV would save up money to buy a show like “Charlie’s Angels” as part of a package would take all the back series of “That Girl,” so we’d be watching that at the same time. So we got a very kind of odd vision of America. Some of it was kind of sexy and modern, but some of it was kind of trapped in the ’60s.
Did that physical comedy and kind of the nutty and crazy feel of those shows influence your style of comedy?
You know what, who knows? Who knows? I can’t trace what I find funny back to anything. There were some things that I’d find funny that I would never attempt or they’re not my style if you know what I mean. I think you just find your own way. In a way that has as much to do with who your audience is as to do with who you are. So you know if I was putting stuff together when I worked in restaurants to make the other people in the restaurant laugh I would go for the lowest common denominator, whereas if I just kind of found my comedy voice at university then I guess it would be a very different comedy voice. I think in the end it’s very hard to say where stuff comes from.
Has being gay been a help or a hindrance in your career?
I don’t know in that I'm gay, so I think if it has been a hindrance then I don’t care because you don’t want the jobs you didn’t get because you’re gay. Who would want to work with those people? And so and my career has gone a hell of a lot better than I ever thought it would, so whether that is down to being gay or not I don’t know, but I'm not complaining. I don’t feel like I've been held back at any point.
I read that you also lived in a commune in San Francisco.
I did for a year. I really enjoyed it because it was kind of it was a formative year of my life. I was 20 and they were lovely. The hippies were really, really sweet and kind of very encouraging and very kind of positive in that American way. I came from Ireland, which was a real kind of “you can’t” sort of atmosphere to grow up in, whereas the hippies were very kind of “can do” and “follow your dreams” and all of that. So yeah, they kind of saved me. They were great.
That was after you quit university, but did your parents know?
I kind of I knew I was going to America to stay for awhile. They didn’t know that. Of course by the time I got back just because I knew I wasn’t going to like university. It didn’t even cross my mind, but I never told them and of course I hadn’t got a student grant or anything, so they had been paying for the university, so they were less than impressed that I wasn’t going back.
Last question, would you rather interview people or be interviewed?
This is not having to do with you, but I would always prefer to interview people. Yeah, I never feel good enough in an interview. You know what I mean? Because I always kind of think surely there must be someone more interesting to talk to than me, so I always feel a bit lacking in an interview situation.
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