Are chat shows just a big joke?

Alan Carr is the latest comedian to get his own chat show. Gerard Gilbert asks whether the traditional interviewer has gone forever, to be replaced by stunts and light entertainment
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The Independent Culture

Lucky America. Soon, more than 64 million US households will be able to watch Friday Night with Jonathan Ross – retitled The Jonathan Ross Show – on BBC America.

For Ross this must represent the ultimate triumph for what he has been trying to achieve since he first burst on to the scene in 1987 with Channel 4's The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross – namely to introduce the David Letterman-style US chat show, complete with house band and gags, to British audiences more used to the straight-up interviewing styles of old-stagers like Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan. Now he's exporting it back to them. Will Letterman and his heirs be tickled by his cheek or appalled by his crudeness?

Either way, the looser-limbed American style is the rule these days. In October last year (ironically, just a fortnight before Ross was suspended over the Andrew Sachs affair) Michael Parkinson gave a valedictory interview on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. It seemed, as presumably it was meant to, like a sort of changing of the chat-show guard, and the death-knell of a certain style of chat show.

"Are there any chat shows left?" Parkinson asks me. "Mine was the last of the classic interview-based shows. The rest of them are now just comedy shows – 'chat show' is the wrong name for them." Not that Parkinson is dismissive of Jonathan Ross. "When he's interested and wants to talk he's capable of being a good interviewer."

By coincidence, one of Parkinson's fellow guests on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross last October – giving his trademark Cheshire Cat grin (even Apprentice runner-up Kate Walsh doesn't bare that much enamel) was comedian Alan Carr, whose own talk show, the amusingly titled Alan Carr: Chatty Man, began on Channel 4 on Sunday. Replaying the Parkinson-Ross encounter on YouTube, is it only hindsight that lends a certain hunger on Carr's beaming face that night? Was he thinking: I could do this?

Of course he can, and more. In fact Carr – the more naturally funny half of Friday/Sunday Night Project duo – has been edging his way towards an out-and-out chat show for some time now. It wasn't a big ask, like it has been for some people who have tried and failed in the genre (some surprisingly, like Davina McCall, other less so, like former prime minister Harold Wilson). What's interesting is how something that was once the preserve of journalists has come to be dominated by comedians. Andrew Newman, Channel 4's head of comedy and entertainment, doesn't think the current bias towards comedy is degrading chat shows, nor does he think it will be permanent.

"Journalists are very quick to say things are dead and buried", he says. "I remember Channel 4 had a show called The Death of Saturday Night TV a few years ago. That was before Pop Idol, X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and all that. I think to say that more serious and journalistic chat shows are dead is probably inaccurate and premature. I'm sure someone will come along and do a great one."

Newman cites Piers Morgan's recent one-to-one interview programmes for BBC1, Piers Morgan's Life Stories, a series with impressive old-school journalistic thoroughness – if you were of a mind to delve deeply into the likes of Jordan and Ulrika Jonsson.

"Great chat shows work when they are in harmony with the host's personality", says Newman. "So Alan Carr's show is light-hearted and fun – not that doesn't mean he won't get great interviews out of people.

"Sometimes making people relax by making them laugh is often more revealing than asking them straight about their childhood and whatnot. Just because something is fun doesn't mean it can't be insightful."

Perhaps celebrities simply get the chat shows they deserve. Fame generally used to be bestowed on persons of achievement – rather than someone who has survived a three-month popularity contest on a backlot at Elstree, or become famous because YouTube webcast their Britain's Got Talent audition into Demi Moore's laptop.

"I don't think Susan Boyle would have been quite as famous 20 years ago", says Newman. "Our attitude to celebrity is probably more irreverent than it used to be. There are more of them, and there are magazines that show what they bought at the supermarket, and then they will go on the internet to tell you that they are putting up some shelves."

Katie Taylor, the commissioning executive in charge of both Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and The Graham Norton Show agrees. "How do you interpret the word 'celebrity' these days? Take someone like Danielle Lloyd..."

Not that it's all about Hollywood A-listers, she says. "The only standing ovation I've had on The Graham Norton Show was when Dawn French was announced – sometimes it's about your domestic guests and not your Hollywood superstar. They often give more than, say, Nicole Kidman, who is only going to give us off-pat stories."

It was Taylor who helped decide to move The Graham Norton Show from BBC2 to BBC1 this autumn, a shift some people have interpreted as undermining Jonathan Ross. "I think there's room for both", she says. "Jonathan has three or four guests and does proper interviews. Graham has two guests on at the same time so his is more of a conversation. He has greater audience participation and often gets the guests to join in a sketch or a game with the audience, and they seem to be up for that."

Taylor is less sure than Channel 4's Andrew Newman that there is still room for the more journalistic, Parky-style, chat show. "The audience is pretty sophisticated these days. They want more than just an interview piece. They expect a bit more than just a film star plonked on a sofa and telling anecdotes."

Michael Parkinson, who is busy editing more than 800 hours of his interviews for a DVD to be released next year, presumably wouldn't recognise that definition of his style of chat show. He likens it more to an "after-dinner conversation". "The beauty of the one-to-one interview is that there is time for the two people to form a relationship," he says. "Why does it all have to be foul-mouthed and aggressive? What happened to civilised behaviour on television? There's no bitterness – in many ways I had the best of it – but I'm not optimistic either. Television is run by young people these days, catering for the 18-34 year-old audience. My generation feels disenfranchised."

Katie Taylor prefers the comedic chat shows. "I enjoy someone who can bring some comic value and take the guests on a turn you wouldn't normally expect. Because the guests are disarmed by what the host has told them, they give more than the publicists would have wanted. But afterwards they're glad they had." Celebrities themselves have wised up to the demands of the modern chat show. "They know they have to give a bit more of themselves. Tom Hanks came on to Jonathan Ross's show with one of his treasured collection of typewriters."

But are A-listers and their notoriously control-freak publicists angry with the direction a certain interview has taken? "Sometimes, although it happens less and less", says Taylor. "The booker has excellent relations with all the publicists. We'll talk to them and they're happy... and off they waft to dinner."

Five future Kings (or Queens) of chat?

Piers Morgan

There's a gap in the market for a more journalistic chat show in the mould of "Parkinson", and ex-red-top editor Piers Morgan has already proved his mettle with his series of one-to-one BBC1 chats, "Piers Morgan's Life Stories".

Likelihood rating 8/10

Cheryl Cole

Simply for the title, which would have to be "Chin-Wag". And what guest wouldn't melt under Cole's solicitous questioning, maybe each week's show ending with a group hug (unless the guest happens to be Lily Allen, famously dubbed by Cole as a "chick with a dick").

Likelihood rating 6/10

Alan Sugar

First guest Gordon Brown, obviously. "Lord" Sugar' has already shown he's no schmoozer on "Celebrity Apprentice", but, with the Tories almost certain to form the next government, it's unlikely to be a BBC chat show.

Likelihood rating 4/10

Four Poofs and a Piano

Graham Norton, Alan Carr, Paul O'Grady... we're thinking camp, gay, chat-show hosts... we're thinking let's give Four Poofs and a Piano their own show, with one-man backing band, One Straight Lech and his Harmonica. Could apply gay-dar to visiting Hollywood A-listers.

Likelihood rating 1/10

Amy Winehouse

We've had Charlotte Church and Lily Allen, so how about giving rehab's most famous beehive her own chat show? Think of the weekly tension (Will she turn up? Maybe Britney could be on call), and the left-field questions ('Hey, got any brown?').

Likelihood rating 0/10