Time to reclaim the chat show from comedians

As Ronna and Beverly's series begins, Gerard Gilbert is nostalgic for Michael Parkinson — and real conversation

Click to follow

The news that Graham Norton has sold his production company, So Television, to ITV for £17m suggests that chat shows are still in robust business health. The supposition is that the financially astute Irishman will eventually join Jonathan Ross on commercial TV, thus freeing himself from any disapproval over seven-digit salaries – his Friday-night BBC1 series being a superior example of a genre that has otherwise been steadily mutating for well over a decade now, so that it is now virtually indistinguishable from comedy.

The current crop of practitioners – Rob Brydon, Alan Carr and Jonathan Ross – are primarily in the business of making people laugh, which leaves a gap in the market for anyone willing to pick up Michael Parkinson's discarded and seemingly outmoded mantle and actually converse with their guests. BBC4 is in the habit of repeating Parky's old interviews, and it's not just the stars that seem to be from a bygone era. Parkinson in his prime often produced astonishing results – a mid-Seventies interview with Richard Burton, for example, almost having the depth and complexity of psychoanalysis.

But then why would any celebrity want to have their private life and character invaded when they get away with batting away a few jokes, showing themselves to be good sports in the process? In the constant trade-off between the famous and the media, this is as harmless as it gets. And probably no TV executive these days would consider a straight prime-time chat show (daytime is different, but so is the calibre of the guests) because we're all too knowing now, aren't we? And if celebrities can't make us laugh, then we want to see them squirm.

And so to Ronna and Beverly, Jewish mothers and best friends (played by American comedians Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo), whose eponymous new comedy chat show starts on Sky Atlantic tonight. Their aim is to discombobulate guests in a way familiar to anyone who's seen Mrs Merton, Dame Edna or The Kumars – and their guise as co-authors of You'll Do a Little Better Next Time – a Guide to Jewish Singles gives them licence to get down and dirty. But their prattling double-act aside, which is genuinely original, the format – with guests as stooges in a comedy of embarrassment – feels over-familiar.

When the likes of Barry Humphries and Caroline Aherne pioneered the comedy chat show, they were dealing with innocents who expected nothing more outré than Terry Wogan's cheerful blarney. Today's sophisticated guests are so attuned to comic spin that they wouldn't know how to return a straight ball. Chaffin and Denbo's opening guest is anyway an unwise choice – the quick-witted Frank Skinner being nobody's stooge. Somehow, the time feels ripe to rethink the chat show.

How then should the BBC prepare for life after Graham Norton? I'd suggest they offer Norton's £2m-a-year to Louis Theroux. As he proved with his documentaries on Jimmy Savile and the rest, Theroux has the charm and intelligence to draw out his subjects, even if few would take his ingenuousness at face value anymore. Or maybe the insights supposedly offered by chat shows are now found elsewhere – reality TV for example.

The latest Celebrity Big Brother finished on Friday night, leaving another group of eviscerated celebs in its wake. I mean, Julie Goodyear… who knew? And if it was left to Alan Carr or Jonathan Ross, would we ever have known?