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MICHAEL
    What are some of the biggest changes Good Eats has gone through since, I want to say the first episode, but your first episodes were pilot episodes for PBS which were done in a different format?

ALTON
    Well, yeah. They weren't produced for PBS. We didn't know who we were producing them for. They were 27 minutes long because that is PBS's general format. But we didn't know where the show would end up. I always wanted to be on Food Network. The story of how the show got on—I don't know if you even know it, you may know it—the saga of how we even made it to Food Network, because we came very close to not. We came very close to ending up on Discovery [Channel].

    But the changes... The show's a lot less straight forward than it used to be. We've received some criticism for that. Actually, the shows that we're doing now are a lot more like season one, thematically. Not that they're safer, but that we've returned to some of the more straightforward methodologies. I got kind of wacky pushing the envelope in some of the later seasons just trying to see where I could go. But frankly, the big change... You have to look at it kind of in sequences. There was season one through three, then there was season four, and then there's season five and beyond. Seasons one through four were produced with a different production company [Means Street]. Season four was produced with that production company knowing that I would no longer be working with that production company which made it, probably, the most painful year of my life. It was very, very hard. Then—what I call the Renaissance—of moving beyond the limitations of that relationship into taking responsibility for ourselves, having control to do what could be done. Yeah, so the changes are that we're far more sophisticated now in production.

    It's mostly things that people wouldn't see. The shows you're going to see in season six look better than the season before. We've made changes to the way the video actually works, technical stuff. The shows have gotten slicker from a post-production... Well, 'slicks' a good word. We've gotten a lot slicker. Post-production is a lot slicker. The shows are cleaner. They flow better. There was a lot of very, kind of, rough editorial things that happened in the first three to four seasons. Now there's a lot more flow. You may have even sensed that in some of the season five shows, that they just sort of flow better. They are more focused, I think. And I think that the humor and what we call 'the gags' are more sophisticated and more clean.

MICHAEL
    Highbrow? Lowbrow? Slapstick?

ALTON
    There's slapstick. Listen, you're going to see a show that you do not want to miss. There's a show coming on next weekend [April 20, 2002] called, This Spud's For You Too. It's a take-off on the Stephen King book, Misery, of what happens when my car breaks down and I get taken in by a fan, a female fan. Very different from anything you've ever seen. It's got an absolute storyline that just happens to have a heck of lot of cooking in it. And it's got a lot of character development. And it's, well, I'll let you judge for yourself. It's highbrow and lowbrow, because there will be very sophisticated humor and then you'll turn around and somebody will get hit in the head with a refrigerator door. There's actually a lot of physical humor in Good Eats and we never lose that. Somebody's always getting hit with something. [chuckles]

    There's a show coming up soon where my intern, Paul, returns in his Lever Man costume except this time as Lactose Man and I get beat up by him because I'm lactose intolerant. I get slugged in the stomach. So there's always going to be Three Stooges humor. I don't think it lowbrow/highbrow. There are levels of humor. And there are a lot of jokes that go right over people's heads, some people's heads. And that's not a matter of sophistication. It's a matter of exposure. The soufflé show is called Quantum Foam. How many people are going to get that? Well, it just so happens I read Michael Crichton's, Timeline, and there's a thing about quantum foam in Timeline. Well, only the people that read that book are probably going to get Quantum Foam. I love that book.

MICHAEL
    Great book.

ALTON
   I adored that book. It was even better on tape, believe it or not.

MICHAEL
    Really?

ALTON
    Oh, it was wonderful on tape.

    Anyway, coming up with titles, actually, is the hardest thing. I had it down to either a U2 joke, Unforgettable Foam from Unforgettable Fire if you're a U2 fan, or Quantum Foam. And I decided to go with Quantum Foam because I could literally lift it right out of the book and of course Quantum Foam for physicists is something that I'll go goo-goo over. So there are just layers. And I know that some of the jokes are so 'in' that nobody else on the set even gets them. Well, usually somebody else on the set will get them. But there will be a joke that the Network will say,
    "Why did you say that?"
    I say, "Well, because blah, blah, blah, blah."
    They'll go, [looking around suspiciously] "okay."

MICHAEL
    Well, the one that went over me was I think on your gelatin show when you built something too big, 8 foot, and it was supposed to be 8 inches.

ALTON
    From Spinal Tap.

MICHAEL
    And I had to have other fans tell me what that meant.

ALTON
    Have you seen that since?

MICHAEL
    Yeah.

ALTON
    It's one of the greatest scenes in film when Stonehenge comes down this high [indicates]. There are certain films, there are certain pieces of literature, certain songs or whatever that we kind of use over and over again. That's probably the third or fourth Spinal Tap reference. The other one being in the Remains of the Bird when Paul's talking about a toaster going to eleven.

MICHAEL
    Yeah.

ALTON
    That's Spinal Tap.

MICHAEL
    [chuckles]

ALTON
    And that's just completely self-gratuitous, because it gives me the giggles, or it gives the guys on the crew a giggle. They'll think that's a funny thing. The little 'in' jokes... When we start ripping on something, sometimes they're a big broad one. Like in the crêpe show from season five, the whole take-off from the Sopranos with the therapist and everything. That was strictly what that came from. And I'll go back to the same well often to rip off things. I don't think of it as ripping off, really. I think of it more as an hommage.

    I did a thing with the Sopranos, mostly, because I was at a party in New York—this doesn't happen to me very often—I was at a party for Gourmet Magazine for the launch of somebody's book and there was this guy there that came up to me and said, "Wow. I just want you to know that me and all the guys that I work with love Good Eats. We watch Good Eats all the time." And I said, "What do you do?" And he said, "Oh, we write the Sopranos." And I was like [puts hand over heart and struggles as if having difficult breathing]. I was like, "Oh, my god. You watch Good Eats?" And I was like … oh, I was floored. And I immediately felt like going home and start writing scenes that were hommage to the Sopranos.

MICHAEL
    [chuckling] Perfect.

ALTON
    Yeah, you know. Highbrow, lowbrow, I don't think in those terms. I think things are either funny or they're not funny. There are things that are going to be funny to an eight-year old and I want that there because I'm still and eight-year old in a lot of my brain. And then there's stuff that I want people that have only read certain things to enjoy, because I want them to feel, like, a sense of community of, maybe, what I think was funny. I just don't think about it sometimes. There are probably have been jokes that only 6 people got, but that's okay, you know, as long as it didn't get in the way. You know there are a lot of people who didn't get the opening of the duck show. They didn't realize that was a whole take off on Monty Python. They didn't get that. That's all right.

MICHAEL
    You were nominated for a James Beard award.

ALTON
    Yeah, in 2000.

MICHAEL
    Two thousand. But the [James Beard] website calls it, Bird In Hand. That's wrong, obviously, unless there's another show I don't know about.

ALTON
    What happened in the early days is there was a discrepancy between... There's a rather elaborate system for the way shows get coded. And what happened in that case is that a show will start with a title, but I'll very often change the title at the last minute. Now that's not a problem because the Network works off code numbers. We have show codes and you can never break a show code. We're now at, like, E-A-blah-blah-blah-
dash-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. But in the beginning when the shows would first get listed for what was, like, in the works, they would have the working title put on them and the working title would change. So the show would very often end up getting even listed on the website with something other than what was on the beginning of the show. And so certain shows ended up getting two names. For instance, um, [pause to think] …

MICHAEL
    Oh, I know them.

ALTON
    [thinking] Yeah, well let's see if I do. Um, the rib show went from, I think it was originally called A Rib For All Seasons and ended up being Pork Fiction. And because of that—in the first two seasons especially—that happened. There were, all of a sudden, contradictory names for certain shows which I just took as being part of our mythology. It's just one of those things that happened in our history where shows ended up having two names.

    I was always intrigued by the fact that with the X-Files, they had show names but they never put the name of the show up at the beginning of the show. So there was never any way to cross reference a show name with a show. Like, there would be an episode name but it was never up at the beginning of the show. And I thought, "Well, that's just wacky." And I thought for awhile that we'll take advantage of that. Why have one title when coming up with titles is so much fun? We'll have three. We don't do that anymore. We don't do that anymore because a lot of people are like, "Well, wh … ? Wh …?"

    But I never wanted to lock in a show title until the end because I put a lot of... For some reason, coming up with the name for a show just, it was real important for me for some reason. It still is. Coming up with that just-right moniker. And sometimes it's really, really hard to come up with a name that really applies itself well. Or you realize that you goofed on some song title when you really should have saved that one for another show. But there have been times when I've actually wanted to write a show for no other reason that I had a really great title. [chuckles] Which still happens. I have this list …

MICHAEL
    [gaffe #2] Very few of your shows actually follow the title. Like, Mission: Poachable, the title went with the show but most of them don't seem to go with it. Do you just like the names?

ALTON
    Give me and example of one that doesn't.

MICHAEL
    Maybe I'm misspeaking.

ALTON
    I'm thinking that you are, but let's see.

MICHAEL
    [pausing to think] Um, um, I guess I am misspeaking. What I'm thinking of is the storyline that goes with the show.

ALTON
    Oh, that doesn't matter.

MICHAEL
    Yeah. That's what I meant to say.

ALTON
    Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. I don't let that get in the way. It's usually a pun. I'm trying to think of names that are coming up this season. Some of them are easy: artichoke, "Choke's On You." Easy. Yogurt, "Good Milk Gone Bad." That was pretty easy. Strawberries, very tough. Very tough. I ended up calling it Strawberry Sky. I don't know why. Because I wanted to call it Straw Buried Alive, but everybody thought it was too morbid, so I didn't do that.

    But sometimes the names really get me down, really, really, really get me down. I'll be like, "Man, I can't come up with a decent title for this gosh darn thing," and it bugs me. Because when I can't come up with a title it makes me think that I'm not paying attention enough to society. I'm not casting a wide enough net which has actually been the hardest thing about working on Good Eats is that I'm so busy working that I don't often get a chance to pay attention to everything that's going on out there. And that's not good. I'm trying to fix that, but it's real challenging.

MICHAEL
    Tell us why you don't endorse any products by name for the most part.

ALTON
    On the show?

MICHAEL
    On the show. Not on your website because you do.

ALTON
    Two reasons. One, I'd rather talk about attributes. Now if I was really into attributes that were only in a product made by one company, I'd probably be all right talking about that company except that they can change their line. It's like I've quit using Polder probe thermometers because they've upgraded and made the damn thing so complicated I can't use it. I can't figure it out. The other reason is that Food Network will not allow me to. But that was not a dictum that came down until season five. The reason for that, people started buying everything I touched. And rightfully so, Food Network applies ... that can interrupt, will get in the way of ad sales. If I pick up a Lodge cast iron skillet, well, everybody was going out buying Lodge cast iron skillets. Well, what's in it for the Network? And that's completely understandable and I support that.

    The other reason is that the second that you hold up that logo, you're bought. It looks like your bought. Every product... Well, that's not true. Most of the products that we use on the show we buy retail because I want to be able to judge it. I don't belong to anybody. Sometimes people donate things to us and sometimes they're really good. All-Clad provides me with cookware. I accept it because if they didn't, I'd still go buy it. Up until the time that All-Clad said, "Here. Have some cookware" I was using mine. I would empty my house, hang it on the rack. We'd end up cooking at home with two pans because I already used it. So I've only accepted freebies in the case of, I would have used it anyway. I have never been swayed and will never be swayed from one product to another.

    This has kept me from making a lot of money because there have been a lot of companies, Mike, that have come to me and offered me endorsements that've said, "If you'll use blah, blah, blah on Good Eats …" And I've said, "Understand something: Good Eats is off limits." By the same token, I told the Food Network, "You will never dictate to me what tool I use on the show, ever." That is the only reason people will trust me. Because if I pick up something on that show, it's because I believe in that thing. No one will own me that way. That is not to say that I won't do endorsements. I may have some endorsement deals this year. I'd be a fool not to. But they will a) not be involved with Good Eats in any way and they will never be with products that I don't believe in, okay?

    You think Emeril drinks Fetzer Wine at home?

MICHAEL
    I didn't know he drank Fetzer.

ALTON
    No. And yet he's got a stand up this big [indicates] at the Fetzer thing. It doesn't mean that I dis Emeril. I'm just saying that I'd rather have people trust me and so if I'm going to endorse something outside of Good Eats, it'll be something I already believe in.

MICHAEL
    Good.

ALTON
    On the show, it's not ever going to be... Since season five you'll often see shows that at the end give a mention to Viking Range Corporation because Viking cut us a very, very attractive deal on the ranges and the appliances that are in our new kitchen and I would have chosen those, probably, anyway. And to get a mention, a credit, on Food Network, you have to cross a certain financial line. I can't mention what it is, but that's why they get that.

MICHAEL
    So I guess it's safe to say that you use these gadgets that you have in your own personal kitchen.

ALTON
    [sheepishly] Well, actually I don't own any Viking stuff because I can't afford it.

MICHAEL
    I meant the smaller things like vegetable peelers.

ALTON
    Yes. Most of that stuff is my personal stuff or stuff that we have acquired in our never-ending search for 'what's the right thing.'

MICHAEL
    Are you gadget complete now or are you [still] looking?

ALTON
    Never stop. Never stop. Not because I want more. My dream is to have less. To have things that multi-task so efficiently and so wonderfully that I can... I get joy out of finding a great use for a tool that nobody's come up with yet. That's a rush. It's the MacGyver thing. It was really great that Amazon.com finally posted their critical review of the book and that they actually mentioned, it was like, "Jacques Pépin meets Mr. Science meets MacGyver" and I was like, "Thank you." That feels good. Except for MacGyver's bad haircut, I like him.

MICHAEL
    [chuckles]

ALTON
    Unforgivable haircut.

MICHAEL
    It's a product of another decade.

    Is there something you want to do with Good Eats that you can't because of some limitation: financial, Food Network, personal …

ALTON
    Yeah. Yeah. I'd like it to be an hour long.

MICHAEL
    So would your fans.

ALTON
    We have an hour-long special coming up which took me almost a year to make called, Down And Out In Paradise. Have you heard about this?

MICHAEL
    I have heard about it.

ALTON
    I think it will be airing in the summer. Unlike anything you've ever seen, I hope. I like having an hour format. I'd rather do fewer shows and make them an hour long. I get frustrated by how much I have to leave out. I could make every show last an hour easily. It would be a lot easier than what I do now. But by the same token, I'm forced by what I do now to narrow down the range of every show to try to purify it, reduce it, only use the most important stuff. But it would be great to make an hour show.

MICHAEL
    Well why can't you make it an hour? Why won't they let you do an hour?

ALTON
    Well the way that programming really works on Food Network and Prime Time is it works in half-hour blocks. It's just the way it is. It's just the form. It's not like they're saying, "Oh, my god, we could never let Alton Brown make a one hour show." It's just not the way that the Network's set up. I mean, I haven't gone to them and said, "By golly, you've got to give me a one-hour time slot." You've no idea how lucky I am to have my original time slot. We premiered Wednesdays at nine, we still have Wednesdays at nine. It's very unusual to not be moved after this much time. It's really nice.

MICHAEL
    Is that the best time slot for Food Network?

ALTON
    I don't know if it's the best time slot. I know it's been really good for Good Eats. We were originally given that because they wanted to slipstream off of Emeril's audience. But we knew that we were really... It's called tent-polling. We knew we were really tent-polling the nights we were on by the shows that were putting on around us—you know that you were kind of helping to hold up the evening. Or they'll work new shows in around you to slipstream off your audience. If you look at Saturday night and the position of Naked Chef and other shows, it's a really great line-up and we fit real well into that. So I'm really glad not be moved off of that.

    Wednesday at nine was originally a really tough slot because we're up against West Wing. That's difficult to be against West Wing. Luckily, TiVo kind of helps us out in that regard.

MICHAEL
    Lot of fans have appreciated their TiVo.

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Copyright © 2002 by Michael Menninger
Last Edited on 08/27/2010