Were it not already painfully obvious from reading the contents of this blog, let me declare openly, honestly, and for the whole world to see my deepest affection for that most captivating of internet destinations YouTube.
YouTube is like the great American novel wrapped up in one humongous high/low package: It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, it can make you cry from laughing, and all on the same morning. It is embraced by young and old. Peopled by the clumsy and the cool. And shared the world over — a collective celebration of life in all its many-colored splendor that includes everything from simple yet hilarious recordings of human error to remarkable acts of human creativity to the rather unexpected phenomenon that arises when you surprise an unwitting cat with a lowly cucumber.
One great treasure that I have stumbled across on YouTube is Graham Norton, Britain’s answer to Jimmy Fallon. Norton hosts an eponymous talk show — or chat show as he would say, and indeed part of the allure is the man’s wonderful use of the Queen’s English — that betters its American equivalents by a) populating the couch with more than one celebrity at a time, b) always including a comedian in the mix, and c) fueling guests with the [alcoholic] beverage of their choice, which they sip languidly throughout the show, giving the whole endeavor the air of a lighthearted evening with your mates rather than a rehearsed performance — or Supreme Court hearing.
And while Fallon tends to rely on games, stunts, and pranks to garner the laughs, Graham gets them the old-fashioned way: through conversation. The talk itself is of course both well-researched and carefully scripted, yet it hits all the PR messaging points in such an overly obvious manner (Graham: “Now, we have to talk about your new movie”) that you end up feeling less “sold” than you do when you watch American shows. The meta approach to the publicity machine helps nullify its effects and endear both host and guest to the viewer.
(And let’s be honest, we really do want to hear about the new movie.)
The fact that Graham also encourages celebrities’ quirkiest anecdotes gives it a more authentic flavor — as do the well-timed comedic interjections supplied by the stand-ups at the end of the couch. This format leaves room for things to take on a life of their own, as they do most brilliantly on both Episode 18 of Season 14 and Episode 11 of Season 11. The former found Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and Hugh Bonneville on Norton’s shockingly red mid-century sofa; the latter will.i.am, Miriam Margolyes, and Greg Davies. If you can get through either without a chuckle, I’d be gobsmacked. Even Matt Damon called the experience “the best time I’ve ever had on a talk show.” I imagine that’s a relatively low bar, but still.
All this hilarity, and I haven’t even mentioned the best part: The Big Red Chair! The Big Red Chair is just as advertised, only in it sit audience members who tell their most amusing anecdotes as if auditioning for a spot on the couch. If Norton deems the story funny, the guest can walk off. If not, Norton pulls a lever (pronounced LEE-ver) that tips the chair back and tosses the occupant on to the floor. As you can imagine, the LEEver is put to frequent use.
I’m sure TGNS is available on BBC America, but I prefer to watch it on YouTube in its condensed, best-parts-only form. Just this morning I watched a clip of Jennifer Lawrence talking about her short-lived career as a model. For those of you who aren’t inclined to watch it, let me describe it here: Lawrence was cast as an Abercrombie & Fitch model when she was 16, but was cut from the final campaign images. Her agent called the client to ask why and they responded by sending the images that included Lawrence, feeling they were evidence enough for their decision. As Lawrence tells it, the photographer had wanted them to seem like “real people” and so tossed the cast a football and told them to play. Lawrence took the direction to heart and played a red-faced, nostrils-flaring variety of ball, unlike the others who played “the pretty way.”
Of course we can all share a laugh with Lawrence about it now, and in fact her gaff gives her that wonderfully human quality of failure to which we can all relate. And yet I wonder how it felt for her back then, back when she wasn’t an in-demand Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor but rather an anonymous hopeful like the rest of us. If this were the “best story” she could muster for a stint in the Red Chair, would Norton have pulled his LEEver? Would he have turned to his celebrity guests after she tumbled to the floor and lamented her hopelessness? Would they have all laughed at her expense? My guess is yes. The anecdote is cute-funny if you’re Jennifer Lawrence circa 2016, but more sad-funny circa 2000.
Either way, there’s nothing quite as wonderful as schadenfreude — as my dear YouTube proves to us all on a daily basis.