James Lipton is so obsequious, it's astonishing the man does not conduct his interviews from his subjects' anal cavities. The host of Bravo's hysterical, oddly riveting Inside the Actors Studio never misses an opportunity to suck up to the famous and talented who deign to accept his invitation. When Sylvester Stallone -- the subject of the season premiere that airs this week, which is, shockingly, not 12 minutes long -- explains that he has learned to live with his permanent scowl and gruff voice, the result of a mishap during his birth, Lipton chimes in that "we've all learned to live with it." But he can't contain himself, so he adds, after a second's pause: "Quite well, I must say." I must say -- he must, he must! Lipton simply cannot control his most base instincts, the love-me-because-we-love-you impulse that bursts forth from the man's thin, wet lips. Lipton -- whose skimpy body of work includes a stint on The Guiding Light in the 1950s and authorship of two made-for-TV movies in 1985 (including Copacabana, starring Barry Manilow) -- doesn't simply kiss ass; he licks it clean.
And that is what makes Inside the Actors Studio so compelling -- because Lipton is so utterly, spectacularly creepy and completely unaware of the fact that he has the sense of humor of a dead man. The interviews are almost beside the point; they are, after all, only as revelatory as the subject will allow. Yes, there have been occasional moments of wonder: Christopher Walken need only sit still for an hour to be riveting, and Paul Newman hides everything behind blue eyes. And the Kevin Spacey segment, due to air March 5, is fascinating if only for the ancient photos of the young chameleon on high-school stages; that, and the man is a wonderful storyteller (once a stand-up, always a stand-up) and impressionist.
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Lipton treats Stallone with a reverence once reserved for Olivier: He asks about his high-school grades, searching for meaning in report cards; he even asks him about his birth. And Lipton, when discussing Stallone's body of work, speaks in a language that bears some resemblance to our own, but that, when transcribed, looks as if it were translated from the native Dumbass. "Lords of Flatbush was released in 1974," Lipton begins. "Yet, despite your considerable success, it would be two more years before the appointed time of trial that was predicted by your mother's prophecy. Seven years to the day, you say. It was fulfilled monumentally and historically with a motion picture called...Rocky." Cue audience applause, then the question: "What happened to launch your dream of Rocky?" Welcome to...inside the actor's bum.