Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Revisiting James Lipton's scrumtrulescent impact on pop culture

Illustration for article titled Revisiting James Liptons scrumtrulescent impact on pop culture
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live (YouTube)

James Lipton, the loquacious, charming, and often hyperbolic host of Inside The Actor’s Studio, has died, leaving behind a career and a legacy that’s wholly unique. A performer before he found his way onto the Actor’s Studio stage, Lipton enjoyed a late-career renaissance after his larger-than-life hosting style served to inspire a number of popular parodies, the most ubiquitous of which being Will Ferrell’s recurring, bug-eyed turn on Saturday Night Live.

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The satire more or less remains the same in every parody: Lipton’s eagerness to lavish praise upon his guests borders on the absurd, with the host gushing over the most basic of actors (and films) as much as he would the most refined. It’s an amusing indictment of celebrity worship and our tendency as a culture to flood the pockets of people who recite pre-written lines for a living instead of, say, teachers or social workers. But what made it all so gloriously palatable was Lipton’s enthusiasm, which not only made him such a feast for impersonators, but also served to endear the viewer to him.

Ferrell’s Lipton is all sharp movements, robotic bursts of laughter, and halting, dramatic vocalizations, the likes of which make him citing a movie like Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style to Tobey Maguire’s Dustin Diamond that much funnier. And Lipton, for his part, was a huge fan of Ferrell’s impression. “I love it, it’s very flattering,” he said. “I think he’s got me cold.” On a 2016 episode of Watch What Happens Live, he went so far as to say he’s “never been so grateful in my life as I am to Will Ferrell.”

Ferrell, however, wasn’t the first to lampoon Lipton on a popular sketch comedy show. David Cross offered up a tighter, more terrifying version of the host on a season four episode of Mr. Show, during which he reverently washes the feet of a young actor named Ryan Dorn before, in an Innerspace-style twist, being shrunk down and inserted inside his body, where there are dinosaurs. If it feels more mean-spirited than Ferrell’s take, that’s because it is: Cross was not a fan, but his impression (and the sketch) remains hilarious.

Around that same time, Mystery Science Theater 3000's Mike Nelson spent an episode believing he was James Lipton and Crow was Ray Liotta.

In 2002, the heyday of Ferrell’s Inside The Actor’s Studio parodies, Lipton voiced himself on a season 13 episode of The Simpsons. “It was a pleasure to eat your lead, good sir!” he croaks after being shot by Rainier Wolfcastle. He’d return to the show for a follow-up appearance in 2011.

Lipton also popped up as himself (or as self-referential characters) in a handful of sitcoms and comedies. The most memorable, probably, was his turn as a warden and wannabe screenwriter on Arrested Development, though his kooky appearances alongside Conan O’Brien pushed the man in all sorts of oddball directions.

One of Lipton’s most enduring appearances, however, was on a 2003 episode of HBO’s Da Ali G Show. Most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s marks on the guerrilla-style interview show came off looking mean, gross, or ineffectual, but Lipton held his own, respectfully chiding Ali G’s use of “hos” and “bitches” and refusing to be shamed after he’s laughed at for admitting he cries during movies. He even rewrote the lyrics to a rap Ali G asked him to perform. It sounds cringe, but it’s anything but. 

Read our obituary for Lipton here.

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.

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