Sitcom producer John Markus gets cooking on BBQ reality show
If you can't beat them, barbecue them.
That's the attitude of John Markus. The Emmy-winning sitcom writer whose credits include "Taxi," "The Cosby Show" and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" has gone reality with "BBQ Pitmasters," which looks at the world of competitive barbecuing and premieres on TLC Thursday at 10 p.m.
Markus became obsessed with barbecue after a cooking mishap with Al Franken, of all people. The two, who worked together on the short-lived sitcom "Lateline" (Markus jokes that it was "the only show canceled by NBC three times"), were cooking ribs from a recipe that Franken had, and let's just say they didn't come out so good.
"We marinated them for six hours, then grilled them in high heat and sat down to eat, and they were the worst things I ever had," Markus recalled, adding that Franken cleaned his plate and to this day claims the ribs were great.
Grossed out but not discouraged, Markus set out to master the art of barbecue and reached out to Paul Kirk, known as the "Kansas City Baron of Barbecue." He took one of Cook's cooking classes and got hooked even though he knew he wasn't exactly the typical BBQ chief. "I was raised in a small Midwest town and I'm Jewish; I was not aware it was a culinary art."
Soon enough though, Markus was obsessed with the competitions that go on between BBQ chiefs. "Think NASCAR but with pork," he said of the cooking matches. The Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctions about 300 contests annually and has over 10,000 members. Markus even formed his own team, "Central Pork West."
Markus, who continues to develop pilots for network TV and is working on a show for the Disney Channel, was approached by TLC and production company Original Media to executive produce their reality show about competitive BBQ. He jokes that there was "a bit of silence" when he told his agent of his plans. Although many writers and producers lament the explosion of reality TV because it takes away time slots for comedies and dramas, Markus is willing to play ball.
"I love scripted, but I had the opportunity to take a passion of mine and have it shown to America," he said. "The show is a very authentic slice of that life."
Markus is doing double-duty on the show, also serving as its color commentator. He already knows many of the contestants from taking classes with them over the years. "We didn't create types; these types exist," he said of the show whose contestants include crusty veterans, brash rookies and a few oddballs. The breakout star of the show may be the gritty Myron Mixon, who heads the "Jack's Old South BBQ" team, is a three-time world champion and doesn't mind throwing the four-letter words around. Markus says he's the "Lance Armstrong of the sport."
Markus, whose BBQ moniker is Johnny Smoke has even won a few prizes, including a fourth-place ribbon for his barbecue chicken, which he keeps in a safe place: "It's hanging on my Emmy."
-- Joe Flint
Upper photo: "BBQ Pitmasters" participant Paul Peterson at the Diamond State BBQ Championship in Dover, Del. Credit: Chris Ramirez / TLC
Lower photo: John Markus. Credit: TLC