Alton Brown shouldn’t be able to get away with his goofy show “Eat Your Science,” which he brought to the Saroyan Theatre on Monday. This leisurely paced, extravagantly self-indulgent production can feel like a stream-of-consciousness vaudeville act. But he pulls it off. Brown, the Food Network star of “Good Eats” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” tosses together a chef’s salad of stand-up comic riffs, silly songs, game-show-style antics, fun sight gags and a surprising amount of science.
The whole thing should fall apart. Or turn into a tasteless mush. Why doesn’t it? Because the show is all about Brown and his off-kilter persona, which blends good-old-boy effusiveness, nerdy charm and obvious intellectual chops. Some quick highlights from the one-time-in-Fresno show:
Brown doesn’t screen audience volunteers beforehand. The woman he brought up on stage in the first act to participate in a wacky mixed-drinks roulette, Michele Falk of Clovis, proudly told Brown he’d selected her the last time he came to Fresno. (Perhaps it was the feather boa she was wearing both times.) He was clearly nonplussed by this revelation (“Are you making this crap up?” he demanded), nor was he all that enthusiastic about Falk’s willingness to upstage him as she answered his questions. (Asked her favorite mixed-drink, she told him beer.) But as the evening progressed, he came to terms with her big personality and was able to work it into the show.
Sterling improv skills
Which brings us to the key to Brown’s appeal on stage: his ability to improvise. Faced with Falk’s snarky willingness to upstage him, he settled on a comic thread that generated big laughs. Her double selection “is a freak occurrence, unless she’s a witch!” he said. Time and again during the show, Brown’s talent of thinking fast on his feet turned ordinary segments into stellar ones.
When Falk played the mixed-drinks game, she ended up with a noxious combination: whiskey, fernet branca (a bitter herbal liqueur) and pickle juice. Sounds nasty. What he did to make it more palatable, however, was a big chunk of the “science” part of the show, as we got an entertaining digression on the wonders of nitrogen.
I was surprised so much of the second half was devoted to an extended act about popcorn, but Brown had no qualms about doing things on his leisurely schedule. In an attention-span-deficit society, lots of performers wouldn’t have enough goodwill banked with an audience to even get a chance to slow things down. But Brown firmly guided the show down an extended popcorn trail, culminating in a great big visual payoff, and all of it – the jokes, the nostalgia, the science – all seemed to fall into place.
A bit of news to reinforce: Regarding his popular show “Good Eats,” Brown said: “Just so I can put the rumors behind us, yes, I’m bringing it back.” (It’ll be an Internet sequel, reports say.)
What an ending
Want to talk coincidence? Not only did Falk make it up on stage for two Fresno shows in a row, but Marco of Fresno – who tweets as @therealwonko – also was a repeat star. In the last question of the evening, he asked: “Okay Alton I’m calling you out … Where is your nutmeg?” (It’s well-known among Brown’s fan base that nutmeg is a favorite of his, and he carries a whole clove around with him in his pocket.) Brown took the bait, and when Marco revealed from the audience that he’d brought along a clove of nutmeg obtained from Brown at the last show, the Food Network star called him up on stage, whereupon they exchanged the precious items.
If you want to get on stage in “Eat Your Science,” wear a boa. Or carry nutmeg. Or do both.
I’ve never even seen any of Brown’s food programs, so I didn’t walk into the show with any sort of Brown fandom-thing brewing. (Lots of people in the audience qualified in that regard.) So perhaps I was a little less willing to fall for some of his corny jokes and languid pace. The show started slowly for me, with an extended riff on being a “food god” going on too long, and it took me awhile to get into Brown’s relaxed performance gait. I would have been happier to get out of there in two hours rather than two and a half-plus. But I’ll admit it: I might have started out as a nonbeliever, but Brown would make a good missionary in terms of demeanor and ability to proselytize for his cause. Think about it: He has a preacher’s canny ability to size up an audience, tailor his message and make you feel like you’re part of a group larger than yourself, even if you’re one in an audience of thousands. (And he plays guitar and sings!) I might not have become a disciple by the end of the show, but I’m willing to put my appreciative review in the collection plate.