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As a producer for WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Jody Avirgan played with the idea of pairing up on-air callers to ask each other questions. That concept became the foundation of Ask Roulette, a live show Avirgan created in 2011 and has been hosting every other month at New York City’s Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Now, Avirgan wants to take Ask Roulette on the road, and on Friday the former D.C. resident brings the show to Politics & Prose as a test of sorts. “D.C. seems like by far the best natural first fit,” he says.
Compared to the relatively passive format of the typical D.C. storytelling event or variety show, Ask Roulette puts audience members onstage to ask questions and respond to them. Avirgan facilitates to maintain a certain energy level, but there is no set criteria or template for each show. The questions could address morality or a “would you rather” situation, and the answers vary wildly.
The grab-bag approach makes Ask Roulette thoroughly unpredictable, Avirgan says, and it leads to some unexpected connections between participants. “We’ve had people realize on stage that they have the same recurring nightmare, two people start spontaneously singing together…” he says. “Now we’re just waiting on our first marriage proposal.”
Special guests get in on the action, too. Friday’s show at Politics & Prose includes NPR’s Linda Holmes, the Washington Post’s Clinton Yates, and Slate’s Dave Weigel. (The “house band” is just Eli Bolin, who plays music during the show, Avirgan says.) Previous guests have been a part of some of the most memorable Ask Roulette moments, Avirgan says. Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich began answering a question about the existence of God, and within two minutes he was lauding Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Kurt Andersen, of Studio 360, posed a particularly difficult question: Would you rather have sex with a chimp, or kill it with your bare hands? “We had some fun figuring that one out,” Avirgan says.
Each Ask Roulette show is recorded and put online as a podcast, which has helped Avirgan generate interest outside of New York. Avirgan has his eye on other cities for future shows, but for the moment he is excited to see how the audience at Politics & Prose responds—-quite literally.
Ask Roulette takes place at 7 p.m. Friday at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free.
Photo: Dave Weigel, Linda Holmes, Clinton Yates, and Eli Bolin. Courtesy Jody Avirgan/Ask Roulette