Have you ever watched that Bravo show “Inside the Actors Studio,” where, during every episode, the host James Lipton ritualistically asks his interviewee the same series of artfully banal personal questions—clearly idiotic but boosted into respectability by their French provenance (their origin being the journalist Bernard Pivot, not, as is sometimes claimed, the novelist Marcel Proust)—to which the celebrity guest responds with a bunch of airy one-word answers and lame quips?
The Pivot personality test is literally the worst personality test I’ve ever come across, even amid our current golden age of pointlessly solipsistic BuzzFeed quizzes, and every time I watch “Inside the Actors Studio,” it kind of seems like both parties are aware of its stupidity yet feel compelled by the weight of tradition to take it seriously. How does one make it out of this sort of thing alive? Since I’m not a famous actor, I’m forced to imagine, and honestly, I’ve imagined my own Lipton interview countless times. Here, I think, is how I would do it:
Q: What is your favorite word?
A: Probably “hoagie.” Growing up in central New Jersey, just above the I-195 line that separated the culturally Philadelphian (southern) half of the state from the culturally New York-ish (northern) half of the state, I customarily referred to submarine sandwiches as “subs” in the New York fashion; However, the northward creep of the PA-based chain Wawa, along with my allegiance to Philadelphia’s sports teams, ultimately convinced me to make the brave choice of switching to the southern terminology—though the superior sound (and look) of the word “hoagie,” relative to the dumb monosyllable “sub,” may have swayed me as much as its rebellious cultural connotations within the Gateway Region. My ability to absorb “hoagie” into my personal lexicon later gave me the courage to adopt, in the same excitingly artificial way, the significantly more foreign regionalism “y’all” (not as a regular habit but as a once-in-a-while treat) while living temporarily in North Carolina and Louisiana.
Q: What is your least favorite word?
A: Any deliberately silly-sounding word like “boondoggle,” “shenanigans,” “snollygoster,” or “nincompoop” that attempts to worm its way into the language not through usefulness but through an appeal to a certain type of cheesy and forced sense of humor, rooted in purposeless zaniness and falsely colorful high spirits. (Newspaper columnists love this kind of word.)
Q: What turns you on?
A: I’m going to assume, like every celebrity who’s ever sat tête-à-tête with the fawning goateed blobfish that is James Lipton, that this question (whose intentionally unpretentious jargon unfortunately makes the content of the question seem even more pretentious by contrast) refers not to “turn-ons” in the usual sexual sense but to some supposedly loftier form of imaginative, intellectual, or emotional excitement. The basis of this seemingly universal assumption rests, I think, not in the wording of the question (which, in itself, seems unambiguously sexual) but in its context: that of a deliberately uninformative personality quiz—no one actually has a favorite (or least favorite) word, a favorite (or least favorite) noise.
The quiz asks nothing real. Its questions serve to indulge the notion that there exists some form of human personality apart from the information of one’s biography: a selfhood that, depending on one’s interpretation of the questionnaire, can be revealed either by an improv-style demonstration of one’s active working mind, which, regarding the quiz as performance art, displays its ability to come up with original, charming, openly false answers to a set of hackneyed, worthless questions (and thereby the liveliness that animates its every waking hour) or else by divulging the “inexplicable,” “purely personal” preferences that, communicable as they are by a single word, without background or explanation, suggest an inborn character that dwells deeper than one’s circumstantially contingent behavior over the course of one’s life (what one has actually done).
There may be some validity in the first interpretation, but there’s clearly none in the second: the knowledge that an answer like “kindness” or “laughter” is 100 percent meaningless is the reason that actors, who hide by profession, love this quiz. If they wanted to reveal something truly personal, they’d surely choose to interpret the question as an invitation to sexual confession—people would pay good money to know what, specifically, turns on Pierce Brosnan or Juliette Binoche.
As for me, I’ll take the polite, easy way out: I’m “turned on” primarily by art—specifically (given my self-absorption) art that, while working more or less within my own “language” or understanding of the world, demonstrates new and creative possibilities for joy or contentment inside that shared, preexisting understanding, rather than outside of it.
Q: What turns you off?
A: Personality tests.
Q: What is your favorite curse word?
A: I’m skipping this question—not only because this newspaper likely prefers not to print such words, but because the idea of having a “favorite curse word” suggests an incredibly juvenile attitude toward curse words, as if each deployment of one were some kind of special occasion of rare naughtiness, each syllable judiciously planned out for maximum pleasure of melody and meaning, the room carefully scanned beforehand to ensure the absence of all parents and teachers. Grow up.
Q: What sound or noise do you love?
A: The soft patter of summer rain on the roof at night. Just kidding: anyone who says that should probably be sent to jail for a few days or at least be subject to a heavy fine.
Q: What sound or noise do you hate?
A: I remember having a hard time with the pinched, nagging voice of my elementary-school librarian.
Q: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
A: I feel like I’d make a good Kardashian.
Q: What profession would you not like to do?
A: Most jobs seem pretty hard.
Q: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
A: “My bad, bro.”