The fact that Alton Brown can both sing and play the guitar—skillfully, engagingly, with the easy, practiced stage presence of a lifelong musician—was somehow the least surprising element of the TV personality's live Edible Inevitable show Saturday at the University of Houston's Cullen Performance Hall.
For one, I didn't expect the audience fluffer to be a belching, farting trio of sock puppets projected onto a large screen above the stage; my girlfriend cackled to my right as we listened to a symphony of flatluence and other gastric gasses bounce off the elegant Art Deco walls of the auditorium. As if on cue, a man somewhere to our right burped his own loud, cheerful approval of the opening act (yeast, Brown later explained, expelling CO2). But perhaps I should have expected an irreverant warm-up from Brown, whose own cheeky brand of smart, studied irreverence have made him a household name. If you didn't watch Good Eats when it was on, my God man, what were you even doing with your life?
As such, his live show—which began its tour in Athens, GA near Brown's hometown of Marietta, and traveled to 60 cities in two countries before wrapping up here in Houston Saturday night—was riddled with Food Network pokes and inside jokes, from an impressive rap session (yes, Brown rapped...complete with a gold-plated donut hanging from a thick chain around his neck and a Run DMC-style black fedora on his head) skewering "TV chefs" such as Gordon Ramsey and Emeril Lagasse to a dead-on imitation of Giada de Laurentiis, seductively licking sauce from his fingers and aiming heavy-lidded stares into the audience that resonated on several levels at once: hilarious, absurd, creepy, uncomfortable, then veering back into hilarious the longer it went on.
Such is the appeal of Brown unchained, as was the aim of this live show. As Brown himself said early on, the show was conceived as a way for him to discuss and do (and sing...and rap) the things that he can't do on television. You get the sense from watching Brown on TV that he's slightly deranged in that charming, mad scientist way, one pivot away from being totally unhinged. On stage, you realize that not only is Brown even more engaging in person—even on the tail end of an incredibly long tour—but that you may have been right all along. Especially when you hear him tell a story about serving his pre-teen daughter's slumber party guests fried chicken feet instead of the requested chicken fingers ("Chickens don't have fingers!" Brown roars) or when you watch his production team unveil the legendary Mega Bake Oven.
The Mega Bake is the inspired creation of Brown's youth, when he destroyed his own hard-won Easy Bake Oven by being, in his words, "too greedy." Years after melting its innards by using a 150-watt bulb trying to cook a steak, Brown has recreated the ultimate Easy Bake Oven that's the utter apotheosis of what a frustrated, manic, hyper-intelligent child would make as an adult with access to metal welders and the cash required to purchase 54 high-powered theater lights, and then have those welders fuse them into a giant oven with a conveyor belt threaded through the middle, which reaches upwards of 800 degrees. The 54,000-watt oven will cook a pizza in three minutes, as Brown demonstrates by grabbing an audience member and making pizzas on stage, then compelling the audience member into powering the conveyor belt herself by way of a giant wooden ship's wheel. The whole exercise is so gleefully manic and over-the-top that you get a sort of contact high just by witnessing Brown's enthusiasm for it; if you didn't leave his show wanting to learn how to make your own Easy Bake oven—or, more dangerously, the CO2 fire extinguisher set-up Brown used to create force-carbonated ice cream from chocolate milk in 60 seconds flat—you weren't paying attention.
And that's ultimately what Brown wants us to do: pay attention. Not just to him, but to the really important things: what we're feeding our kids, how we're consuming our food, how we're consuming food media, why we should be interested in food, and when to realize that food-as-entertainment has crossed the line from thoughtful, instructive and educational to vapid, derivative and pointless. Brown is solidly in the former camp, though that camp is increasingly enroached upon by the latter.
Early on in the show, Brown describes children as "tiny terrorists," whose preference for the pablum on restaurant children's menus is one of the reasons America is faced with the dual problems of rising childhood obseity levels and the corresponding rise in "unsophisticated, picky eaters," as the National Post's Adam McDowell recently referred to those tiny terrorists in a damning article called—appropriately enough—"Death to the Chicken Finger." In his live show, Brown postulates the same theory he always has: that food (and food-as-entertainment) can be enjoyable and fun, but it can be substantive and nutritious at the same time. The release of laughing hysterically is as welcome as the rush of knowledge Brown directs at you with bright, sharp intensity. The right food—and the right entertainer—can not only satisfy you, he can nourish your very soul, even as sock puppets fart gleefully in the distance.