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 Galler Shales joined in the mockery. Here's how one web critic described seeing Lipton put in his place by an officious former child star:
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. 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.
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.
Critics who have turned on Lipton's personal appearance and professional conduct forget that almost all media interviewers of celebrities are oddball males throwing underhanded softballs and making chirp-chirp noises. Lipton is no more lascivious toward his female guests than David Letterman or Charlie Rose, and has never had a moment with a TV guest of either sex as embarrassing as Barbara Walters' famously moon-eyed interview with Clint Eastwood. Lipton's habit of telling personal anecdotes featuring celebrities of his acquaintance recalls Dick Cavett at his Groucho-namedropping Dick Cavett-iest, and his approach as a peer rather than an accredited interviewer not only recalls the genius that is Byron Allen but channels Oprah. The consistency of his doe-eyed glare makes Lipton slightly more respectable than the wrenching abdication of journalistic standards one feels as whiplash when 60 Minutes does a celebrity profile. Throw in the annoying Bernard Pivot questionnaire with which our hero ends every show as a distillation of noxious automatic interviewing techniques used by Walters and Craig Kilborn among others, and one can make the argument that a finer amalgamation of modern interviewer quirks, techniques and approaches could not have been grown in a laboratory.
Of course, there's still the ass-kissing thing. Between the TV tributes to Hope and Loretta Lynn; the grounding in soap opera culture; and his pitch-perfect contribution to the neutered, Reagan-era camp through which Barry Manilow lovingly winks at his coterie of fragile but devoted fans, one could say that Lipton's interviewing style is a natural extension of his professional life-to-date heartfelt verbal genuflecting before the idols of stage, screen and music. But that would hardly disqualify Lipton from the major criticism that comes with any reasonable exposure to his dulcet, soft-like-canned-butterscotch voice: The man sucks up to his conversation companion too much for any single person not begging for his life in a Coen Brothers movie. And who can argue? Lipton has even made a formal technique of fawning, stating the importance of gaining his subject's trust through preparation and interviewing style.
But that approach is the key to Lipton's greatness. Most critics have been fooled by their own, relatively innocent impulses and Bravo's clever publicity into thinking that Inside the Actor's Studio is a show about art and craft from which Lipton's occasional indulgences divert attention. In actuality, Lipton has given us a show about actor worship for which insight into craft serves as an almost irrelevant bonus. Making soothing noises at a Val Kilmer or Meg Ryan and reading movie titles at them is a magnificently inefficient way to learn about acting; informing them you value their opinion on technique is a great way to make them, and everyone else in their fraternity, preen like a stroked cat. And watching actors bask in the attention paid them by an adoring interviewer and a theater filled with non-threatening, applauding worshippers speaks more directly to their value as artists than ten thousand discussions of sense-memory. As John Simon has pointed out, an undeniably great thing about actors is the integrity they bring to the most demeaning tasks. If 75 years ago, the American dream of a respectable life for self and family was exemplified by a line of newly-minted immigrants standing in line hoping for day work, the current American dream of celebrity and self-definition has no better symbol than 34 heavy-set non-ethnic actors standing in a Chicago rain for a non-speaking role in a James Caan straight-to-cable movie. The democratic impulse by which Lipton claims he could work himself into being fascinated by anyone lets the actors rise to meet his perpetually-fevered interest. Ron Howard may still work too hard to be loved, but the striking thing about Lipton's guests is how quickly they tend to dispense with the formalities of self-deprecation and present themselves to the public as they undoubtedly think of themselves in private as figures of grandeur and solemnity. In playing off Lipton's belief in them, the stars exhibit those qualities of prepossession through which they keep more people than we'd like to admit from stabbing their own eyes out at the horrors of the real world. Forget Lipton's skill as an interviewer has any student of acting ever played a more effective role?
courtesy of 40th Street Black
Copyright © 1994-2001 Automatic Media Inc. All rights reserved.
Suck is part of Automatic Media, home of Plastic, Feed, and AltCulture.