By now, everyone knows it isn't cool to still be a fan of Bravo's long-running interview show, "Inside the Actors Studio." For one thing, the sucking up of its host, the bearded oddity James Lipton, has been so over-the-top for so long that even the lampoons of him on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" don't look like exaggerations.
The website jumptheshark.com has a running debate on when, not whether, the show became a spoof of its former greatness.
There are other beefs too: The once high-minded show has sold out. Its signature Bernard Pivot "Bouillon du Culture" questionnaire has run its course as a gimmick. Arrivistes like Ben Affleck have found their way onto a guest list that once was confined to the Meryl Streeps and the Robert DeNiros. And yet -- and yet, as Lipton himself might pompously draw out this transition -- AND YET ...
Naomi Watts on the psychological toll of masturbating in front of a camera? Spike Lee weeping? James Gandolfini soberly analyzing the sex appeal of Tony Soprano's big bare belly? People, you can't get that on Letterman. You can't even get it on "Access Hollywood."
Even after a decade, "Inside the Actors Studio" is the perfect blend of rubbernecking and insight, of the National Enquirer and PBS. An hourlong Q&A about acting technique conducted by a dean emeritus on an upscale cable channel, it's filmed before an audience of students at the Actors Studio Drama School MFA program at the New School University in New York. But the audio-visual aids are famous people. It's guilty pleasure TV.
And beginning Sunday, the pleasure just gets guiltier as the cunningly insufferable Lipton kicks off the show's new season with that legendary thespian ... J. Lo.
Yeah, yeah, you're shocked, you're appalled, blah blah, what, she's going to discuss the "sensory work" that went into her seminal performance in "Anaconda"?
You know you want it.
You have to watch it, if only to go "huh?" when the questionnaire gets to the part where she confides her favorite curse word (you'll never guess, it's too weird), or to see how she reacts when a nervy Latino kid in the audience rises to ask if she'll do him the honor of dancing with him.
Though the star most recently known as the woman behind "Gigli" says just about what you'd think on the subject of "process," she turns out -- once she relaxes -- to have plenty that's interesting to tell aspiring actors, about hard work and being grateful for a job even if it's a bad one.
And she does relax, to the point that the improbable happens: You remember that before there was this tabloid diva known as J. Lo, there was a doggedly ambitious girl from the Bronx named Jennifer Lopez.
This sort of TV "reveal" is no mean feat, as anyone who ever tried to interview a celebrity will tell you. Celebrities, like politicians, are taught never ever to let their guards down, lest the audience glimpse the product's less marketable sides.
The more most stars are interviewed, the better they get at answering in the guise of their public persona, which is why most televised celebrity interviews consist of an air kiss, a movie plug and a cut to commercial.
It's understandable from a business perspective, but too bad from other standpoints, since the whole reason we want to hear from actors is to learn how they created life from a pile of words on paper, and to see where the roles and their own psychologies might have combined to make art.
But somehow -- Lipton says it's the breadth of his preparation and the hours and hours he spends with his subjects -- "Inside the Actors Studio" time and again coaxes the human being from beneath the hard candy coating of modern celebrity. Lipton, whose own resume has run less to Oscar nods than to the working man's track of soap operas and Bob Hope birthday specials, has been accused of accomplishing this through sheer, abject fawning. He slathers on the flattery to a point that would make everyone in the room scream for mercy if the show were about anything but show business.
But Lipton not only understands that this is how much love is required to generate this level of openness in these people, he also genuinely seems to feel it. When the connection works, his guests unfold like flowers.
For example, in the show that airs Sunday, Lopez at first stonewalls. Her answers are the polite, stock stuff of your basic press junket. Her demeanor is stiff-backed -- she keeps smoothing her hair and giving him this opaque sort of Queen of England smile. Finally, Lipton drops his voice, looks down at his note cards and intones what at first sounds like a Final Jeopardy question:
"You've said ... that when you look back at any moment in your life ... there's always a musical association ... that takes you there. What music ... do you associate ... with Christmas?"