Interview with TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters Series Executive Producer, John Markus

The Diva Interviews John Markus, Executive Producer of TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters

My BBQ buddy Danielle Dimovski aka Diva Q posted her BBQ blog where she provides an awesome Q & A with John Markus, Executive Producer of the TLC BBQ Pitmasters series. With permission of the Diva Q herself, I’ve reposted it here:

From Diva Q…

I had the distinct pleasure to interview John Markus, Executive Producer of the new TLC series BBQ Pitmasters. John is an award winning writer and producer. He has won an Emmy, a Peabody and two Humanitas prizes. His filmography credits include the Cosby Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Taxi, The Facts of Life, The BBQ Championship Series and The All-Star BBQ Showdown.

However the award John Markus is most proud of is something given to very few people a- PhB.

A PhB is an honorary doctorate of BBQ bestowed upon him by the KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society), Ardie Davis alter ego Remus Powers. It is the only award in John’s home that has its own spotlight, the only one on display in its own special frame. It has a place of honor. I asked him where his other awards were. He answered, “Well the Emmy is in the closet and I am not sure where the others are.” He certainly endeared him to me with this statement.

John has apprenticed with BBQ legends.

He can call Chris Lilly a close personal friend, and has competed at the Royal with him many times with the Big Bob Gibson team.

He has also learned the ropes from the Baron of Barbecue himself Paul Kirk. He has completed a documentary on the legendary 3-time World Champion Myron Mixon and his BBQ family. He even has his own team Central Pork West. He owns a Big Green Egg, a WSM, a Backwoods, Jedmaster 3660, and a head turning gorgeous Jambo pit.

He loves cooking on all of them. To him, they all have wonderful strengths. He is well thought of by many of these legends for his honest and sincere and respectful approach to BBQ.

In his own words, John says that if it wasn’t for the quality of the people in BBQ, he would not be in it this long.

I have met people who are going to be lifelong friends. I am proud to say that I am one of the few Yankees that have been called Bubba. – TLC BBQ Pitmasters Series Executive Producer, John Markus

I had expected to have just a short interview, but what evolved was more of an hour-long conversation with a BBQ friend. Hearing him describe the show and answering questions was truly inspiring. Just a warning- this is the complete and full version of the interview. Just a little over 3600 words.

I suggest you get comfortable…

Diva Q (DQ): How hard was it to pitch the show to the TLC Network since this is such a new concept? This show doesn’t involve redoing a house, having multiples of babies or Jon & Kate.

John Markus (JM): The show was pitched with 5-10 minutes of the Myron Mixon Documentary I had completed just to show an in-depth look at what a BBQ person was. Plus some inspired footage of potential candidates, it sold the show very quickly.

This is not a staged competition show. This is a docu-drama (that’s what we call it) this looks at the lives of the people who compete almost full time who are entrenched in the world of competitive BBQ. This is a reality show where there is real reality.

I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to TLC for being in the market for doing food. That’s how the show came about. TLC was asking how do we do a food show. Their minds were open. Then Original Media (Miami Ink, Stormchasers, etc.) have brilliant producers who work there – Jay Peterson, Charlie Corwin. They are virtuoso reality producers. They heard my take on the series and got it immediately -and knew where to go with it. They had been talking to some Networks that wanted a food show because they were ready.

My first meeting with TLC and Original Media – I just said to them its Man Vs. Meat. That got their ears perked up. Then they were able to go into the world and subculture that is competition BBQ. What had been missing on TV (that TLC and Original Media got) was the idea that this is a passion, an obsession of people who practice something very artisanal. Just like American Chopper was a father & Son show they are building something. They are making something. My passion for this kind of TV is these people have to actually do something and do it well.

DQ: How were the candidates chosen?

JM: They (the pitmasters Lee Ann Whippen, Johnny Triggs, Myron Mixon, Harry Soo, Paul Petersen, Tuffy Stone, Jamie Geer) have been chosen as they are highly trained practitioners of this culinary art. To me they are folk heroes.

This is also why I did the documentary about Myron Mixon and his BBQ family. This is someone who lives to create something that pleases people. As Competitive BBQ’ers we understand what it means for people to look at you and say I have never tasted anything like this.

When I cast the show, I cast it like I would a drama. I look at my cast as a big jigsaw puzzle. So if you look at the profiles there are 7 totally different types of people. They are different characters. They are comfortable with the cameras. The cameras are with them a week at a time. They are with them at their homes as they prep and then constantly at the competition.

You need someone that can be themselves and give us their enthusiasm and eccentric character traits that make them oddball and real at the same time. They all have to be one family. Once I have that- I think I have a show. That’s how I will continue to cast the show. I will be putting lines out after the show hoping we get more. We want every color of the rainbow on the show.

DQ: How do you think the TLC Pitmasters Series and the “sport” of competitive BBQ will be received by the general public.

JM: I am sure this will sound a bit ego centric here, but this is how I envision this. This is my dream and my hopes for the show are that the phones at the KCBS don’t stop ringing after this show airs. That anyone who sees it – will see it as being incredibly hard and incredibly challenging but so much damn fun. That they will go and spend whatever they have got on BBQ.

I want them to understand that they can do it for a couple of hundred dollars. That they can start with a $200. pit and use Sam’s Club meat because they can possibly win with it. They don’t need to spend $14,000. on a big pit. They can work up to it. That’s my hope that people have the doors and windows opened up to a world they never knew existed. A world that looks enticing, that it looks friendly but looks really highly competitive. Plus, at the end of the day they have bragging rights that no one can do this like you. All of our passion for the world of BBQ is going into this show.

TLC (to their credit) said to us as we edited this show, please put a priority on explaining this world to the people who have never been in it. They are allowing us (and this is a first) to put the process on an equal level with the characters and story development. This is the direction we have been given.

As a comparison to another “reality” food competition- with all due respect to the Iron chefs it’s all about pyrotechnics. How do they know how to have micro cilantro around?

This show has actual meat inspectors, actual cookers, actual wood, hail, snow rain sometimes. We have blown out tires; we have destruction, we have teammates not getting along. We have people talking smack. We have people stealing ideas. We have a whole shigging explanation in the series. It happens to one of our cast. It happens to one of our cookers and he gets shigged and someone defines it to him.

DQ: What are some of the goals for this show?

JM: I want to bring people (both men & Women) in and want them to be there every week with these pitmasters. Plus, also those who are in it already – I want them to be able to watch the show and say we got it. I want to hear from them and their comments. If we missed something I want to hear about. This comes from my personal experience as a competition cooker. Every moment we have been doing we have been cautious not to create scenarios.

DQ: Were all of the competitions real or were they fabricated?

JM: They were all real competitions except one. The one competition is not sold as a real competition. This is the Johnny Trigg Invitational shoot out. He got to make the rules and set the stakes. We call him the Godfather. The location was a beautiful Ranch house in Mineral Wells Texas. We brought our 7 pitmasters in and they were judged by Master IBCA judges. This was a rib only contest. Baby Backs and Spares. The twist that we gave the show was something really new. We wanted to open the mystique of judges. We also had a couple of rookie judges come in. We taped their judging and encouraged to have them speak freely right after scoring. To talk openly and honestly about the food they ate. Then we brought in all our cooks and sat them in front of the TV set and showed them the tape. All I can say is that there is a lot of bleeping in that scene. There were some cooks that said they liked this and others who said they never want to see this again.

DQ: What were some of the conditions of the competitions like?

JM: When we were in Mesquite someone stuck a thermopen in the pavement it was 134 F. That’s when they started their cook – and then it plummeted to 30F – and then a huge hailstorm rolled in. People were not sleeping, there was massive destruction. There were people pulling off meat at the last minute. Mentally and physically, these competitions are really taxing. They require constant focus, stamina and attention.

DQ: What are your general observations about competitive BBQ’ers?

JM: You get to know who is serious. You just need to look around and see who is not drinking. They learn from their mistakes and not personalize the defeat as well as well as their victories. You have a job to do. You can’ be cursing judges. It’s really all about being levelheaded and realistic about your gifts and how you get better.
This pursuit is a lifelong art. The learning curve is just years long.

DQ: When is your next competition with your own team – Central Pork West?

JM: I would like to return to the Hudson Valley Ribfest for 2010.

DQ: Who is on your competitive BBQ team?

JM: Well regularly, we have a Texan Cowgirl – Nicole Davenport plus Carpenter Bob Allan from the Catskills New York. We also have special appearances by various people who just want to come out and see what it is like.

DQ: Why are there no pellet cookers in the series?

JM: It’s very simple to explain. The shows primary agenda for me as an exec producer is casting the cooks first and what they cook on second. It’s not like I am saying I don’t have a show unless there is a pellet cooker on it. In fact, I have been keeping my eyes open and I want to show that type of BBQ on the show. I would like to say to everyone out there please get as many people to watch. We need to widen the show and include more demographics. I do have a goal to have a pellet cooker on the show. I would also like to have the debate of the pellet vs. other pits debate. There will ultimately be a pellet cooker on the show.

Pellet cookers are out there, and they are winning and they are a legitimate part of BBQ.

DQ: What was the pace of shooting the show?

JM: As way of an explanation, this show came together came at a breakneck pace. I have never worked on a project this fast. It’s very rare in TV that the planets line up as they did for this show.

When I sat in the Man vs. Meat pitch meeting it was only 2 days later when TLC said they wanted this. With Original Medias help 5 camera crews fanned out into America to go meet everybody you see on the show. Two were in Virginia, two in Texas, one in Georgia and one in California. All of it in 6 weeks.

Carolyn Wells brought me Harry Soo and Slap Yo Daddy. Carol and I have had a long friendship since the first show I did. I don’t think I am having a show until I tell Carolyn Wells. She is a very close friend and a very trusted friend and has a real good eye about this world.

She said, “John I don’t know if you are done, but there is one piece of your puzzle I want to help you with.” This was prior to them coming out on the front page of the Bullsheet. They have proven a bounty of scenes and a really inspiring struggle. To be Champs in California and then come into that circuit was a challenge. They come into it still working on their flavor profile still struggling and then they slowly get better and better.

DQ: What are some Highlights you can share from the episodes (this is from Episode #2)

JM: We have all of these KCBS cookers come into an MBN (Memphis Barbecue Network) contest. Johnny Triggs took me aside right away and said he wasn’t doing a dog and pony show. He did it though. Murphysboro is an extremely challenging contest. It is tough. Mr. Triggs put up a little bit of a fuss in the cooks meeting about the tightness of the schedule. We did have somebody from that meeting who was a bit upset about the people who were new to the MBN who wanted changes to the schedule. One of those people (who was under the influence) confronted Mr. Triggs and it got a bit dicey. It happened on its own, but we were lucky to be there to film it.

DQ: Did you find since this is not scripted that you had enough interesting moments captured.

JM: You have the comedy and drama built into these shows. When you are writing a script of the show you have to show the choices and the resolutions. Obstacles, choices and resolutions are part of any real drama or comedy show. As a competitive BBQ team, I have had the disasters and the fighting with teammates, and I have made mistakes. So they naturally occurred. There is a mistake made in Kansas. I was watching the rough cut of the first reel in Kansas and the great Tuffy Stone makes a mistake. I won’t go into more details. Things have naturally unfolded in the show.

It also helps to include a rookie (Paul Petersen) out of Texas. He has gotten a lot of glowing reviews at his steak house and decided with his minimal BBQ experience he could come in and teach these masters a lesson. He is a great chef. I have had a couple of meals at Rick’s Chophouse in McKinney Texas. He can really knock your socks off with a several course meal of steak and a great vegetable and wonderful dessert. He has learned (as Johnny Triggs told him) BBQ is not that. It really exercises a different set of muscles of cooking. We like seeing this happen. People at home may think it’s a simple thing. Thinking that may kick you in the butt.

DQ: Unknown facts about the show. Are there any surprises?

JM: John Markus is in the show for every episode.

During an early discussion with the executives with TLC there was a conversation about how to get the world of BBQ across to people who don’t know anything about it. There are so many subtleties to competition bbq as well as the art itself of cooking low and slow. TLC found a couple elements of the show a tad confusing and not properly explained. One of the execs during the conference call said we need somebody with the enthusiasm and the validity to narrate it. That’s when the name John Markus came up. They all agreed it was a good idea to have him explain. None of them knew that I was on the call with the executives.

Looking back from episode #6 we tried to give color and explanations on behaviors and strategies and dilemmas I provided this commentary. I am in every show. I help bring people into the tent and to be their BBQ Ambassador to the world. They were editing me in the show, and they asked how would I like to be listed.  Award Winning Competition Cook, Certified Judge, but what I really wanted them to list me is that I have received the order of the Magic Mop. They asked to leave that out since no one will know what it means. If we do enough of these shows I will make sure they know what the Order of the Magic Mop is. I also have the dream to show Ardie Davis to confer on some recipient the Order. I explained to them it’s like you are in England and you are knighted. They still want to wait to put it in the shows listing.

Additionally, I would like to show is Remus Powers administering the judge’s oath. He is a figure that looms large in competition BBQ.

DQ: Which competition was your favorite?

JM: I am a huge fan of the American Royal. I cooked it for many years with the Big Bob Gibson Team. I love the Big Pig Jig in Vienna Georgia. It is truly an old-world BBQ contest it brings you back in time. It is not mobbed with people. It is very charming and very traditional.

Truthfully this is going to sound like showbiz prostitution. I like them all. I like them all because when you show up at the contest and you get that tingle when you arrive. When our cameras and tents arrived, it was equally exciting every time. They all hold surprises. The traditional ones I love but these new ones I love too. I really like the Murphysborough contest for its daunting challenge, its location and for Amy & Mike Mills. True BBQ Royalty. That in itself captures the spirit of BBQ. The Royal for the spectacle. Dover for its great location. I just liked them all.

DQ: What were some challenges for the show?

JM: One of the difficulties of this show is that there are fantastic elements that are not going to be shown. We go in with 150 hours of tape and have to cut it down to 44 minutes. We have to find 44 minutes of story for the show. Some of our cast are not in each show. There will shows where you will go “where is Jamie Geer?” Then there will be a show though of this gorgeous Jambo pit and builder. Then there are people that have shot for us that are unfortunately not going to make it into the show.

DQ: Who does the editing for the show?

JM: Brian Catalina co-executive producer (show runner) produced the first season of Deadliest Catch. He really has the credentials of this task. He has marshaled armies of video and audio crew to get the ballet of the shot. Brian is masterful and he is strapped to the wheel. We have teams of editors who he commands. They begin to sift through everything. Bryan and I give them story lines on index cards for them to hunt down and find moments that service the story line. They all come from the world of reality television. (Survivor, Deadliest catch etc.) They are really well schooled in finding these moments.

I see things in a rough cut, to a fine cut to a locked in cut. I don’t get to see everything personally I get these great surprises when I see these videos. They are really skilled shooters and audio people to get it. I have become very impressed at the level of skill and resourcefulness that these reality crews have. They are up all night, with garbage bags covering their heads in bad weather continuing to get the shot… really they are underpaid. They give us their all. I am going to make sure on the day it premieres they will be eating Gourmet BBQ even if I have to cook it myself. I am moved by their commitment to this.

Brian has gone from knowing nothing about this world to bringing a thermal carryon bag and taking home BBQ leftovers. Everyone is getting a true immersion to this world. They all love it. They can’t stop talking about it. Everybody wants to talk about how talented and funny (the pitmasters) they are and how great their food is. That makes me feel so good inside. That a world they knew nothing about 6 weeks ago they now live. I also know some of these people will be competing.

DQ: Why do you think at this point BBQ becoming more popular?

JM: I think with the past year and a half the economy and the challenges we all face – BBQ represents a return a visceral comfort and simplicity of our approach to things. It is humble food and it is honest food. It really lands on several levels with people. It is also something you can do with your hands. With all of this falling down around you it is one of the things that can bring you joy. It can be done without a great deal of expense or sacrifice. I think the timing is right. It brings people together.

DQ: What does BBQ mean to you personally?

JMBBQ is the elevation of something simple and humble to greatness. It unites people. It’s community.

Much thanks to Dustin Smith Director of Publicity TLC and to John Markus Executive Producer BBQ Pitmasters series for his generosity in doing this interview.