now is the podcast of our discontent

I was excited when Alton Brown, former host of “Good Eats” and current host of half of Food Network’s repetetive, overblown food-competition shows, started his own podcast. I even wrote a glowing story about it that was included in our Times-Gazette cookbook, a story about which I was reminded day before yesterday when I was looking at one of the cookbooks we’d set aside as a contest entry.

But I think I’m now officially disenchanted.

To backtrack a bit: “Good Eats” started on the Food Network in 1999 and ran for 11 years. Reruns still air regularly on Cooking Channel (a sister channel to Food Network). It remains one of my favorite things ever on television. It was a half-hour cooking show which combined recipes, science, sketch comedy and jury-rigged cooking contraptions. It won a Peabody Award, and Alton won a James Beard award for his work as creator and host.

During the run of “Good Eats,” Alton also had several outstanding food travelogues presented in miniseries format: two runs of “Feasting on Asphalt” (Alton and his crew traveled by motorcycle), and one of “Feasting on Waves” (because it’s hard to travel the Carribbean by motorcycle).

When Food Network, which had run and rerun episodes of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” created its own version, “Iron Chef America,” Alton was signed as host – and that was fine with me at the time; I had been a big fan of the original Japanese show, and Alton brought a lot of his wit and knowledge to his “play-by-play” commentary. But, over time, Food Network became all about the competition shows. “Iron Chef America” doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, nor do any of the other shows, all of which seem to blend together: “The Next Iron Chef,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Food Network Star,” all of them involving Alton in some way or another, plus others like “Chopped,” “The Worst Cooks In America,” and on and on and on. (And on and on.) Someone is apparently watching them, but I have long since gotten sick and tired of them.

When “Good Eats” wrapped up, I figured Alton would be back with some different but equally-imaginative project in a year or two, and that all of these reality shows he was hosting were just helping pay the bills (which I completely understand).

Then, Alton launched his podcast, on the well-established Nerdist podcast network, and I was thrilled. The podcast originally had sort of a magazine format, including cooking tips that would have been at home on “Good Eats” as well as listener questions, along with an interview segment.

Over time, however, all of the other segments have been de-emphasized and the interview segment is now pretty much the whole podcast. That would be OK if the interview subjects were great – and a few of them are, such as the fellow from Nashville’s Olive & Sinclair Chocolates a few episodes back. But too many of them are either tied in with Alton’s competition shows and/or chances to reminisce about the behind-the-scenes production of “Good Eats.” Alton apparently does not share my feelings about the competition shows; based on the interviews, he’s still excited to host as many of them as they’ll throw his way. As a huge fan of “Good Eats,” I enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, but there’s been an over-reliance on it. I’m not as interested in “Good Eats” as I am in the next “Good Eats,” whatever that turns out to be.

This week’s episode is an interview with the production manager for Alton’s live tour – again, not a bad idea in and of itself, but in the context of where the show has been headed it just means another episode without any real food content, since the interview is the entire show.

I don’t guess I have much room to complain about a free, and advertising-free, podcast. It’s just that the podcast, when it first started, seemed like it might be appointment listening in the same way “Good Eats” was appointment viewing. And it’s not. Alton, you need to be doing something more worthy of your talent.

Still thinking

I’m still rolling around this podcast idea. I need something with enough of a hook to it that people would be interested in hearing it, and maybe even contributing to a Kickstarter – something more than “John rambles on in a stream of consciousness” – but something that would give me the freedom to cover a lot of topics. I don’t want to do anything locally-oriented that would conflict with my day job. I feel like there’s some hook to it, and if I can just figure out what it is, I could put together a pilot episode and maybe put it on Kickstarter.

more podcast thoughts

I’m still thinking about the podcast idea I discussed over the weekend.

By way of research, I just got through listening to about half of a podcast episode by Josh Robert Thompson, a talented comedian best known as the voice of robot skeleton “Geoff Peterson” on the Craig Ferguson show. It was, in some ways, an amazing piece of work — he dropped his regular podcast format and co-host for a week and recorded a stream of consciousness completely by himself in the middle of a sleepless night. It was a high-wire act.

But on the other hand, it was, well, kind of arrogant and unlikable. Thompson went off on a rant responding to negative Internet commenters. I know how frustrating people like that can be, but in this case I’m not one of the naysayers to whom he was referring and so it wasn’t particularly interesting or useful for me to hear him ramble on and on about how he doesn’t care what anyone else, except the producers and the host, thinks of his performance on the “Late Late Show.” This was one of those cases where, even when I agreed with the content of what he was saying, his tone in saying it was scolding and defensive. He had this condescending little chuckle after some sentences that just got under my skin.

This is *not* how I would want my podcast to sound.

Next project

Excuse me a minute – I’ll get right back to writing this blog post as soon as I study my lines ….

…oh, right. The play closed last night. My schedule has suddenly opened up considerably.

So, what’s next? This is November, and there have been many years lately when I’ve done National Novel Writing Month. Today is only the third, and I could probably start today and make up the lost ground. But I’m just not inspired for NaNoWriMo this year. I don’t have a good jumping-off point, and I don’t have the fire in the belly for it.

What I’ve been thinking about is what I was thinking about around this time two years ago: a podcast. I even went so far as to record a pilot episode back then, featuring my old friend from college Peter Smith. But nothing ever came of it. I also, just as another way of having fun with audio, read the public domain “Gift of the Magi” and posted it online last year as an audio Christmas card. I even used the open source audio editing software Audacity to combine different takes and take out some of the excess “uh”s and “um”s.

The pilot episode I did with Peter was for an interview podcast on faith issues. I figured that if I could ever get something launched, that might be more marketable. But what I really want to do is something a little more rambling, a little more wide-ranging, something fun.

I just don’t know exactly what it is.

Because there are some special costs associated with podcasting – such as hosting of large audio files and bandwidth – I think I have to come up with something interesting and unique enough that I could maybe do a Kickstarter or something like that to raise money.

I’m going to give it some thought.

Allez cuisine

I’ve been a huge fan of Alton Brown ever since I first got Food Network and started watching “Good Eats,” within a year or two after its premiere in 1999. The show, now out of production but still in reruns on Cooking Channel, combines food, science and comedy. An episode about potatoes was a parody of “Misery.” An episode on stuffing / dressing used a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” metaphor as a formula for helping you combine ingredients and flavors. There were various recurring characters, and sometimes Alton himself appeared in character (my favorite being a gracious Southern colonel).

I’ve cooked more Alton Brown recipes than every other TV chef put together. My normal recipes for whole muscle beef jerky, quiche, and other dishes are the ones Alton used on “Good Eats.”

In addition to the Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” Alton also hosted two miniseries of “Feasting on Asphalt” and one of “Feasting on Waves,” some of the most informative, intelligent and fun food travelogue shows ever done.

I used to be a big fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and when Food Network began producing “Iron Chef America,” I thought Alton, with his wit and knowledge, was the perfect choice as host.

But there are a couple of problems. Food Network stopped being about cooking and became more and more about competition shows, and the competition shows became more and more repetitive, which meant they had to rely more and more on personal drama, hyped up by producers and editors, to sustain interest. And Alton seems to be one of the go-to guys for hosting such shows – “The Next Iron Chef,” “[The Next] Food Network Star,” and now – worst of all – “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show which actively encourages the contestants to try to win by sabotaging each other rather than on their own merits.

How can one of the smartest guys in food television get caught hosting this dreck? I realize he’s got a family to support, and I figured his thinking was that having a job was preferable to not having a job.

But in the latest installment of his excellent podcast, Alton has a conversation with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I like Alex Guarnaschelli but hadn’t kept up with “Iron Chef America” in so long I didn’t realize she was now an Iron Chef. She, like Alton, brings an intelligence and perceptiveness to her food-related programming.

Judging from their conversation, however, they don’t share my misgivings about competitive cooking shows. From the tone of this conversation, Alex Guarnaschelli is as thrilled to be a competitor as Alton Brown is to be a host. I just don’t get it. I think Alton is wasted as the Food Network’s answer to Jeff Probst. I want him to make the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt,” whatever that happens to be. The podcast is a great start, and has already become regular weekly listening for me, but I want more – and I suspect I won’t get more as long as he’s pre-occupied with the competition shows.

It’s a shame.

Harmon on religion

I’m not necessarily recommending that you go and listen to Dan Harmon’s “Harmontown” podcast, because it can be a little profane, and there’s a lot about Harmon’s humor that some people might take the wrong way. But I thought one segment of it was interesting this week.

Harmon, for those who aren’t familiar, is the creator of, among other things, the TV show “Community,” which he ran until the end of last season. He was fired by the producers after various situations including a public feud with one of his stars, Chevy Chase. Chevy eventually left the show this season, even without Harmon around to feud with. That’s not to exonerate Harmon completely; even the description for the podcast describes him as “self-destructive.”

Harmon is not, by his own admission, a religious man. But one theme of “Community” under his watch was tolerance and co-existence among those of different beliefs. The show features a Christian character, a Jewish character, and so on, and there were some episodes that specifically dealt with how they could be friends while holding different beliefs about the world. The Christian character, Shirley, is sometimes portrayed a little stereotypically, but she’s also portrayed with a lot of sympathy.

But Harmon and his podcast co-host, Jeff Davis (whom some of you may remember as an occasional cast member on “Whose Line Is It Anyway”) have no particular love for outspoken atheists like Bill Maher, whom they consider just as dogmatic, unthinking and harmful as some of the worst believers. They have an interesting conversation (joined by comic Kumail Nanjiani) about some of what offends them on both sides – the anti-scientific bent of some fundamentalists, but also the arrogance of some scientists towards others, including other scientists, who choose to believe that some aspects of life are beyond science. Many of the Richard Dawkins class of militant atheists point to various holy wars, inquisitions and so on as proof that religion is harmful, but Harmon says that they’re more about humanity than about religion – and if religion disappeared, those same abuses would go in in the name of some other cause. (“South Park” made much the same point, in an episode set in the future where Dawkins has managed to eliminate religion but where two different atheist organizations are fighting a holy war for supremacy over some arcane point.)

By the way, Harmon responds to the rumor floated last week that he might return to the show now that it’s been picked up for a fifth season and now that Chevy is gone. There’s apparently no such plan in the works. At one point, weeks ago, when the show’s fate was still in question, someone from the studio made a very informal inquiry to Harmon’s agent about whether Harmon would be willing to come back. At the time, Harmon suspects, the studio might have been brainstorming tactics to get the network to renew the show. But nothing ever came of it, and now that the show has already been renewed without Harmon he doesn’t expect there to be any real offer.

Anyway, I’ve warned you that there are aspects of the podcast you might find offensive. But if you want to listen, here’s the web site.

Welcome To Night Vale

Weekend before last, I tore through the archives of a newly-discovered podcast find, “Welcome to Night Vale.” I hated having to wait for the new episode, which finally dropped yesterday (but which I didn’t get to listen to until this evening).

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a scripted podcast, primarily performed by one man. It’s in the form of a small-town radio broadcast, but for a very unusual small town:

Imagine that Garrison Keillor got tired of writing his “News From Lake Wobegon” and hired Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, and “X-Files” creator Chris Carter to write it for him. It’s hysterically funny – but you have to be paying attention, and you sort of have to be on the right wavelength.

If I can talk you into listening to this thing, you need to scroll down and start with the very first episode. There are running plot points that reward you for listening in order, and bits you may not get if you haven’t heard earlier episodes.

At times, they twist the format around a little – there’s a two-part episode in which part 1 falls under the usual format, but part 2 is performed by a different announcer and is written from the point of view of Night Vale’s rival community.  The most recent episode features “poetry month” in Night Vale – the normal prohibition on writing instruments is temporarily suspended, and in fact it’s mandatory for each resident to write a poem, a few of which our friendly announcer reads on air.

You can find the podcast here:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/WelcomeToNightVale

Or, if you use iTunes:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/welcome-to-night-vale/id536258179?mt=2&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Highly recommended.

Professional therapist

I used to love Comedy Central’s 90s-era “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist,” a weirdly computer-animated show in which standup comedians did their acts as patients on the couch of Jonathan Katz (in real life, Katz was a standup as well). I remember seeing Ray Romano as one of Jonathan Katz’s patients long before “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Jonathan Katz and the show’s creator/animator, Tom Snyder (not the talk show host, who passed away in 2007) have a new web series, “Explosion Bus,” and are promoting it, which is how they wound up as the primary guests during the same week on the two comedy podcasts I listen to most regularly: “Jordan, Jesse, Go!” on Monday, and then “Sklarbro Country” on Friday. (Both contain strong language, particularly JJGo.)

Katz has the same soft-spoken, playful personality as a guest that he had on the show. He delights in silly little one-liners, and his joy when he finds an opportunity is infectious.

I have to say, though, “Explosion Bus” is a little – awkward, and not in a good way. Katz is as funny as ever, but the premise – a group of 30-somethings on a bus traveling around the country on some sort of online talent search – doesn’t seem to work. On the one hand, the characters are traveling around in this ratty looking bus, but yet in the second episode, they’re apparently supposed to be well-known enough that teenagers at a high school have crushes on (some of) them and invite them as celebrity prom dates. It makes no sense, even in a fun or larger-than-life sort of way.

But maybe I’m overthinking it.