Bruce Dessau reviews Covid 19 interviews

Opinion: Can A Chat Show Work Without An Audience?

By Bruce Dessau on 11/4/2020

The Graham Norton Show returned on Friday night, but this was the Coronavirus version. The guests were onscreen at home and there was no studio audience. No studio in fact. Norton conjured one up through the magic of television. But apart from that there wasn't much magic on display.

After a hard day at work which involved various meetings on Zoom the last thing I wanted was a TV programme that felt like yet another Zoom conference call. In fact the opening chat with Michael Bublé got even more post-Zoom self-referential when Norton started to talk to the singer about how he does daily onscreen chats with his wife. Jean Baudrillard would have had a field day. This was hardly the glamorous showbiz banter we are used to. But I guess these are different, difficult times.

Things got a bit better with Daisy Haggard and Martin Freeman on separate screens plugging their Sky comedy Breeders. At least Freeman had dressed for the occasion and looked dapper in front of a Michael Caine poster (Funeral in Berlin). And then Michael Sheen, plugging the ITV drama Quiz, was lots of fun impersonating Chris Tarrant for a spoof round of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? with Norton and phone-a-friend Judi Dench.

But there was something missing and, I think maybe Norton knew it when he asked the audience at home to be his audience. As he delivered his pithy-as-ever opening monologue and off-the-cuff wisecracks tumbleweed seemed to blow across the screen. Not because the gags weren't funny, but because Norton is such a good comedian, with such good timing, he was leaving the gaps where the laughs should go. It reminded me of a weird clip that did the rounds a few years ago of an unsavoury Bob Monkhouse stand-up set with the laughter edited out. There is no eeerier sight than a comedian performing to silence.

Maybe viewers were laughing at home but it just didn't feel the same. Laughter is infectious and without the usual studio guffaws there wasn't much to kickstart the hilarity back home on the sofa.

Which is not to say that online chat shows can't work. Maybe the BBC should take a leaf out of Richard Herring's book. His Leicester Square Theatre podcast interviews are already well-established and have attracted guests of the calibre of Stephen Fry, Russell Brand recently Michael Palin.

Like Norton Herring has also been forced to adapt in the current circumstances and is now live streaming his interviews from home on Wednesday nights on the Twitch network before releasing them as podcasts.

Last Wednesday he interviewed fellow podcaster Adam Buxton. There was no audience. Herring was in his house near Hemel Hempstead, Buxton was in his home near Norwich. Laughter wasn't necessary. With fewer time constraints than Norton the conversation flowed for over an hour and had a natural rhythm to it. Both comedians opened up. Herring revealed how one previous podcast guest had decided that he didn't want his interview broadcast, Buxton talked about his relationship with his late father.

And then towards the end both talked about the tensions of being in a double act. Buxton recalled how it had been awkward between him and Joe Cornish when Time Out published an article where Buxton appeared to take credit for a version of Titanic with toys created by Cornish, even though Buxton had been at pains to avoid taking credit in an interview with the magazine. And Herring revealed how Lee had been cast in a film early in their career and Herring had missed out for reasons that he was unaware of at the time.

This was the kind of wide-ranging interview, where the chat was so interesting you didn't need the bells and whistles of audience laughter to keep you watching. It didn't matter here that there was no showbiz glitter to jazz things up. Yet somehow Norton's show, shorn of its glamour and laughalong fans in situ, felt wanting. Maybe after this first outing there might be a bit of a rethink. As for Herring's interviews they don't need a rejig. Judging by probing chat with Adam Buxton Herring has already cracked the Covid19 online formula.

The Graham Norton Show is on BBC One on Fridays at 9pm. Follow Richard Herring on Twitter here for more details of his shows.