Arts Desk

Strangers Will Answer Your Burning Questions at Ask Roulette

If you could flip a switch so that your best friend always told the truth about you, would you?

Would you rather have sex with a chimpanzee or strangle it with your bare hands?

Have you ever truly feared for your life?

WNYC’s Jody Avirgan wants to know. As the host of Ask Roulette, a live show and podcast based in New York City, Avirgan brings complete strangers onstage to ask each other random questions—by turns poignant, silly, or deeply personal—in front of an audience.

Avirgan is bringing his game show-meets-comedy night to Politics and Prose for the second time tomorrow, and he’s booked a few special guests: the Washington Post’s Clinton Yates, NPR's Tamara Keith, and John Dickerson of Slate and CBS. I chatted with Avirgan over email about his favorite questions, the difference between D.C. and New York audiences, and what it’s like to host a show that unfolds in brand-new, unpredictable ways each time.

What's special about asking questions of a stranger—what can it tell us that a straight-up interview can't?

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Well, at the heart of this model is the random pairings. So it's one thing to think of a question, but it's another to have that question sort of go out into the ether and then land with someone who you wouldn't necessarily have anticipated. I think the main lesson is that any conversation can go in any direction. We've had a question like "What was the last dream you remember?" lead to all sorts of answers, from silly to deeply emotional. So it's a reminder that a question isn't just a way to extract information—it's really an invitation to connect.

How have D.C.'s audiences/questions differed from those in New York?

I'm from D.C. and have a natural disdain for tidy ideas about the difference between the two cities. That said, I think both Eli [Bolin, of the Ask Roulette house band) and I noticed that the D.C. crowd was a little more straightforward, maybe a little more earnest in their answers. The questions were about the same, but in NYC I get the sense that there are more performers in the audience, for better or worse. I'll tell you this: A comment about transportation infrastructure probably wouldn't have been as big an applause line in NYC as it was in D.C.

Are there any questions that come up a lot?

There are the usual themes—regret, childhood memories, the “would you rather” model—but I don't mind the same questions coming up over and over. It's all about who's answering, and you just never know where it's going to lead. When I first started Ask Roulette, I had no idea if people were going to get it. The very first question submitted was "How do you get your hair to do that?" When I saw that, I knew that people would understand that it's not just about asking the right question, but what happens when it pairs up with a stranger.

Any favorite questions?

“What percentage of the historical population of Blue Whales is alive today?” I love this question, just ‘cause it's so specific and Google-able, and usually our questions are open-ended. But it led to a great moment on stage. I say only use it if you think the person you're asking would have fun and riff.

What do you like about hosting the show? Is it still fun for you?

Of course it's still fun! Really, I think the show is at its best when I recede as much as possible. I try and just nudge the conversation along, handle some of the logistics, and let the conversations flourish on their own. I am so impressed that people are willing to participate, and so in awe of the stories they share onstage. Mostly, I'm just happy that it's not me answering the questions, because I'm pretty sure I'd totally freeze up (which basically never happens to the people on stage). So, it's not just fun, but really affirming.

Photo courtesy of Ask Roulette

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