By Rick Bentley The Fresno Bee
Graham Norton designed his self-titled BBC America talk show to help guests through what he calls a “dead chicken” story.
We’re not talking deceased poultry anecdotes here. What Norton means is a story that doesn’t go over too well with the audience.
On this show, which starts its 14th season Saturday, there’s no chit chat with one guest and then someone sliding down for the next guest. A-list celebrities pile on the orange couch all at once.
“If you bring out one guest and they tell a story about a dead chicken on the set and it doesn’t go well, at least with our show they are out there for a while and they can try another story,” Norton says during an early morning telephone chat from London.
Norton’s first few years as a talk show host featured the standard one-guest-at-a-time pattern. That style slowly changed into the current design.
The season opener features Benedict Cumberbatch, Harrison Ford, Jack Whitehall and James Blunt.
It may seem challenging to make sure all of the guests get equal time. But one of the things that has made Norton a top talk show host is his casual style of dealing with the guests. Even when there are several big names on his couch, he manages to make sure they all get their time to talk.
Norton says the secret to looking so casual is lots and lots of work.
“We will spend a whole day mapping out how the conversation might go,” he said. “The researchers may find out that a singer has a great story about being expelled and an actor is looking at screenplay about a teacher. We like to find those links.”
The best shows are when those plans go out the window and guests begin to interact. When that happens, Norton just sits back and listens.
Along with plotting the conversation, great care is put into selecting the right mix of guests. That wasn’t a problem when the show was seen only in the United Kingdom, but now it’s broadcast in 20 countries, including the United States.
“We are very aware of the international audience we have now,” Norton said. “Some weeks, we will look at the guest list and decide it’s a very domestic sofa. The thing we love the best is when someone British, like Benedict Cumberbatch, becomes a big star. We also know that ‘Doctor Who’ is big in the United States.”
Until Madonna stopped by for a chat, the singer had always been at the top of Norton’s wish list of guests.
If the tables were turned and Norton had to be a guest, he would love to share the furniture with Joan Rivers and Bradley Cooper. He thinks Americans don’t revere Rivers enough and Cooper is “pretty to look at.”
Getting Tom Cruise on the show was another major coup for Norton, who never thought it would happen. Cruise was late to the show and Norton didn’t get to meet him until they were both in front of the cameras.
“I don’t normally feel starstruck, but I was shocked by how affected I was having Tom Cruise on the show,” Norton said. “I was gobsmacked. I just kept thinking ‘That’s Tom Cruise.”
“The Graham Norton Show” starts its 14th season at 10 p.m. Saturday on BBC America.