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Graham Norton on Larry Flynt and the joy of a simple roasted potato

The chat show maestro and host of Queen Of The Universe sits down with us for the latest edition of 11 Questions
Photo: Tim P. Whitby (Getty Images)
Photo: Tim P. Whitby (Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people the same 11 interesting questions.

Longtime chat show host Graham Norton is basically a household name in the U.K. As the host of The Graham Norton Show since 2007, Norton is a five-time BAFTA winner and has sat down for ribald, couch-wide chats with everyone from Lady Gaga to Gérard Depardieu. Norton’s also hosted a BBC radio show for over a decade, popped up as a recurring judge on the last few seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, and fills the role of the BBC’s TV commentator during the Eurovision Song Contest.

The last two credits make Norton the natural choice for his latest job as host of Queen Of The Universe. A singing competition that pits drag queens from around the world against one another, Queen Of The Universe is part The Masked Singer, part American Idol, all wrapped up in big, Eurovision-style production.

We sat down with Norton to pester him with questions not about Queen, but instead about almost everything else, in our latest edition of 11 Questions.

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1. What’s the best trip or outing that you remember as a kid and what made it great?

Graham Norton: I remember as a kid… I don’t know how this happened, but we left Ireland with people from school and we went to this kind of adventure thing in Wales. I remember we got to be in canoes and go on hikes. All the stuff now that I would not thank you for. And honestly, even then, I didn’t really like any of that. But I loved being away from my parents and being in a foreign country.

You know, we were in Wales. It looks quite like Ireland to the untrained eye. But for us kids, it was the height of exotic.

2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career, but that you struggled to learn?

GN: Oh, I mean, so much. I think the thing I still struggle with is length of questions. If I wasn’t being produced, all my questions would be longer than the answers from guests. And that’s the same on the radio, on my book club podcast, and on the chat show. I find myself starting to [speeds up] talk like this and then can’t stop.

I just want the question to be very clear, so I keep adding little subsections of the question. So that is the thing I still struggle with, because no one wants to hear me talk.

3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?

GN: You know what, funny that you mention podcasts: The only thing I did in quarantine that I’d never done before was podcasts. I started listening to podcasts because we had a lot of time to kill.

Everything else I’ve been doing. I did more of it. I’ve always cooked, just never that much. How bored were we all of our own cooking by the end of that thing?

AVC: What podcasts did you get into?

GN: The best one I think I’ve heard is called The Line. It’s by a guy called Dan Taberski, and it’s an amazing documentary about an American leader of a battalion. I don’t know whether he was a major general or what he was, but he got tried for war crimes in America. It’s about how that happened.

It’s so nuanced. Every time you think you know who’s good news or who’s wrong, who’s right, it changes. It’s really, really well done. It even has jokes in it, and they’re even funnier along the way because it sounds like it would be so dry and serious.

4. What restaurant do you not live near but you make a point to hit every time you’re in town?

GN: For me, it would be ABCV, which is in New York.

There’s a home store called ABC, and then in the bottom of that, there are these restaurants. There’s ABC Kitchen and there’s ABC Cucina. And then there’s ABCV and it’s the vegetarian-vegan one.

I’m neither vegetarian or vegan, but the food in there is amazing. Everything, everything you taste makes you go wow.

It’s the sort of food that you couldn’t make, because I was saying, if you go to a restaurant, don’t order something you could cook. Order something you absolutely couldn’t cook. So everything on that menu is something I absolutely couldn’t cook

AVC: And because it’s vegan/vegetarian, you get to walk away feeling like you’re healthy.

GN: Yeah, I’ve a feeling [chef Jean-Georges has] managed it. I think sugar is a vegetable.

AVC: Are you one of those people that always gets the same thing when you go to your favorite restaurants or do you mix it up?

GN: Actually, in that one, I mix it up, but normally I eat like a pregnant woman. I have the things I like right now, and I’ll always ordered the same thing. I always kind of think, “Oh, I won’t…” and then you look at the menu and you kind of think, “Well, no, I’m the same person who sat here five years ago going ‘that looks nice.’ I still think that looks nice. It’s still the thing I want.’” So I do tend to order the same thing.

5. What futuristic technology that doesn’t exist now would you like to have?

GN: I just think about all the things we were promised by 2021.

I’m particularly particularly disappointed about the nonappearance of jetpacks. I mean, we were all going to get a jetpack and that was just going to be how you got around. As a child, I’m sure I saw people on television with prototype jetpacks. Did all of those people die right after they’d done it because you see them kind of taking off, though?

I mean, I think that’s the future. So, yeah, I would like a jetpack because living in London, traffic’s terrible. I ride a bike because traffic’s so bad. I really am too old and too rich to be riding a bike, so I require a jetpack, please. Could somebody get on that? Thank you.

AVC: You make a good point. In the ’70s, they’d have people come out at halftime of the Super Bowl or whatever, and they’d fly around on a jet pack. Why did we never perfect that technology?

GN: I think they were on wires. Honestly, I don’t think any of them were actually using a jetpack. I think it was a load of rubbish.

AVC: Maybe they could do it, but they just choose not to because they don’t want to make up jetpack laws. How would traffic work? Who would go where?

GN: We’d be like human drones and we’d be jetpacking through flight paths and things.

6. What famous person that you’ve met has lived up to or exceeded your impression of them?

AVC: You have met a lot of people.

GN: I have, and lots of them have exceeded my expectations.

The person I think who confounded my expectations the most was Larry Flynt, the head of the Hustler empire. I had an impression of who that man was going to be. He was essentially a pornographer. That’s how he made his money.

I met him at the top of what I think was Flynt Tower in L.A. somewhere? It was in his apartment, which was all on one level, obviously, because he was in a wheelchair.

I just found him fascinating. I don’t agree with everything he stood for, but as a conversationalist, I found him wildly interesting, a really original thinker.

I was just so surprised by him. I went in thinking it was going to be one sort of conversation and it wasn’t like that. So, a controversial answer, but Larry Flynt.

AVC: He had to be a smart guy, even if he wasn’t especially ethical. He didn’t get so popular by doing something no one wanted.

GN: Yes, for all the women who got exploited by that, he was also doing interesting things. He would open stores in towns that he knew really didn’t want the store. He would push buttons. And he was very funny. That was something: He was very, very funny.

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

GN: I mean, I’ve had some pretty terrible television ones, but real jobs are always going to be the worst.

My very first job, I was working in a pottery shop in West Cork, in Ireland, and it was very quiet. No one was coming in. So they had me sit out back peeling cooking apples because they had a little cafe and they would make these apple tarts.

I was whatever age I was, 14 15, and I’d never peeled an apple, so I just kept cutting myself. My blood was all in the water with the apples. I mean... not vegetarian apple pies by the time they were made.

So yes, I do remember sitting in a cold shed, bleeding into buckets of apples feeling particularly sorry for myself.

AVC: That’s one of those things that maybe doesn’t happen now, but also could, and we just don’t know? You don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors in places like that.

GN: Yeah, no, you’re still eating apple pie with blood in it. There’s still probably blood in every apple pie you eat.

8. What fictional family would you like to belong to?

GN: That’s a good question to which I am struggling to get an answer, so let me think. What shows do I watch where I’d like to be?

Are The Golden Girls family or would I be allowed to join The Golden Girls?

AVC: Well, Sophia and Dorothy are related, so I would think so.

GN: I’ll join their family. I will live in Blanche’s house with them.

9. What’s the first piece of art or earliest piece of media that inspired you to go into your field or made you realize what art is capable of?

GN: Growing up, we had a talk show in Ireland called The Late Late Show, and it was introduced by a man called Gay Byrne. He did that show for the longest time, 30-something years, and the show is still going. It’s the [second] longest running talk show in the world.

What was weird was that, as a kid, I always wanted to be a guest. I always thought being a guest would be the good thing. By the time I got older, I remembered Gay and what he did and how he was with his guests. It was like I learned through osmosis. I didn’t feel like I was studying him because I wanted to do that one day, but it turned out I had been studying him. I had been really watching what he did. So I would say Gay Byrne and The Late Late Show opened me up to the world of chat shows.

Chat shows are such a weird thing. They’re nothing, like they’re not drama, they’re not a comedy. They’re not a sports thing. There’s no reason for them. I still don’t know what they are, but I love being part of that chat show world. And it was that show that opened me up to them.

10. Who’s the funniest person you know personally?

GN: The funniest person I know personally? Kind of a lot. I don’t want to name one because I feel like my friends will then fall out with me, like, “You said Mark!”

I think I value funny above all else in friendship. If I’m not laughing at my friends, I don’t know what I’m doing. Yes, I can cry with them, but I think what attracts me to people is that they are funny.

I guess I could say my friend Maria McErlane, because I work with her. She does my radio show with me here in London on the weekend, so we get to bounce off each other professionally. So I think I’m allowed to say her without offending anybody else.

11. If a deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it?

GN: Honestly, I know it doesn’t sound nice, but it would have to be some sort of potato. Maybe it could be potato bread with something in between. But certainly potato.

I know I’m Irish, so it’s such a cliche to say I like potatoes, but on Sunday, someone gave me a roast potato. Honestly, I don’t think any drug could have made me happier than that roast potato. I was high as a kite on just the pleasure. I didn’t even have gravy. They just literally gave me a roast potato and it was just delicious.

So maybe that would that would be good, wouldn’t it, if you got a sub? You can hollow the bread so that there’s room for actually proper chunky crispy roast potatoes inside with some sort of gravy or sauce or something?

Yeah, I’m a potato sandwich.

AVC: You could make a Sunday roast sandwich and get it all together in there.

GN: What are we doing here? Why aren’t we eating that?