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Norton on the loose

Other networks courted him, but the popular talk show host from Britain will bring his bawdy brand of humor to Comedy Central.

September 29, 2003|Ned Martel | Special to The Times

Graham Norton, Britain's most daring TV personality, already is finding comfort in his new U.S. corporate home. The talk show host is bedding down with Comedy Central, which vows to let Norton be Norton, no matter the format, the time slot or the venue.

That's quite a commitment, given that porn Web sites, risque banter, peccadillo-probing interviews and the host's stereotype-indulging gay persona are regular features on his British talk show.

The pesky details of his U.S. undertaking -- including when the show will debut -- are yet to be decided, but for now, the match is made, after this most unlikely of U.S. talk show hosts was courted by other networks. And it all went down during a weekend that saw both Norton and his new network enjoy star turns at the Sept. 21 Emmy Awards. On the red carpet, Sarah Jessica Parker, the belle of the ball, rushed over to introduce herself to the blond-tipped, Irish-born comedian. And Comedy Central's flagship "Daily Show" walked off with statuettes more often claimed by writers and players on the older late-night franchises.

Norton, who just finished a week of sold-out stand-up gigs in town, recalled Sunday's hoopla while sipping coffee in his Coronet Theatre dressing room: "We kind of went, 'Oh, right, we didn't even know we were going somewhere that could win Emmys. Oh, look! They can!' "

Norton's brand of bawdy humor draws huge numbers of Britons and a growing cult of American viewers, who have found "So Graham Norton" reruns on BBC America. Typically, Norton bounds onstage in spangled regalia, offers a dishy monologue, and elicits audience confessions about sexual and sometimes scatological mishaps. Following that come celebrity chats and stunts, which involve costumes and raucous role-playing.

The celebrities are strangely drawn to him on air, as on Sunday's red carpet, not merely because of his U.K. wattage. On "So Graham Norton," he often finds Web sites created by those who trumpet a fetish and a favorite celebrity. With Cher by his side, Norton phoned a Web-posting exhibitionist who worshiped the diva and purported to enjoy sex with various inflatables.

And stars like Dustin Hoffman, Chris Rock, Sophia Loren and Susan Sarandon each offer different glimpses of their personas than viewers can see on standard talk show formats. "They know it's a very kind of nonjudgmental space," he said of visitors to his soundstage, where confetti flies and campy music blares and tolerance of all sexuality is promoted. "Before the guest ever comes on, the audience is in their place. They've shared. They've told us things.... And [the celebrity guests] are driven in that direction trying to please that particular audience."

It's not a trick, Norton insists. Instead, it comes off as a love-fest that is both palatable and tasteless. "He just probes in an interesting way and uses innuendo that way," explains Bill Hilary, the Comedy Central executive who signed Norton. "He's almost their friend."

Hilary is Irish himself and knew of Norton from his years at the BBC and Channel 4, where Norton's show has grown from a weekly to nightly phenomenon that added another 30 minutes per episode, by popular demand. The Comedy Central deal gives Norton a stand-up special plus 13 hourlong weekly talk show episodes, taped in the week they air, with an option for more. He is committed to six more months of his U.K. franchise and hopes to keep both U.K. and U.S. versions up and running.

Other suitors, including NBC, ABC and Bravo, may not have been able to provide that kind of flexibility, and creative freedom was important to Norton. He found the process somewhat mysterious.

"In the U.K., people talk about the television industry; here it actually is an industry," he said with widened eyes. "At home, it's like amateur dramatics. We think it's an industry, until you actually walk into a meeting here." But he noted the confabs were densely populated, with no mention of creative restrictions that might apply. "Everyone is quite wanting you to join with them and saying, 'You could do what you like.'

"That's another thing I liked about Comedy Central," Norton said. "Comedy Central was quite a small meeting. And the people at the meeting I have met more than once now," he joked, referring to the rotating cast of characters in other prospective network homes.

Comedy Central seemed to respond as much to his racy formula as to its successful outcome, Norton said. And Hilary endorsed the idea that Norton do more than just what the host calls "plug and hug" segments with celebrities. The programming exec points to the antics on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" as well as "Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn," in addition to specials that let Denis Leary, Wanda Sykes and David Chappelle be their provocative selves. And when the going gets gross, bleeping and digitizing will protect the more easily scandalized viewers.

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