“Inside the Actors Studio,” a show in which famous actors talk about their craft, returned to television Sunday on a new network, Ovation, and with rotating hosts in place of James Lipton, who created the show and captained its previous 22 seasons into his 90s.
Lipton, whose last “Actors Studio” ran on Bravo in January 2018, is a hard act to follow. With his combed-back, dark(ened) hair, wizard’s goatee and imperial eyebrows — he could play Dr. Strange’s grandpa — and pedagogical fanboy manner, he has personified the series. He’s been animated on “The Simpsons,” played by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.”
The reverential solemnity with which he describes even the slightest accomplishments of his illustrious guests has opened him to parody — see Ferrell, above — but he’s a believer. That Henry Winkler, who has won an Emmy for playing an acting teacher on “Barry,” is the new season’s first guest, feels fitting, as does the fact that his interviewer is Actors Studio member Alec Baldwin, who like Lipton is a big character, with a tendency to purr.
But what’s made “Inside the Actors Studio” notable from the start is that it takes its subjects seriously — even too seriously. (But that’s a feature, not a bug, and it may lead you to a new appreciation of the work of Pierce Brosnan, say, or Brooke Shields.) Indeed, the series records an actual “master class,” its audience made up of students from the Actors Studio Drama School, a graduate program cofounded by Lipton and now affiliated with New York’s Pace University. Of the sessions and the series, Lipton has said that he vowed “we would not deal in gossip, we would deal in craft, which of course might make us dry and off the air in a year.”
In fact, there is a great hunger for this sort of conversation — deep, thoughtful, informed, born of experience and practice — that has flowered in the media in recent years, perhaps because so much of the current landscape is taken up by the rhetorical equivalent of billboards, all screaming and little substance. Creative people of all sorts are being deposed, debriefed and interrogated by their colleagues on podcasts and panels, on daytime and late night TV, on-screen, onstage and the various audio delivery systems, and we’re the better for it.
Successful actors are as much in the job of talking about themselves as the work they’re known for. But much of that talk is promotional fluff, and handlers work to keep things light. The old saw that there is no such thing as bad press obviously no longer holds. That’s not to say there’s no entertainment value in “The Tonight Show” — there’s plenty; but guests are there to sparkle for a moment, long enough to display a personality but too brief to reveal a person. And yet even a person whose life is chaotic or tragic or dull may come alive when work is made the center of the conversation.
Over on Comedy Central, the lately debuted “Good Talk With Anthony Jeselnik” offers another show in which a comedian interviews other comedians — like Jerry Seinfeld’s (now Netflix) series, without the cars of coffee, or Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, with pictures. It’s both a takeoff on a talk show and an actually effective one, the level of irony fluctuating from question to question and sometimes within a single sentence.
Jeselnik’s comedy persona, which he puts on and takes off throughout each half hour, is superior, competitive and dismissive — the anti-Lipton. To Nick Kroll: “You do both stand-up and improv. It’s so rare for people to be good at both; how do you come so close to pulling it off?” To Tig Notaro: “You’ve been very outspoken about the #MeToo Movement. Do you do any celebrity impressions?” (She does one that might be either Larry David or Joan Rivers, or both at once.) It’s a funny show, but not an unserious one.
Intelligent interview shows are nothing new, of course, if never common, which is why we lionize those who have done it well — Ed Murrow, Studs Terkel, Barbara Walters. “The Dick Cavett Show,” which aired on ABC from 1969 to 1975 (and in other permutations before and after that), when late-night shows ran for 90 minutes — sometimes dedicated to a single guest — set a standard for smart talk. Guests were not necessarily there to sell a project but just to talk in an atmosphere of sympathetic interest.
“Fresh Air,” hosted by Terry Gross since 1975, is similarly smart and thoughtful; Gross’ interviews, which are archived online, hold up over time. Howard Stern, who recently put out a book collecting excerpts from his interviews, is another genuinely curious interviewer, guided less by commercial considerations than his own interests, which, yes, can be a little, you know, eww. (You can find Stern interviewed on a recent edition of “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” — O’Brien sounds like a different, more rounded person there than on his television show — and hear O’Brien interviewed by Gross on “Fresh Air.”)
Still, when the talk is among people who share professional expertise, it pulls back a curtain. I suppose some viewers watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” for the classic cars, but the real appeal is a chance to eavesdrop on high-level shop talk, as if from the next booth at Nate ’n Al’s. Since 2009, Maron has recorded more than 1,000 episodes of his “WTF” podcast; for a long time, his guests, deposed at length, were almost entirely comedians — like himself — including many who would become much more famous.
“Actors Studio” may actually be a master class, but it’s a phrase you hear bandied about these days: "[Blank] gave a master class in [blank].” Oprah Winfrey has a TV series and podcast called “Oprah’s Master Class”: “Everybody has a story, and there’s something to be learned from every experience” is the tagline — though “everybody” here means Maya Angelou, Jay-Z, John Lewis, Jane Fonda and Justin Timberlake.”
At Masterclass.com, a sort of platinum Learning Annex, one can take video courses in comedy from Steve Martin, violin from Itzhak Perlman, creative writing from Margaret Atwood, acting from Helen Mirren, economics from Paul Krugman and “ball-handling, shooting and scoring” from Stephen Curry. Judd Apatow’s comedy course comes in 32 installments with a workbook, which will surprise no one familiar with the length of his films, or his own print collection of interviews with comics, the 2015 “Sick in the Head.”
These conversations and lectures live largely on the web, a bottomless well where the overhead is low, access is easy and there is little to get between an idea and its audience. The YouTube-based series “Tongue and Pencil” features animator Chris Prynoski (“Metalocalypse,” “Big Mouth”) speaking, drinking and drawing with fellow artists. Matt Sweeney’s “Guitar Moves” — “two guys talking about guitar without being lofty about it” — produced a different sort of Keith Richards interview, including a performance of “Malagueña.”
And there are all sorts of celebrities: Math superstars are interviewed on the YouTube channel of the Centre International de Rencontres Mathématiques, for example, and you don’t have to have any particular affection for the subject to find their stories fascinating, even useful. On “The Good Place: The Podcast,” hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays that series’ senior evil character, actors, writers, directors, producers and other crew members give insight into how a complicated comedy is put together; it’s exciting and enlightening.
Such series appeal to the head and the heart; apart from whatever inside factual information they convey, they make their subjects more human, and what someone has to say about his or her life or way of working may tell you something about yours. They may help a younger person to build an identity, an older one to reframe the past. We are all trying to master some little bit of our world, and it’s good to hear the masters talk.
“We are not just celebrities or stars,” Winkler tells his student audience on “Inside the Actors Studio.” “We are illuminators of the world, we are mirrors, and the society needs us.” It’s a bit highfalutin, sure, but he’s not wrong. And James Lipton would agree.