Liane Bonin
June 24, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

You may not be familiar with Graham Norton, but he’s been making waves across the pond for a few years now. As host of the BBC talk show ”So Graham Norton,” the 41-year-old is a household name in Britain, best known for his loopy, sexually frank chats with celebs ranging from the Dixie Chicks to Orlando Bloom. So why would he leave behind his scores of fans there to swelter in New York City this summer? asked the Irish-born Norton — who’s in the U.S. filming 13 episodes of his new weekly show ”The Graham Norton Effect” (debuting June 24 at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central) — to explain why he was willing to give it a go in the colonies.

HIS ANTICS JUST MIGHT TRANSLATE ”People ask me what the difference is between British and American humor, and the thing is, our show is just childish humor,” Norton says. ”It’s the stuff that kids around the world laugh at, the fart jokes.” While Norton’s saucy sex talk is a far cry from what you’d hear on typical U.S. late-night shows (neither Letterman nor Leno has made Elton John hold a conversation with a spacesuit fetishist, for example), he promises his on-air exploration of sexual quirkiness will continue unabated in the U.S. — even in our post-wardrobe-malfunction era. In the premiere episode of ”Effect,” for example, ”we’re featuring a guy who gets turned on by tooth-brushing, and we have one of those RealDolls for lonely men that cost $6,000,” he says. ”It’s a fun show.”

HE’S UP FOR A NEW CHALLENGE He’s won three British Academy of Film and Television Awards (the Emmys equivalent), but still, Norton says, coming to the States has given him a case of the jitters. ”You only really get one shot at this [country], and once you get it, you start thinking, Uh-oh, better not screw this up,” he says. ”Or forever after, people will go, ‘Oh, you’re that guy who did the disastrous show on Comedy Central.”’

Though he dreams of getting Meryl Streep or Madonna on his couch, Norton says that attracting A-list stars won’t be any easier Stateside, despite their proximity. ”We’re the new kids on the block,” he sighs. ”We can’t compete with Letterman and Conan, so we’ve got to book people who aren’t plugging a book or a movie or a TV show, who are just people I like and that hopefully the audience will like, too.”

NICER PEOPLE, BETTER BARS You’d think filming in downtown New York City during the steaming summer months would be no vacation, but Norton thinks otherwise. ”The good thing about living in London is, wherever else you go, it’s cheap and easy,” he explains. ”You think New Yorkers aren’t very friendly? Try London. New Yorkers are like Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’re so friendly in comparison.”

And forget the sights — Norton loves the nightlife. ”New York is such a playground, I’m not sure which will end first, the series or my liver,” he jokes. ”It’s slightly concerning me, and it’s slightly concerning my producers as well…. I must rein it in.” So, no obligatory trip to the Statue of Liberty? ”I saw it once — from a distance,” he admits.

AMERICANS ARE FREAKS… IN A GOOD WAY Though Norton says Brits and Yanks are more similar than dissimilar, he has noticed some Stateside quirks. ”The way people drive here is so American,” he says, laughing. ”It’s fantastically aggressive. It’s frightening, but it’s fun. Your cabs are like a theme-park ride.”

As much as Norton’s enjoying his stay, he has no plans for an American-style extreme makeover. ”Same teeth, same skin,” he says. ”But never say never!” Still, when it comes to sexual perversions, are we neck and neck with Brits? ”I think it’s fair to say that,” says Norton. ”We’re definitely going for Americans for our [segments on] fetishes and sexual eccentricity…. But, like we’ve always done, [we’ll speak to them] on the phone. We don’t want to MEET them.”

HE’S GOT A GIG TO FALL BACK ON — SO WHY NOT? Whatever ”Effect”’s fate, Norton has a job to go back to in the U.K. later this year — hosting ”The Graham Norton Show,” a variety/game show hybrid. And if he doesn’t flop? ”I’m screwed, really. We haven’t planned for this to be a success, which is quite a British thing to do,” he says. ”There’ll be a lot of serious phone calls, I think.”

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