This Show Let Jennifer Lawrence Give Trump the Finger. Why Isn't It on Israeli TV Screens?

The BBC provides lots of entertainment, but why is it so short on talk shows that are worth watching?

Jennifer Lawrence and Johnny Depp on 'The Graham Norton Show.'
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The world of TV watching is changing, and we are no longer at the mercy of networks, channels, cable, satellites, and or any kind of “providers” in order to get our daily fix of visual input or information. Now we are willing and able to see what we want when and where we want it. But having said that, I have to admit that old habits die hard. One often switches on the TV set, which is linked to a provider – usually the one that got to you first in the remote past, when you got acquainted with your first remote-control. Then you zap to the channel you remember as more enjoyable than others.

In my case it is BBC Entertainment (Channel 32 on Yes and Channel 42 on HOT), as I have a soft spot for all things British. True, I can get some samples of BBC on other channels, when and if the visual products go global. An example is “Downton Abbey” (the sixth and final season is still on VOD of various providers). Another is “Spooks” (aka “MI-5” which is currently rerunning, all 10 seasons of it, on HOT Plus channel 4). But – for instance – BBC Entertainment is the only place I can get “Casualty,” or sometimes another rerun of “Blackadder,” a series that keeps getting funnier every time I watch it.

And that makes me wonder why, oh why, in the talk show category (or chat-show, as it is called in Britain), the only thing BBC Entertainment has seen fit to offer me is “Chatty Man” with the very much over-the-top host Alan Carr, with his weird drinks cabinet. On the whole, it is a very noisy affair where all behave as if they are having as much fun as is humanly possible, leaving the viewer often wondering what they are so happy about. And it’s not that the BBC lacks anything better to offer in this category. Take, for instance, “The Graham Norton Show,” now in its 19th season.

Before telling you – if for some improbable reason you don’t know it yet – what is worth watching on that show – I’d like to ponder a bit about the whole talk show genre. It can be either the best or the worst that television can offer, in the gamut of possibilities between “riveting and entertaining” and “inane and boring as hell.” At the same time it is not much more than a talking heads show, the most trivial of TV studio programs (cheap to produce, compared to the simplest and most basic TV series, for instance).

According to the OED, the verb “to chat” (the etymology, for that matter, is from the onomatopoeic “chatter”) dates back to the mid-15th century, in the (derogatory?) sense of “to talk idly and foolishly; to prate, babble.” It took less than a hundred years for the verb to mean “to talk in a light and informal manner”, which just highlights how easy it is to slip from the dizzying heights of “light and informal” to the depths of “idly and foolishly.” According to the OED, the compound “chat-show” dates back to the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when newspapers (The Times and TVTimes) applied it to talk shows hosted by British TV personalities like David Frost and Michael Parkinson. They both had the knack of presiding benignly – and wittily, or at least wryly – over a studio full of celebrities, who were there so we could feast our eyes and ears on them “in slippers,” as it were, chatting lightly and informally while flogging their respective new offerings (a movie, TV show, album or book).

Jodie Foster on "The Graham Norton Show"

Compared to Alan Carr, who is on BBC Entertainment every Saturday night, Graham Norton, even with his “innuendo laden dialogue and flamboyant presentation style” (Wikipedia) is as tame as they come. Last week he was a guest in millions of homes of English-speaking Eurovision viewers, as he replaced the late Terry Wogan as the BBC commentator of the song contest. He referred to it at the opening of his chat show last Friday, telling all that next year he will have to follow the show to Ukraine. He was not amused.

Caught with their pants down

Apart from him, flashy suits and a personality that is a bit on the manic side, there is his opening gambit, usually with the willing participation of his guests. (Last week it was Jodie Foster expressing the hope that he would not try some lame “Silence of the Lambs” joke, with Norton being wheeled in and out behind her, tied to a stretcher with a Hannibal Lecter mask on his face.)

It is all about the stellar couch Norton manages to assemble every week, and his guests’ willingness to be relaxed and cooperative while retelling in the studio the silliest and most embarrassing stories about themselves – as unearthed for Norton beforehand by his production team – and willing to prick their own balloons while simultaneously blowing their own horns.

Last Friday, Jodie Foster was there to promote the movie “Money Monster” she just directed, with Julia Roberts and George Clooney. Among other things, she described her first meeting with Clooney on the first day of filming, with her behind the camera above the set. Clooney was sitting on a toilet with his pants and underpants down. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were with Foster on Norton’s show as part of a world publicity tour of their joint movie “The Nice Guys.” A clip from it shows Gosling on a toilet seat, with his pants down, trying not to be intimidated by Crowe, who is standing over him. That was followed by the British comedian Greg Davies regaling all with a story of how he had found himself one morning, hung-over, on a toilet, wearing his mother’s knickers (she was doing his laundry). This was topped by the Olympic diver Tom Daley answering Norton’s questions about his miniscule Speedo bathing suit and its ability to keep his private parts from hindering his diving style by suddenly moving due to unexpected natural causes. When pressed on the subject by Norton, Daley informed everyone that when one stands there, 10 meters above the water and ready to jump, one’s mind and some parts of one’s body are otherwise engaged, and not even close to contemplating anything even remotely connected to any kind of innuendo. Norton was listening with disbelief, all the time holding in his hands the tiny bathing suit that Daley had admitted wearing recently.

Another guest on last Friday’s show was Sir Elton John, (“the kindest man on the planet,” according to Russell Crowe) on the eve of a seven-month tour that started yesterday in Israel (neither Elton nor Norton mentioned the venue). A week earlier the show – usually a laughing matter that leaves politics out – had Jennifer Lawrence giving Donald Trump the finger, and Johnny Depp doing a Trump impersonation (“I don’t remember the question, but I’m not going to answer it anyway”).

Last but not least: Every Friday night, the show’s most recent program gets uploaded on YouTube; sometimes it skips the clips from the movies or the songs. So you don’t really need the BBC to see the BBC. If you enjoy celebrities having fun – or at least looking like they are – you need look no further than “The Graham Norton Show.”

And I’m not going to tell you what the Red Chair is all about. See for yourself.