No Laughing Matter

The Graham Norton Effect is a raunchy, unfunny mess.

Seriously unfunny

Last night, the mantle of TV critic hung heavy upon me for the first time. I took the bullet for you, people—watched the premiere of Comedy Central’s much-hyped new weekly talk show The Graham Norton Effect (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) so you won’t have to. And please, I’m begging you, don’t. My boyfriend happened to walk in while I was enduring a second viewing for the sake of art, and I all but dove to body-block the screen: He’s too pure and good a person to sully himself with such garbage. And so, I’m certain, are you.

Now, I’m no prude; I love a good dirty joke, and, as several Fray readers have pointed out, I’m partial to the humor of “smartass lezzy clown bitches.” I was more than well-disposed to the idea of preceding my ritual viewing of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show with a weekly hour of bawdy high jinks from a gay Irish comic who was all the rage in Britain on a late-night program called So Graham Norton. But The Graham NortonEffect does more than toy with FCC regulations on naughty language; it violates federal standards of unfunniness.

Norton’s first guest is what-am-I-famous-for-again Sandra Bernhard, who begins her interview with a patronizing accolade to her host: “You’ve worked your way up. You were on the BBC, now you’re on Comedy Central. It’s the big league.”  Right … because the BBC is such a small, obscure network—local-access, really—and Norton is now lucky enough to find himself on the cable-chat circuit with the likes of Sandra Bernhard! Having made a career out of being grating, Bernhard now slogs through her transgressive act with the grimly set jaw of a steelworker. At moments, she unwittingly lets slip the melancholy of the B-list star: “If you’re out of the public’s eye for one second, you are yesterday’s news. You are cold as ice, doing a lounge show in Vegas.” This is too close to the truth to work as irony; biting the hand that no longer feeds her, Bernhard sounds like The Simpsons’ Krusty the Klown or a bitter drunk who won’t leave you alone at the bar.

Norton’s second guest is Marlon Wayans, who has a big new movie, White Chicks, which premiered this week. (According to the established pecking order of chat-show status, shouldn’t he have gone first?) Before long, Wayans and Bernhard are both conscripted for a series of coyly raunchy “games” with the studio audience. In one, the celebrity guests listen to the pre-taped sexual moans of various audience members and try to identify the moaners’ partners based on the sounds they make. After we hear one particularly apelike grunt, the tape-ee introduces us to his grown son, who sits next to him, laughing hysterically. Watching someone get off on his dad’s orgasm on national television? Thanks, Comedy Central, for ruining my sex life for a decade.

Then there’s the interactivity feature. Norton’s big innovation is that he uses the Internet on his show, which again, sounded interesting in theory, like a postmillennial update of David Letterman’s old prank-calling routine. Last night’s Web visit took us to the personal site of an oral hygiene fetishist, who gets off on posting pictures of beautiful women brushing their teeth. After scrolling briefly through the vaguely naughty pics, Norton handed out toothbrushes to his studio audience, called the tooth-fetish guy, and asked everyone to start brushing. The fetishist’s response—”I think your audience is one horny bunch of dirty ****ers”—drew shrieks of outraged laughter, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. They’re a pretty unsavory lot, eager to respond to Norton’s solicitations for anecdotes about their sexual and excretory foibles. The audience-interview segments are an odd mix of the Oprah-style confessional and public humiliation à la “Punk’d“—but unlike the guests on that show, Norton’s targets are choosing to punk themselves. When they bury their heads in their hands, apparently mortified by their own voluntary revelations, viewers can only scratch their heads. You made your own bed, buddy, now have embarrassing sex in it.

Is there not a single good joke in this hour, you ask? Let me think … no. Not that the serious stuff works much better: With his ADD-style leaps from one cheap gag to the next, Norton is a terrible interviewer. There are a couple of promising moments with Wayans (who speaks of his newly found respect for drag queens, then embarks on an anecdote about his strict Jehovah’s Witness childhood), but any hint of self-revelation or good storytelling is quickly steamrolled by Norton’s frantic pace.

Maybe Norton’s shtick really is hilarious in Britain, and it’s our patently American combination of prurience and repression that makes the imported version of this show so deeply unpleasant. Maybe, like bangers and mash, it tastes kind of good when you’re over there. But as a fan of Absolutely Fabulous, Monty Python, and The Office, I’m going to have a hard time being convinced that my stone-faced reaction to The Graham Norton Effect is just because I don’t get “British humor.” In fact, the cultural artifact this show most reminds me of is not British at all. If you saw Lost in Translation, you’ll remember the baffling Japanese variety program Bill Murray’s character appears on, where a bleach-blond host in Sergeant Pepper-style glam gear mugs and babbles incomprehensibly, trying to engage Murray in some mystifying but apparently crowd-pleasing ritual. The Graham Norton Effect feels like that scene—except there’s no Bill Murray to redeem it, and it lasts a whole hour. The miasma of low-level skeeze that hangs over this show leaves you wanting to take a sauna afterward. The overall effect (the, um, Graham Norton effect?) is that of being trapped at a raucous, superficial get-together with a bunch of coked-up strangers who are talking over each other in that drugged-out, manic way. You can almost feel the postnasal drip. I’m sure I have been, in some small way, forever sullied by the experience of watching The Graham Norton Effect. But if even one person out there avoids turning it on next week, my sacrifice will not have been in vain.