He’s one of those British comedians – Irish, actually, but famous in England – whose popularity hasn’t quite jumped the pond, as it were, to America.
But if you’re a fan of Graham Norton, then his return to American airwaves (as opposed to the broadcast of his British talk show on BBC America) is a welcome one.
The impishly sly and quick-witted Norton, who tried a frontal assault on America with a short-lived version of his British talk show on Comedy Central in 2004, has returned on the WE network, hosting a game show called “Most Popular,” airing Thursdays at 10 PM EDT on the WE network.
While some treasure Norton’s saucy, gossipy chats with willing celebrities on his talk show, “Most Popular” plays to another of his strengths: his ability to get ordinary folks to open up – and his speed with a quip when those same folks say more than they meant to.
“It’s like my talk show in that way – and there is a lot of me in it,” Norton, 46, says in a telephone interview. “The idea is as old as time: a popularity contest. That’s what appealed to me. It’s so simple: there, done.”
On “Most Popular,” an audience of 100 women – with handheld voting devices – is presented with a line-up of seven female contestants. Over the course of an hour, they winnow the group, one by one, until they pick their favorite to win a cash prize.
The first cut is the deepest: They immediately eliminate one woman based on looks alone, before any of the contestants has a chance to speak.
“On the first cut, if you’re dressed trashy, the chances are you’re voted off,” Norton says. “Once they start speaking, the audience forms a deeper knowledge and then all bets are off.”
How do contestants respond to getting the ax? Norton doesn’t care to find out. Once a contestant is gone, he doesn’t have further contact with her.
“I avoid them,” he says. “I never meet them again. I’m not paid enough to deal with the fallout.”
The show’s dynamic – a room full of women – is an intriguing one: “I’ve never worked in an all-woman environment,” he says. “Women are used to being judged by themselves and other people.”
Indeed, Norton thinks men couldn’t handle this kind of judgment with the equanimity that the female contestants do.
“I think men wouldn’t take it as well,” Norton says. “Men are more competitive. It would be so crushing to have 100 women go, ‘No, not you.’ It would rip a man’s heart out. That would be hard for men to cope with. Oh, they’d put on a brave face but it would be hard. I think women would judge men differently than they do other women.”
The longer a contestant lasts on the show, the more she has to reveal about herself. At one point, each contestant is asked to come clean about something she did in her life of which she’s truly ashamed (as well as a moment that brings the greatest pride).
“You think you’re having a fun time and suddenly she’s sobbing and telling an awful thing that happened to her,” Norton says. “They tell me these things and the audience responds. They admire women for being revealing and saying, ‘I’m ashamed of this.’ What I’m thinking is: Really, are you sure you want to share that with me? But I’m grateful and thankful they want to share. Still, it does take my breath away. It’s a game show so you could lie. But people are won over by their incredible honesty.”
It never fails to surprise Norton: “On a show like this, knowing you’re being judged, you’d think you’ve got to protect yourself. But it’s an odd atmosphere in the studio with all women. They relax into it.”
“Most Popular” shot a short (six-episode) season in Los Angeles for its initial run. But Norton hopes that, if it catches on, they’ll be able to switch things up for the next season: mixing and matching with men and women, gays and straights and so on.
“The idea lends itself to different formats,” he says. “It lends itself to changing up.”
Norton hopes his connection with WE works better than the one he had with Comedy Central in 2004 with “The Graham Norton Effect.”
“We had a brilliant time in New York,” he says. “We loved doing it, but I’m not sure it was a great fit with Comedy Central. In retrospect, it was foolish to go there. We’re from Britain – what do we know about New York? This show is a format show and much simpler to come in and do. With a talk show, it’s just hard to bring a whole production over.”
Norton, an out gay man, stepped into the role of Albin in the current London production of the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” for a four-month run earlier this year.
“I did it for 4 months which was just enough, thank you very much,” he says. “I trained as an actor. I loved doing it. It was also a nice thing to be part of a company. The downside was having to be in the same place every night and not being able to be sick. You’ve got to be in 100–percent top form every day. I don’t know how people do it for a long run.”
Norton says he can’t generalize about the kind of woman who tends to win on “Most Popular.” While he says, “There’s not a raving beauty in the bunch,” he admits that the prettier contestants do have an advantage.
“The thing that comes out is that some people are just more likable,” he says. “But yes, we like good-looking people. Beautiful people do have it easier. It’s a recipe for success. If you’re not beautiful, then you have to go to the trouble of developing a personality.”