"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Defending James Lipton

Sit and Spin
The three-day event idea does have some promise - as each passing day adds another Suck column to the burgeoning archive, we grow more and more convinced that the idea of permanence on the Web is overrated.
Five years ago today in Suck.

If history comes in cycles, than we as a culture and as a people are certainly on the downside of the James Lipton as Public Whipping Boy era. The unctuous, seemingly prideless host of Bravo's high-profile television series and reliable odd-minute time-filler Inside the Actor's Studio has been getting punched in the face by his critics since the debut of his one-on-one celebrity interview show in 1994. Media-savvy alternative comedians were the first ones to place the host on a wider stage of public disapproval, where he blossomed in the spotlight of spoken humor as a well-known but not-too-recognizable Patron Saint of Ass Kissing, a reference of "I get it" inclusiveness on a difficulty level somewhere between the crocodile guy and Anderson Cooper. The anti-Lipton wave crested during the winter of 1998, with the appearance of parodies from sources like Suck and the still-reigning Johnny Carson Show of mainstream cultural disapproval, Saturday Night Live. Once Lipton's stooge status had been established, every Peanut Gallery Shales joined in the mockery. Here's how one web critic described seeing Lipton put in his place by an officious former child star:

James Lipton is, without a doubt, an incomperable buffoon. He likes to think of himself as a pivotal part and master critic of all things acting, not realizing that he's the laughing stock of the stage/movie industry. I love how appalled he gets when an actor either disagrees with him on a certain point or admits that a project they participated in was complete dreck. For example, Ron Howard chuckles and pleads with the audience not to see "Eat My Dust". The camera then cuts to good ol' James, with a facial expression that would cause most to come to the conclusion that he just saw a polar bear grab his father's crotch, as he indignantly states "It was one of Roger Corman's greatest successes!". Ron just kind of gave him an empty stare after that retort.

But now the party's over: Lipton has hung on these past few years, and now Lipton basks in victory. "We have stuck to our principle, that we would talk about the craft and not gossip," he told the Christian Science Monitor in 1999, "and by sticking to craft, we blew open the door to the human heart." Lipton is firmly emplaced as a kind of all-purpose example for debased celebrity worship, his show has given Bravo its highest rating for original content (a cable-respectable .93 on a Sunday night in August), and he can only gain from the ongoing roll-out of premium cable services nationwide. As the show's big-name guest rotation allows perpetual opportunity for any number of local television critics to get in a few whacks of their own, Lipton should enjoy years of intermittent glory of the "I'm still standing" variety.

There are two great lessons we should take from the Age of Lipton. First, he provides a stellar example of the slippery slope of popular condemnation. While early critiques may have attacked the host's lubricous interviewing style, they often applauded the host's enthusiasm and detailed, index card preparation (an odd thing for anyone to praise given that celebrities live public lives, give countless interviews, and even hire people to disseminate information to the public, but there you go). But soon the attacks turned personal, and these days Lipton is usually brought up not in the context of his TV hosting efforts but as a person upon whom someone flat-out wishes death. Can you blame David Hartman for going into hiding? The other major lesson of this Age now passed: All of the critics were wrong. James Lipton not only hosts a semi-popular TV show on a cable network, he is a great American and valued servant to all mankind. Let us count the ways.

Of all the critical remarks lobbed Lipton's way, perhaps the most cited is a turn of phrase from a by-now anonymous comedian (maybe Patton Oswald, maybe not) that the host has the "stench of a failed actor about him." If one takes Sting's admonition to heart that the reward of doing an acting project is being asked to do another, Lipton does indeed fall under this category, having as a sole major acting credit his portrayal of Dr. Dick Grant on TV's Guiding Light from 1952-1962. But what people forget is that showbiz 'tweeners like Lipton practically invented the preferred modern career path of project to project diversity minus home office accountability, and tend to live Super Friends versions of same. Lipton has directed and written for a singing Tom Bosley, introduced TV America to Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and written the kind of non-fiction perennial you wish you and your agent had been savvy enough to package. He has participated in one of the more amusing cultural sideshows of the last 30 years, the decades-long Bob Hope deathwatch, by virtue of a dozen birthday specials. And by working on a little television project called Copacabana, Lipton is one of the few who can claim the mantle of America's Dennis Potter. Okay, maybe not, but take his latest, most famous gig. Do you know anybody who would have the temerity to launch a joint degree program from an invitation-only drama group, the chutzpah to forge it into a television brand name, and the audacity to drop his or her own name in every voiceover? If this kind of thing had occurred to Lipton twenty years ago, Bravo might be filling its early-morning programming vacuum with Sanford Meissner infomercials.

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