Michael McIntyre insists he isn’t superstitious in any way. So he can’t be worried about tempting fate with the guest line-up on the first episode of his brand new chat show: Lord Sugar, Terry Wogan and Lily Allen.
Let’s run through those guests’ experience of chat for a second. First, Terry Wogan, who hosted one of the UK’s most successful chat shows from 1982 to 1992, on air three nights a week until replaced – in one of the dumbest scheduling moves of the past 60 years – by the hopelessly unpopular Spanish-set soap opera Eldorado. Wogan was the chat show where Ronnie Barker announced his retirement, David Icke claimed to be the son of God, George Best appeared drunk and had to be escorted off set by security, and Vivienne Westwood threat- ened to stop showing her latest collection if the audience didn’t stop laughing. No pressure, then, Michael.
Then there’s Lily Allen, whose eponymous talk show hit trouble almost immediately when the audience walked out during the filming of episode one and was cancelled after the first season. Lord Sugar, meanwhile, could silence a Metallica gig with a carefully raised eyebrow.
McIntyre is either supremely confident or asking for trouble – especially as industry insiders tell Radio Times that Monday nights are terrible for chat shows. Piers Morgan’s self-confidence was part of the reason he fell from grace so spectacularly, dropped by CNN from the weekly interview show previously hosted by the legendary Larry King. Just weeks before the axe fell, Morgan was telling Radio Times: “Graham Norton… Jonathan Ross… Alan Carr… They’re all entertainers and comedians. They’re not great interviewers. Parky could do both (entertain and interview). He might like to be the next Piers Morgan…”
Michael Parkinson is never impressed by Morgan’s braggadocio – but he agrees that it’s journalists, not comedians, who make the best chat-show hosts. “If you look at the number of people who tried talk shows since I started in 1971, it’s like a tombstone,” he said recently. “The graveyard is full of people who tried talk shows and didn’t make it, mainly because they weren’t journalists. There isn’t one talk show on television today that asks questions or listens to answers.”
He does have a point. TV’s windswept graveyard of chat is littered with headstones bearing the names of chatastrophes – Davina McCall, Anthony Cotton, Sharon Osbourne, Nigella Lawson and Alan Titchmarsh all struggled to attract audiences. Even Dame Edna Everage only managed two series of The Dame Edna Experience and a handful of shows for The Dame Edna Treatment.
Morgan’s return to the UK just as McIntyre starts his show suggests, however, that the battle between journalists/presenters and comedians for control of the nation’s chat show sofa is almost over – and the comics have won. From The Kumars on Sky1 to Alan Davies’s recently announced show on Dave, from Alan Carr Chatty Man on C4 to ITV’s The Paul O’Grady Show, the current breed of chat-show hosts started life as stand-up comics, telling the jokes rather than teasing them out of other people.
“The toughest part about getting a comedian to host a chat show is persuading them to share the limelight,” explains Jon Thoday, managing director of Frank Skinner’s management company Avalon. He was executive producer of Skinner’s highly successful chat show that ran on BBC1 then ITV for ten years, featuring such water-cooler moments as Tara Palmer- Tomkinson’s bizarre 1999 interview just hours before she checked into rehab. “Comedians tend to want the best lines – you have to persuade them that they’ll look better with three good gags in a great interview than ten good gags in a terrible one. Because chat shows live or die on the quality of their guests.”
Celebrity publicist James Herring – who owns PR consultancy Taylor Herring – agrees. “I’d be wary about putting someone on the first few shows hosted by a stand-up comic,” Herring says. “They’ll tend to open ticket sales for the next tour while the show is on air, so the pressure is on them to make the airtime entertaining – live tours earn so much more than TV shows. That means they’ll be aiming to be funny, usually at the expense of the guests.
“Of course, if you have a certain kind of client – smart, funny, possibly with a bit of a bad rep – that sort of show can work wonders. They can come across as funny and self-deprecating. Right now the top show is Graham Norton’s, because he gets the best out of people.”
Norton also shifts product – Music Week recently estimated that the sales of artists featured on the show rose by 70 per cent on the following day. “The Friday-night talk show is one of the last appointment-to-view slots in TV these days,” says Norton’s business partner Graham Stuart, MD of So Television and executive producer of the show. “But it’s a tough slot to get right – you have to make both the people on the sofa and the audience at home like you, you have to be entertaining, you have to be able to control A-listers even if they’ve had a drink and you have to do your research – you can’t just turn up, flick through the notes and go on.” Or indeed just tell jokes.
Stuart thinks part of the reason Norton is the current king of chat, attracting the biggest A-list names, is because he is, at heart, an actor rather than a stand-up comic. And as Herring says, “You want someone who’s done their research, who books in pre-interviews to get good stories so there’s no dead air, and doesn’t squirm when the guest plugs the reason they’re on.”
Morgan has never presented himself as an actor or a comedian (at least not knowingly) but he certainly put the hours in when it comes to research. “I like to know almost as much about the subject as they know about themselves,” he told RT. “My favourite interview moments come when a guest says: ‘How the hell did you find out about that?’” Comics, says Thoday, take a while to realise how important the research is. “Making a good stand-up into a really good chat-show host could take two years,” he says.
Over on ITV, one of the last journalists at the helm of a talk show- ITN political editor Tom Bradby, host of The Agenda – is more optimistic. He thinks a good stand-up comedian grilling a big-name politician is actually good for the health of our democracy.
“I would think the Prime Minister would be very nervous about appearing on Michael McIntyre’s show,” Bradby explains. “Politics is becoming a profession these days; people tend to start young, work as special advisers and then become MPs. They’ve had very little life experience and are very used to the focused world of Westminster.
“They know how to handle political editors or Jeremy Paxman interviews on Newsnight; what they’re very nervous about is appearing with ordinary people or comedians whose behaviour they can’t predict and who might make them look foolish. And let’s be honest, that’s the best test. Boris could handle it; I wonder how many of the others could.
Maybe we should make it mandatory.” Although maybe we should let Michael handle that daunting first line-up before we give it a try...
The Michael McIntyre Show, Monday 10:35pm, BBC1