Archive for Sunday, June 20, 2004

British comic bringing act stateside

June 20, 2004

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The comic known as the David Letterman of Great Britain is looking for a fresh start.

Graham Norton is closing up shop on his popular late-night talk show, "So Graham Norton," which aired in England and on BBC America. Now he's bringing his act stateside with "The Graham Norton Effect" (9 p.m. Thursday, Comedy Central).

"I guess there are a lot of expectations, especially from people who know the BBC America show," he said. "So some of them will be disappointed in that this will not be what they want. We're making this for a new audience."

"So Graham Norton" has been a hit in Great Britain for more than five years. To "Americanize" the show, Norton said he wanted to try new things. When Comedy Central offered him a gig, he leaped at the chance to expand his audience.

"We kind of got bored with what we were doing in England," he said.

The British show got a name for itself by doing phone pranks and getting the studio audience involved in games -- trademarks that often overshadowed his celebrity interview of the night. Norton says he's mulling whether to keep those sillier segments in the U.S. version.

His British show's guest list would include an unusual assortment. Instead of going for the Nicole Kidman or Brad Pitt types, he'd book Dolly Parton, Johnny Knoxville and Ann-Margret.

There are definite items on Norton's list for his American show. He wants to keep the show spontaneous and topical. Tapings will be done on Tuesdays for a Thursday airing, allowing Norton to make current references each week.

Norton is an affable sort. In person, he looks more Hollywood than London. He's tan with glistening white teeth. He wears bright colors. His blond hair is short and spiked.

Take DNA from Austin Powers, David Letterman and Rip Taylor, and you'd have something close to Norton.

He grew up in rural areas of Ireland, where his family moved often because of his father's sales job with Guinness. His mother was a housewife. He also has a sister.

"I was a quiet child," he says. "I wasn't a wild one. I loved watching television. My mom tells stories about me sticking my head up a chimney one time. ... I spent a lot of time sitting around, waiting to leave."

When he did, he went to drama school, but realized acting wasn't what he wanted to do. He fled to America, lived in a "hippie commune" in San Francisco and waited tables.

"I could be a good waiter when I wanted to, but I found it quite hard to concentrate," he said. "The thing about being a waiter is that it's all about the customer and not me. I could never get used to that."

He waited tables eight years, most of that time back in Great Britain. "I remember looking at people who were 27 years old and waiting tables, and I used to think, 'Ah! Where did they go wrong?'" he recalled.

"Well, cut to me. I'm 30 and waiting tables."

He was forced to make drastic changes when the restaurant where he worked closed, and he stopped paying his rent.

"It forced me to make a decision," he says. "So I sat down and wrote comedy monologues of things to do, and I started doing them. When it took off, it was like, 'Oh! This is what I was supposed to do.' It all came together."

He got gigs doing television work during late-night, which eventually led to "So Graham Norton," which incorporates many of his standup bits.

Norton continues to do standup, often in America.

"I've been lucky twice," says the 41-year-old. "I got my own show first, then it was funny."

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