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He's gay, naughty and tops in Britain
Updated: 2004-06-24 08:52

"I need something loud," says Graham Norton as he swishes through the designer collections at Bergdorf Goodman on a recent shopping spree.

Graham Norton's British show is known for its mischievous humor and visits to porn sites -- as well as the celebrities who have appeared on it.
He proceeds to pull a lipstick-red Jil Sander jacket from its hanger, then snatches a sunburst yellow shirt and muted blue trousers by Theory and a Dolce & Gabbana denim shirt.

An unabashed queer eye for haute couture, Norton has been named GQ's "worst-dressed man" for two consecutive years.

"Isn't it just wrong?" he says, pointing to an ad with a long-haired Adonis in a dizzyingly colorful sports coat.

"I really think it's the gay thing," Norton snickers. "All of these supposedly heterosexual fashion editors at GQ and Esquire say Orlando Bloom or David Beckham is the best-dressed man.

"But what they're really saying is that they fancy them, because all they're wearing is jeans and a T-shirt. I don't think they hate me because I'm gay. I think they hate me because I'm not beautiful."

A comment like that might seem dispiriting, but such is the off-kilter charm of the host of Comedy Central's "The Graham Norton Effect," which debuts 10 p.m. EDT Thursday.

It's the same wry, saucy wit that has bolstered the comic's popular British chat show, "So Graham Norton," where mischievous humor, naughty Web sites and erotic sex toys are as much a part of the shtick as his deafeningly loud suits.

"I don't feel personally judged by GQ," says Norton, dressed this day in a stripped blue oxford shirt, blue jeans and white moccasins. "They've only seen me in my bright shiny suits."

'I'm doing my silly little show'

Billed as a "peep show-side show-talk show," the weekly "Graham Norton Effect" will mimic his irreverent, 6-year-old U.K. show, a witty hodgepodge of "The Larry Sanders Show," "Late Night With David Letterman," "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" and "Dame Edna's Hollywood."

Although it will be taped at Manhattan's Chelsea Studios, with an initial run of 13 weeks, Norton says his new show "really will be the same show."

That means no monologue and no desk, and more "Let's Make a Deal"-style games with the audience and unusual comedic antics with the guests.

"I'm not doing just a talk show," he says. "I'm doing my silly little show."

Norton tries on clothes. He's been named "worst-dressed" by GQ two years in a row.

This silly little show began as "quite a cult hit" in Britain, says co-executive producer Graham Stuart. "It was expected that we would have a young audience, and a lot of gay people.

"But, surprisingly, very quickly everybody came to the show," including a wide variety of celebrity guests including Naomi Campbell and Sophia Loren.

Norton has surfed porn sites with Joan Collins and Carrie Fisher, and engaged in priceless comedic scenarios with Dustin Hoffman, Cher and John Malkovich.

"Madonna's my big get," says Norton, "but in the end, the Madonna I want is the Madonna from six years ago. Now she's a working mother of two, everything's about kaballah. I'm not sensing fun with a capital F."

Norton's shows are definitely not for the prudish.

"He's really naughty," purrs Lauren Corrao, a programming executive at Comedy Central. "He gets celebrities to do things you'd never think they'd do (and) he plays with the audience in a way that nobody else does."

Says Jon Magnuson, Norton's longtime producer: "Essentially what's funny about it on a basic level is it's silly. But we have to work quite hard to make things seem easy."

'Our timing isn't great, but funny's funny'

In this era of post-Janet Jackson puritanism, it may be even harder to get away with some of Norton's racier stunts.

"We're still feeling the ripple of the nipple," says Norton of the Federal Communication Commission's current crusade for media decency. "Our timing isn't great, but funny's funny. In the end we're going to make our show and they'll beep it and blur it and you still get the joke. But for some weird reason, you just can't be seeing it."

Formally trained as an actor at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, the 39-year-old Irish comic got his big break in 1997 when he was nominated for the Perrier comedy award at the Edinburgh Festival, which led to a raft of TV offers in Britain.

But to have a show in America has long been his goal.

"Now I sound so ambitious," he says, laughing. "It really was just kind of a pipe dream. I've done very little proactively to make this happen."

In the end, he says fame is his ultimate ambition.

"The best bit of the play is at the end with everyone clapping and going, 'Woo-hoo, we like you! Well done!' " he says. "That's what you work towards."

To eventually be deemed "best-dressed" would be nice, too.

Back at Bergdorf's, Norton spots a pair of white Keanan Duffy cotton jeans with silver piping, pearls and rhinestones on the pockets.

"Oooh, I like that," he coos. "It's my attraction to shiny things. It catches my shiny eye."

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