I’ve been watching Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show for the last month, because he’s the new host in town. I’ve heard him talk about football with Snoop Dogg and wrestling with Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’ve seen him repeatedly try to provoke ABC’s censors by saying naughty words and making rude gestures (it’s called flipping the bird where I come from, Jimmy, but it’s usually fifth-graders who do it for kicks).
Like a lot of people, I picked up the late-night habit in college. My freshman roommate introduced me to clove cigarettes and Letterman, then in his irreverent prime with grotesque sidekick Larry “Bud” Melman. Nowadays, beyond a schoolgirl crush on Jon Stewart and a grudging admiration for Bill Maher’s chutzpah, I have little use for the brotherhood of talk show hosts: Kimmel’s frat-house pandering, Letterman with his jaded, dead eyes and lecherous banter, Leno the insipid ass-kisser, and Craig Kilborn’s cruel smirk. All fill me with ennui.
Apparently, it’s inconceivable to the networks that a woman could host a talk show after 4 p.m. So I’ve decided that if it’s got to be a guy, let him be gay. Deep in the cable hinterland, two testosterone-free talk shows are quietly undermining the macho tradition: The Isaac Mizrahi Show, starting its third season this month on the women’s network Oxygen, and So Graham Norton, a U.K. import on BBC America.
I like Mizrahi’s show more than I ever liked the clothes he designed. He has the most organic interview style on TV. Although he sometimes fawns over his (mostly female) guests, Mizrahi’s no toady. It always feels like genuine admiration, as if he’s found a new best friend. “I love women because they’re fearless,” he says in a voice-over during the opening credits. I believe him. He also says, “Talk is better when you’re doing something,” and the show likes to keep guests in motion. Instead of trapping himself on a set with the requisite mahogany desk, Mizrahi spends most of his time doing ordinary stuff with guests: He chatted with Natalie Portman while grooming a dog, trimmed a tree with Christine Baranski, and played ping-pong with Janeane Garofalo.
Sometimes Mizrahi goes overboard with his gee-whizness. When a former SNL star took tango lessons with him, he gushed, “Wow, it’s Molly Shannon!” How can anyone get that rapturous about Molly Shannon? But rather than making him overly distant or reverent, his puppy-doggish enthusiasm brings him closer to the guests. While dancing with Shannon, he inadvertently feels her up and gasps, “Are you wearing an underwire? Molly Shannon’s wearing underwire!” Coming from someone like Letterman, the comment would’ve bordered on sexual assault, but from Mizrahi, it’s adorable. Shannon responds gamely, “A girl needs support!”
I had assumed Mizrahi’s charming manner would only work with female guests (most of them natural-born fag hags, like Baranski and Sarah Jessica Parker), until I screened an upcoming episode in which he spends a day tie-shopping with Conan O’Brien. As usual, Mizrahi’s clad in his own haphazard version of shabby chic (pink shirt, black blazer, and bandanna worn like a do-rag). He’s never looked more Semitic than he does standing beside Conan. They make a perfect double act: Conan cluelessly picks up ties, and Mizrahi riffs on them like Diana Vreeland let loose in Barneys. “That’s a dis-gusting color,” he splutters at one point. “That’s the color of the Loews Cineplex Odeon—they use that for the upholstery!” In the limo afterward the duo has a more serious conversation about Conan’s life and career. Mizrahi doesn’t press his guests for dirt, but they usually offer some anyway, because who wouldn’t want to make this man happy?
Mizrahi is openly gay, but he doesn’t use it for effect—it’s merely one integral part of his ultravivid personality. When Conan asks about wearing a scarf instead of a tie, Mizrahi responds thoughtfully, “An ascot? It’s a little gayish. Are you looking to attract more gay viewers?” Graham Norton, on the other hand, is a great big Irish queen, and he owes the popularity of his talk show, So Graham Norton—a huge hit in the U.K.—to the homo factor. Like a real-life version of Will and Grace‘s Jack MacFarlane, Norton thrives on sexual double entendre and cajoling his guests into being as camp and cheeky as he is. His flamboyance is a running joke, and the audience and guests never seem to tire of it. When Dolly Parton appeared on the show, she stared at his gaudy, flower-patterned suit and cracked, “My grandma had a couch just like that!” Norton’s response? “Probably more people have sat on me.” Despite the saucy repartee, Norton is an anodyne character, as sexless and nonthreatening as a gay icon can be.
Where Mizrahi’s show is aimed at women (its placement on Oxygen guarantees it), Norton’s audience is full of straight young guys game to join in. Interactive participation plays a big part in So Graham Norton, a show deeply indebted to Letterman innovations like Stupid Pet Tricks. Graham’s favorite gimmick is finding Internet sites devoted to his celebrity guests. When Cher appeared, they visited the Web page of a fan who happened to be a balloon fetishist, and in another episode Donny Osmond flashed his famously toothy smile as a male guest modeled a pair of old underpants with Donny’s teenage mug on them. (Compare this to Kimmel’s old-skool insult: “That might be the gayest thing I ever heard,” he sneers at a cheesy clip of Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Norton’s ebullience wears thin with extended viewing—he often appears more engrossed by his own voice than his guests’. But his celebs don’t mind; they seem giddy at the edginess of it all, and sometimes offer juicy chat to fuel the fire. In one episode, Alan Cumming confided that his testicles have sagged with age and ranted about Hollywood’s obsession with plastic surgery. “You see someone like Mary Tyler Moore—everyone says, doesn’t Mary look great? NO!” he squealed. “She looks like she’s been in a fire!” Norton rewarded him with a small gift: a cock-cleaning brush. Do you think Jimmy Kimmel has one of those?
The L.A.-based alternative comedy group Uncabaret returns to the Knitting Factory this week with its carnival of failed TV pilots, “The Other Network.” Uncabaret will screen series that never made it onto the air, comedies by mavericks like Judd Apatow (Freaks & Geeks), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), and Ben Stiller. You can see why some of these programs were ditched by the networks: Heat-Vision and Jack, for example, directed by Stiller and starring Jack Black (as an astronaut turned sleuth) and Owen Wilson (as his talking motorcycle) satirizes every TV genre imaginable, but it moves at such a hysterical clip you can’t imagine sustaining this kind of kitsch-mania beyond a half-hour. And Robert Smigel’s Saturday TV Funhouse, modeled on Bozo the Clown, resembles a kids’ show gone berserk. On the other hand, Becoming Glen is a lost gem that proves the narrow ambitions of prime-time network programming. It stars Johnny Galecki (Darlene’s geeky boyfriend on Roseanne) as an older man looking back, Wonder Years-style, “on the summer I turned 32 and became a man.” Some of us are nostalgic for TV series we watched in our youth; now we can also feel wistful about shows we never got to see.
“The Other Network” runs at the Knitting Factory April 5 through 7 at 7:30 p.m., 212-219-3006. Graham Norton will appear in a one-man show called Red-Handed! at the East 13th Street Theater, April 22 through May 10, 866-468-7619.