According to Marc Summers, the beloved game show host, Food Network OG, and powerhouse producer, his whole career arc was a mistake. The magician and pizza fanatic went from a life of judging wet t-shirt contests and selling wholesale smoked salmon to being one of the architects of modern food television—but of course, he claims he's never worked a day in his life. Check out his conversation with hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner on this week's episode of the Eater Upsell.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 5: Marc Summers, edited to just the main interview, right here. For more from Greg and Helen—including the alarming realization that Greg defies the jingle's instructions and eats Kit Kats like a monster, an actual beast—you’ll have to listen to the episode in its entirety, above.
Marc Summers: I was in Florence, Italy last year and there’s a central market right downtown. I’ve been to that place several times. Now they’ve built a second story, and they put fine dining restaurants up there. I’m a pizza fanatic, and the best pizza maybe I’ve ever had in my entire life was up in that marketplace. So it’s becoming a global situation. I love it.
Helen Rosner: I didn’t know you were a pizza fanatic.
Marc: Oh my god, if somebody said, "Last meal?" I’d say, "First course: pizza. Second course: pizza. Third course: pizza." I just love it.
Greg Morabito: Are you pizza omnivorous or do you have a specific sort of sect?
Marc: Well, you judge it by the margherita. If the margherita sucks, everything else is gonna suck. But I’m also a thin crust, read-a-newspaper-through-it guy— as opposed to that ridiculous stuff they do in Chicago, which is this gigantic loaf of bread with tomato sauce on it. It just makes no sense.
Greg: Oh man, shots fired.
Marc: Oh yeah, I’m not a Chicago guy and I’m not embarrassed to say it. I just wonder if there’s any good thin crust pizza in Chicago. I don’t know.
Helen: There is! I’m from Chicago and I feel morally obligated to say that there is good thin crust pizza in Chicago, though I have no idea where it can be found. I’m sure somebody listening to this will be very happy to tell us where. I should know.
Marc: I’m sure, and they will tell you how much they hate me because I said it, but — it’s where you’re from, you know, but that deep dish thing, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Helen: I think that the people who sort of derisively identify it as a casserole are actually factually correct. If you think about it as a casserole, it makes way more sense as a foodstuff. But I don’t think calling it a casserole is a fair insult to it as a form of pizza.
Marc: As a Jewish person, we don’t eat casseroles, so —
Helen: Oh, but as a Jewish person from the Midwest, we very much do.
Marc: No! I’m a Jewish person from the Midwest! I’m from Indiana!
Helen: I’m from Chicago!
"For my last meal, I’d say, ‘First course: pizza. Second course: pizza. Third course: pizza.’ I just love it."
Marc: Well, okay, and you had casseroles in your house?
Helen: We had casseroles!
Marc: You must have been so reformed, it’s unbelievable. Did you have mayonnaise in your house too?
Helen: We had kosher casseroles.
Marc: No you didn’t.
Helen: We totally did.
Marc: Oh man.
Helen: Hand to god, kosher casseroles.
Greg: Kosher casseroles are the big 2016 trend that hasn’t happened yet.
Helen: Right, it’s gonna be my hot cookbook. Kosher casseroles.
Marc: Oh man. That’s frightening.
Greg: Well this is probably as good a time as any to introduce our guest today. It’s Marc Summers! You probably recognize that voice, you’ve probably seen him on TV some point over the last 40 years.
Helen: Uncountable, hundreds of thousands of times.
Marc: Yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time. Started on Romper Room in Indianapolis in 1956, and nationally the first thing I did was Truth or Consequences with a guy by the name of Bob Hilton who took over for Bob Barker. That was in ’74. Double Dare ran from ’86 to ’94, and I’ve been on the Food Network for 17 years. It’s pretty crazy.
Greg: Food Network for 17 years, so you’ve basically been there from the ground up, huh?
Marc: I think Bobby [Flay]’s the only one who’s been there longer than me now.
Greg: Wow. We were just talking about this a little bit before, did I see on Facebook that one of your food segments was trending last week? Did you see this from the Food Network?
Marc: I didn’t see that. What was that?
Greg: Maybe somebody just shared it on my feed. But it was some factory clip, which does not narrow it down —
Helen: From Unwrapped!
Greg: It was from Unwrapped, yes.
Marc: Yeah, and what was it?
Greg: Oh gosh, I can’t even remember. It was some kind of candy or something?
Marc: Boy, we’ve never done that before.
Greg: I know, I know. So specific.
Helen: I know exactly which one you’re talking about.
Greg: But I was just thinking, if you follow a million people on Facebook like I do, you get bombarded by so much stuff every day. But I was looking at the cinema of the clip and the way that it was filmed — it is remarkably close to a very popular style of internet video right now, the thing that’s taken off.
Helen: You presaged it.
Marc: I probably presaged everything because I’m old. It’s just fascinating that in the last week, I didn’t hear about that, but I did a Tonight Show in 1994 where Burt Reynolds and I got into a fight, and that was trending the week before. So I don’t know if somebody’s just nostalgic for Marc Summers stuff or something, but recently I’ve been all over the web. It’s weird. And as you know, you can’t control that.
Helen: What was your fight with Burt Reynolds about?
Marc: I came on the show, he was very angry at Jay ’cause Jay had been sort of cutting in his monologue to him, and I come out. Burt was going through a nasty divorce with Loni Anderson at the time, and I was talking about being a neatness fanatic and having obsessive-compulsive disorder and he said, "Who told you you’re a neatness fanatic?"
Burt Reynolds: Who told you you were a neatness freak?
Marc Summers: Who called me?
Marc: Uh —
Burt: I just said it because your back is to me and I was just talking to a back.
Marc: No, I can talk to you too, Burt.
Burt: Thank you. No, I was just wondering who told you that because —
Marc: My wife tells me that often.
Burt: She says, "Good morning, you’re a neatness —"
Marc: I’m still married, as a matter of fact.
Marc: And the next thing I knew there were two pies, and we got into a pie fight. Pull it up on YouTube. Your head will explode.
Helen: Do they just keep the pies off stage, or —?
Marc: No, that’s all a long story. They wanted to do a pie thing — this was when Jay was just starting the show — and then he decided not to, but when he saw Burt and I were going at it, you can see him say on camera to the stage manager, "Go get the pies." And people think that it was rehearsed. It wasn’t, it was all spontaneous. Who knew that that was gonna happen?
Helen: But pies became a huge part of your personal brand in the —
Marc: They did, because of a show called What Would You Do?
Helen: Which I was obsessed with.
Marc: Well, there’s a certain age of people that love that better than Double Dare. A guy by the name of Woody Fraser was a big pie fanatic, so we had the pie slide and the pie coaster and you name it, we had pies. And somehow I got attached to that. After Soupy Sales, it was Marc Summers and pies.
Helen: There was something to that sort of early-to-mid '90s programming for children — tweens, I guess, though we didn’t have that word back then.
Marc: It was more about families.
Helen: Yeah, but the tropes of vaudeville were kind of coming back —
Marc: It’s true.
Helen: Like Animaniacs had all these references, and you had pies on What Would You Do? And there were a lot of big hooks pulling people off stages —
Marc: We were doing shtick, you know?
Helen: Yeah, for nine-year-olds who had no idea what they were seeing, but their grandparents were so into these references.
Marc: It’s very true, because they didn’t know what a ventriloquist was or a juggler and they were seeing it for the first time. Meanwhile, it had been around for a hundred years. And I think if you walked down the street today and went to a 17-year-old kid, "What’s a ventriloquist?" They wouldn’t know. There’s no Ed Sullivan Show, and although there’s America’s Got Talent, people are basically singing or doing some crazy thing where they’re climbing the wall or pretending to fly as opposed to doing real show business.
Helen: But I think the first winner of America’s Got Talent was a ventriloquist. Why do I know this fact?
Marc: It’s true.
Helen: I’ve literally never seen the show.
Marc: He went to Vegas and he’s still there.
Helen: Yeah. So ventriloquism will never die.
Greg: It’s a very impressive talent. It’s kind of the ultimate magic trick, I think.
Marc: Yeah, which is how I started, as a professional magician.
Marc: Yeah, that’s how I stared my career.
Helen: Were you sleight-of-hand —?
Marc: Well, when you first start off, you do the typical pull-handkerchiefs-out-of-a-box situation, and then I started working the Magic Castle in Las Angeles and started doing stand-up — it was comedy-magic — and then the next thing I know, I became a regular at the Comedy Store in ’76. I started with Dave Letterman and Robin Williams and Jay [Leno] and Garry Shandling. Then I was doing warm-ups on television shows. I’ve had such a weird career. I started off as a game show writer and then I became a warm-up guy, and I was a magician. It’s just been crazy when you look back and say, "Wow, I did all those weird things!"
Greg: So what was your attitude? Was it just like, "I gotta diversify, I’m into many different things, so —"
Helen: "I gotta be funny."
Marc: No, it was survival of the fittest, quite honestly. I wanted to take over Johnny [Carson]’s place. When I moved out to LA in ’73, I said, "Oh, Johnny’s gonna be retiring soon." But little did I know that a thousand other guys moved out to LA and decided the same thing. So then it was a matter of, well, how do you make a living doing this? The Magic Castle paid me — back in the day, in 1974, I would do 28 shows a week. Four shows a night, seven nights a week, for $145. We weren’t being paid at the Comedy Store at the time. I used to host a wet t-shirt contest in Long Beach at a place called Big Jaws for $50. But back in the day, my rent was $125 a month at 13107 1/2 Moorpark in Sherman Oaks. You could actually live on a young performers salary. Now that same apartment is about $2000, so I’m not sure how you do it.
Helen: With a $50 wet t-shirt contest, you’d need a lot of those a week.
Marc: Oh my god. And I was newly married and just embarrassed to it, but I needed to pay the rent. My wife was a dental assistant making $400 a week and we were trying to save money, so you did what you had to do. But every Sunday I’d say, "See you in a couple hours," and I’d drive to Long Beach and do the wet t-shirt contest.
Helen: So how did you go from wet t-shirts to hosting children’s game shows?
Marc: It was a mistake!
Helen: Seems like a logical progression.
Marc: I was writing game shows for a number of years. Did a show called Fun Factory and one called Celebrity Sweepstakes and on and on. Doing stand-up, doing warm-ups. I always wanted to be in front of the camera, but back then the people hosting game shows were Bob Barker and Gene Rayburn and Art James. They were older guys. I’d go to auditions and they’d say, "Come back when you have grey hair and wrinkles," ’cause that’s what they were looking for. So I had actually gone in — here’s a little tidbit that I don’t talk about much. I had a friend who I went to college with, Laurence Milner, who was from Cape Town, South Africa and had a smoked salmon business. He was the largest distributor of smoked salmon to the entire continent of Australia, as well as to Harrods of London. He would come over to the States and bring his smoked salmon, and it was phenomenal. So I was unemployed one summer and I said, "Send me some salmon and let me go see if I can sell it." So I go to a deli in a place called Larchmont, and I opened up this three-ounce pack of smoked salmon from Cape Town, and they bought it on the spot. I called Laurence, woke him up at three in the morning, and I said, "You won’t believe it, but the first place I took it, I sold it." The next thing I know, we’re doing 80,000 pounds a month of smoked salmon to the then Price Club, before it became Costco. Then we got into Trader Joe’s. So I became the king of smoked salmon.
Then I got a phone call one day from a friend of mine, Dave Garrison, who was a ventriloquist who had decided he was going to move behind the camera. This was in June of ’86, and he said, "I got a call from some network I’ve never heard of called Nickelodeon. They’re casting for a game show. Why don’t you go instead of me?" And I did. They told me they had looked at a thousand different hosts and New York didn’t like anybody. I was the first to audition in LA, I had three callbacks, and I ended up getting the job. I said, "What made me stand out of the 2000 people?" And they said, "Well, when it came down to you and the last guy, you were pretty much equal, but at the end of his audition, he looked at the camera and said, ‘Do you guys want me to do something else?’" And I had looked at the camera and said, "We’ll be back with more Double Dare after this." I threw to commercial. They thought that was more professional. And that’s how I ended up getting the job that changed my life.
Helen: And you could’ve just been the smoked salmon baron of North America.
"Who would have thought that chefs would become rock stars? I’m friends with Guy Fieri, and walking down the street with him is impossible."
Marc: You know, honest to god, I could’ve been doing hundreds of thousands pounds of smoked salmon. And I know my smoked salmon, but what can I tell you.
Greg: So you hung up the smoked salmon hat, like, immediately, or was it a side hustle?
Helen: He was like screw this!
Marc: No no no, I literally walked away from King Solomon Smoked Salmon with Laurence Milner—
Helen: Do you still have the touch? Do you still order smoked salmon judgmentally wherever you go?
Marc: Oh, first of all, by color. And yeah, I can go in and tell you what’s got preservatives in it, and don’t get the farm-raised. You know, you really want Scottish, if you can get it, but you pay for it. So yeah, I’m still quite particular about my pizza and my smoked salmon.
Greg: Do you have a favorite restaurant for smoked salmon? Or appetizing shop?
Marc: Right here in New York, Russ & Daughters. I think it’s the finest smoked salmon I’ve ever had.
Helen: I don’t think there are a lot of New Yorkers who will disagree with that except for the very vocal Barney Greengrass faction who might come after you.
Marc: Yeah, which is good, but I always go up there and get whitefish and eggs or something like that. The thing I was disappointed about at Russ & Daughters was their latkes weren’t very good, in my opinion.
Helen: I feel like they’re great at seafood and not so good at the carbohydrate-area of things.
Marc: Yeah, I gave it a shot, but I’d go back for that salmon. And I send people there. I had a friend who grew up with me in Indianapolis who’s a big-shot doctor in Dallas, and he said, "Where should I go for breakfast?" and I said, "Russ & Daughters, it’s the only place."
Helen: That’s where you go. Did you ever have moments during Double Dare where you’re like, "Man, I should have stuck with the fish"?
Marc: Oh, hell no. Never crossed my mind once. No no no no no.
Greg: So Double Dare really took off, it was on the air for how many years, like seven or eight?
Marc: We went on the air October of ’86, in fact October 6th this year is the 30th anniversary, and then I think we went off some time around ‘94.
Greg: So why did it go off? Did the ratings go down or was it just a —
Marc: In cable you do a hundred episodes, you’re done. We did 525 episodes of Double Dare.
Greg: Oh my god.
Marc: So, you know, do you really need to shoot any more? It ran on reruns from ’94 until 2000, when they made an attempt at Double Dare 2000 which crashed and burned, and the rest is history.
Helen: I mean, it kicked off such a golden era of game shows for kids, right?
Marc: Oh yeah.
Helen: I think it was everybody’s dream if you were around our age to somehow be magically selected to appear on one of these shows.
Marc: Yeah, I did that. I did What Would you Do? I did a show called Pick Your Brain that I produced out of my company. So I was sort of the king of kid shows back in the day, and some networks should think about doing it again, because it’s lacking from this particular generation. They don’t see it.
Greg: So as you kept going in this world, what in your opinion were the most important things, as you were making one of these kid shows?
Marc: Do not talk down to them. Do not go in a squeaky voice, "Hi Bobby, do you have a girlfriend?" I never did that. I always thought I was hosting Jeopardy, and I always thought of the kids as adults. I made fun of them, they seemed to be fine, and they went to focus groups and they thought I was a big brother or some crazy uncle ’cause back when we started, believe it or not, I was 34 when we first launched, but the kids thought I was like 23 because I had a much younger look. Then I had teenagers and got grey hair and got shriveled up. But nonetheless, I just treated them like grown-ups and I was never condescending to them and I think that helped.
Helen: So you have kids of your own —
Marc: I have a 36-year-old son who is the executive producer of a show called Cutthroat Kitchen and —
Helen: We’ve heard of that, yeah.
Marc: I have a 32-year-old daughter who’s getting married in October and is a yoga instructor extraordinaire and is a singer as well and an actress. She’s done a couple off-Broadway shows. She’s quite talented, a real Renaissance lady.
Helen: Did working with kids in your day job bleed into how you parented?
Marc: Oh, I don’t think so. I was always a whacked-out adult and parent. I think my kids thought I was nuts. I think they still think I’m crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever been disciplined as a parent. Think about it: I was hosting Easter at the White House and my kids were running around in the Blue Room. I was throwing out pitches at Fenway Park. I flew with the Blue Angels. I mean, I’ve done crazy stuff and my kids were always right there with me. I just did the hundredth running of the Indie 500 and my son was right there. I just did a 2-seater ride doing 180 miles per hour around the 500. I’m 65 in November, but mentally I’m still about, you know, 24 or so. It still works.
Helen: Sounds like you were a cool dad.
Marc: I like to think I was. You know, I was doing the Today Show once and Bryant Gumbel said to me — that’s how long ago this was — "Do your kids think you’re cool or special because of what you do?" And I said, "I hope they thought I was special long before they knew I did television." You have to approach it in a certain way. That’s a fine line. You don’t want to be your kid’s friend and yet, you’ve got to discipline them. But my wife deserves all the credit. I’ve been married 42 years and she raised the kids when I was gone a lot, so she did a great job.
Greg: So how’d you hook up with the Food Network in the early days?
Marc: Once again a mistake! Everything I’ve done has been a mistake.
Helen: You regret it all!
Marc: It’s so bizarre. I was doing a talk show on Lifetime called Biggers and Summers and we got cancelled. Judy Girard, who was the boss, was the one who dropped me. And I didn’t work for about a year and a half, and that’s when I came out and talked about obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was a national spokesperson for the OCD Foundation, and I was working for Solvay Pharmaceuticals going around trying to convince people to get on Luvox. I’d done it for two and a half years, they were paying me very nicely, but I wanted to get back on TV, and I had this reputation all of a sudden of being this guy with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Somehow Howie Mandel got away with it for years, but I was sort of put in a corner. And I called up Judy. I was reading the trades. I gave a speech in DC and was taking a train up to New York and my wife sent me Variety and it said, "Judy Girard becomes head of programming for Food Network." So I called her up and I said, "Judy, I’ll pay you to get back on television." And she said, "I’ve just been here 10 minutes, give me a while." So she called me later and said, "We have no money. But we’re going to do a show on surprise parties called It’s A Surprise, do you want to host it?" I said, "Absolutely!" So we shot 65 of those, and I would say that on It’s A Surprise, the surprise was nobody was watching. So they cancelled it.
Greg: 65 is a lot of episodes for a show that nobody was watching.
Marc: Well, back in the day they used to pick up a lot of those things. So we were shooting crazy things. I was shooting the National Teen Pastry Championship up in Colorado, in some mountain town, and they gave me an hour special of Unwrapped that a guy by the name of Marc Silverstein had hosted, and they said, "What did you think of this?" And I said, "What A&E has with Biography, I think this show could be for the Food Network." So they put us on 10:30 on Monday nights. We crashed and burned. They said, "We’re going to move you to Mondays at nine. If it works, great, otherwise you’re fired." And at nine o’clock we caught on. The next thing I know, we’re doing an hour from nine to ten, and at one point we were also doing a game show called Trivia Unwrapped, so it was all Marc Summers all the time from 9:00 to 10:30 PM. I was the Guy Fieri before Guy was Guy. I was all over. We were the number one show for the longest time. You know, it’s nothing I planned and if somebody would have told me, "For the next 17 years, you’ll be doing food television," I would have said, "What drug are you on?" Because there’s just no way. I had nothing to do with food.
Greg: Food television seems like a very fickle thing. A lot of shows don’t work out. Why do you think this really took hold, and why do you think it was so endearing?
Marc: My mentor — a guy by the name of Dick Block, he’s about 90 years old — always said all TV shows are the same until the person says hello. If you like the way they say hello, you’ll stick around, and if you don’t, you won’t. So for whatever reason, I became a Dick Clark kind of guy. The people who grew up watching me on Nick and on Pick Your Brain then followed me over to Food Network, and they’ve been a loyal audience for all these years. I guess I was safe television. I was known for doing family-oriented stuff. I can’t tell you how many game shows that had dating that wanted me to audition. I would never even — I want nothing to do with those shows. It’s like being the executive producer of Dinner and Restaurant Impossible. It’s all real — although I get in debates with ridiculous websites — nobody believes this, but what you see is what you get. We don’t fake anything, and all I can do is tell the truth, and that’s what we’ve done and that’s why I think it’s been so successful. We did about 89 episodes of Dinner Impossible and—we just completed season 13—160 episodes of Restaurant Impossible, so we must be doing something right. I mean, Robert Irvine is amazing, he’s great talent, so that obviously makes it easier. But as the guy who has to oversee it, I just kind of feel—I have somewhat of the pulse of what people want to watch.
Helen: Was the decision to become a family friendly type person, was it a decision?
Marc: It was.
Helen: I mean, did you make a choice to avoid blue work and —
Marc: Yeah, I will tell you, there was — I can’t even tell the story, that’s how disgusting it is. I’m trying to figure out how I can do it. There was a game show that Adam Carolla hosted on Fox, a dating show, and when I went in for the audition, it was so disgusting what they wanted me to do that I literally got up in the middle and walked out and was going down the hallway while they’re yelling, "Where are you going? Why are you leaving?" And I yelled back, "Call Wil Shriner!" And then I get in my car and my agent calls me and he goes — this was back in the day with no cell phones, they were attached to your car and they looked like bricks.
Helen: Car phones, right?
Marc: Yes, the car phone, and my phone rang in about two seconds and my agent said, "What the hell just happened? They just called, they think you’re crazy." And I said, "They want me to do this sexually-oriented —" You know, you don’t go from throwing green liquids at 11-year-olds to talking about blow jobs. So I walked away and I just — I won’t even go to those auditions. Now they don’t ask me anymore, but back then — it was a conscious decision, absolutely.
Helen: There was definitely that era of like, "How gross can we make these dating shows?"
"You don’t go from throwing green liquids at 11-year-olds to talking about blow jobs."
Marc: Yeah, ridiculous.
Helen: And now the internet has taken over as far as being the most repulsive place possible.
Greg: People don’t want to watch dating shows.
Marc: Yeah, you can say anything you want on the web, so you don’t even need to do it on a game show.
Helen: Do you feel like the rise of the internet as a medium — it’s definitely changed the way that the Food Network has done its programming. How do your shows fit into that ecosystem?
Marc: Now when you go in to pitch a show to the network, the first thing they ask you is, "What’s your website?" They want to make sure you have a website, and how much do you tweet, how much do you use Facebook. It’s like, really? They want us to live-tweet during all these shows. Excuse me, I have a life? And it’s east coast–west coast they want us to do, and it’s a necessary evil that you have to use the internet, Snapchat, Instagram. You could spend your whole life doing that stuff, and I do it to a certain extent. But there’s also these idiot troll people who like to go on there and screw with you. "I can’t wait ’til your show gets cancelled," and it’s like, you’re living in a basement, you’re a mouth-breather, you probably work in a drug store for three dollars an hour, so shut the eff up, you know? It drives me nuts that these people do this and they have — look at Donald Trump, do I need to say more?
Helen: No, you can get pretty far being an asshole on the internet.
Marc: Yeah, apparently you can.
Helen: But you tweet pretty prolifically.
Marc: I do, and you know, I take no prisoners. Don’t screw with me. If you have a justified comment that makes sense, fine, but don’t just trash me to trash me. You know, I will stand up for my team, for Robert, for Food Network and anybody else that I need to, because you’re not gonna get away with that. Mark Goodson back in the day, when I was doing game shows, he used to refer to those people as mouth-breathers ,and he was absolutely right.
Greg: Such a great term. We use the word "troll" a lot, but "mouth-breather" is more evocative, I think.
Helen: It’s so physiological.
Marc: It is. You have a vision in your mind of what that person is: an unsuccessful, jealous person. Anybody successful in this industry has worked their rear-end off. Very rarely is it all luck. When you first start a career, it’s always 80 percent luck and 20 percent talent, but after you make it, it becomes 80 percent talent and 20 percent luck. So get out of your basement and try to do something. Good luck.
Greg: So as someone who has been at the Food Network almost since day one, how do you think it has changed people’s habits, in terms of eating out or dining?
Marc: Who would have thought that chefs would become rock stars? I’m friends with Guy Fieri, and walking down the street with him is impossible. Walking down the street with any of these guys, I mean, Michael Symon, Bobby Flay, Robert Irvine, Giada De Laurentiis, Rachael Ray. Good luck. I just say, "I’ll meet you at the restaurant" because it’s ridiculous, so there’s number one. Those people who have these great jobs as chefs now add TV to it. And if you ask Bobby Flay right now, "What would you rather be doing, cooking or being on TV?" He’ll always say, "I’d rather be in the kitchen," ’cause these guys are passionate. That’s why they’re good. But who would have thought The Chew would be on and so successful. There’s 19 shows on daytime television, and The Chew is the second-highest-billing show. So the hosts there drive that revenue, because people want to watch that stuff. I just think where initially people used shows a la Emeril Live to learn how to cook, it’s gotten to be about competition now. Certainly Chopped is a huge show. Not because my son does it, but Cutthroat has become like a game show with food. Very creative. We just did a Double Dare episode. That’s coming up. Wait until you see that episode.
Helen: Oh my god.
Greg: Yeah, the challenges are really elaborate and cool.
Helen: Wait, a Double Dare Chopped.
Marc: Double Dare Cutthroat Kitchen.
Helen: Double Dare Cutthroat Kitchen. That’s going to explode the internet.
Marc: You won’t believe what we did on, that show was — and of course all the stuff is going on where I’m upstairs in the dressing room. I had no idea what was happening and then I just saw the rough cut the other day. Oh my god. It’s a comedy show. It’s brilliant, what they did.
"I tweet, and I take no prisoners. Don’t screw with me. If you have a justified comment that makes sense, fine, but don’t just trash me to trash me."
Helen: Oh my god, I’m so excited.
Marc: So that’s cool. I just think people want to be entertained. Although I still think there’s room for a simmer-and-stir kind of show like they used to refer to them. I just think they expect more than ever before. And the attention span of people is shorter than ever. So are they going to sit there — Restaurant Impossible is 42 minutes of television. You have to make it compelling and it’s not necessarily easy.
Helen: I think it’s sort of shifted from educational television — instructional, here’s how to make dinner — to just —
Marc: A Julia Child kind of thing.
Helen: Right, to true entertainment. It’s gotta have an arc, it’s gotta have tension, it’s gotta —
Marc: All words that they use when we’re at Food Network.
Greg: And editing! We were talking with Ted Allen about how long it takes to edit an episode of Chopped, and we were like, "What?!"
Marc: It takes us a month to do one episode of Restaurant Impossible. Four weeks.
Helen: Beyond! That’s an extraordinary figure.
Marc: Think about it, we have four cameras rolling for two days, so we have 70 hours of video that has to be cut down to 42 minutes.
Helen: So do you watch other shows with an eye for their editing decisions?
Marc: Oh, absolutely!
Helen: Sort of like, "Oh, they made that cut there."
Marc: Oh yeah, or the pacing. The pacing is what’s important. What’s left on the cutting room floor, nobody at home knows. You sometimes as a producer go, "Oh god, I really want that to go in the show, but there’s no place for it," while people at home are scratching themselves, drinking beer, they don’t know that show had that element, so you kind of have to move forward. And what we’re always looking for is good characters. What’s the conflict going to be when Robert walks in the door and says, "I’m here to fix your restaurant"? Are they gonna like it, are they gonna hate it, are they gonna like him, are they gonna hate him, what’s the situation? And now, the last three seasons we’ve done ambush, so trust me: they don’t know we’re coming. What is it going to be like when Robert walks in? Are they going to go, "Get out of here!" or are they going to greet him with open arms, or is it going to be somewhere in between? And then does he have to convince them, and if he has to convince them, is that a good thing? It’s very stressful television.
Helen: With the ambushes, how does it work legally and release-wise, like how do you—
Marc: Oh my god, this has been the nightmare of all nightmares. So a family member or somebody who works in the restaurant contacts us, and then we do a Skype with that person to get all the details. Then I have a gentleman who works for me, Tony Delvecchio, who goes in with an iPad and eats and just snoops around and tries to shoot video. Where before we know everything about the people — we pre-interviewed them, we were in the kitchen, we knew what was dirty, we knew what to do — we don’t know that now. I’ve been killed the last couple seasons.
We just did a place — the refrigeration system didn’t work. When they opened it up, it smelled like the most disgusting thing I had ever seen. Robert always says, "You’re gonna kill somebody." Things aren’t up to temp and all that. Here’s the other thing: most the people don’t own their buildings. So we have to go and find out who the landlord is and see if they’ll sign the release that we can even go in the building, and then make sure that they don’t spill the beans. So that’s another issue, and if they won’t sign it, we have to move on and go to another place. If they do sign it, then it’s a matter of going in, surprising the person, and when they’re baffled and Robert has just come in, we stop taping and we stick paper on them and tell them to sign it. They hardly read it and they 9/10 times do sign it.
Helen: That sounds like a logistical nightmare.
Marc: It’s very stressful.
Greg: It sounds like you really want to preserve that element of surprise.
Marc: Oh yeah, I’m not doing fake reality. You can always tell when it’s not real and I don’t want to do that.
Helen: And wait, you did the surprise party show at Food Network back in the beginning.
Helen: So this is like full circle.
Marc: Yeah, I never thought about it that way. Those were some of the most bizarre things. We did one guy, his parents hated him, and I remember they walked in about a half hour before the guys were gonna go there and they go, "How long is this gonna take? Do I have to stay for this whole thing?" And I was going, "Oh this is going to be a nightmare."
Greg: It’s funny because most people I know hate surprise parties.
Helen: Hate, hate.
Marc: Yeah, that would be an understatement. And it would backfire on us. The weirdest one we ever did was there was a guy who, everybody in his family never made it to 65, okay? They always died before their 65th birthday. This guy was up in Long Island and on a volunteer fire department. The volunteer fire department was so excited. I went and shot stuff two weeks before on a fire truck, and did all the pre-interviews, and all that other kind of stuff, and then I was flying home. I was supposed to fly back next week. And the day before I was supposed to leave, the phone rang, and they said, "Don’t come." The guy died the day before his 65th birthday.
Helen: Oh my god.
Marc: Absolute true story, yeah.
Greg: That’s tragic.
Marc: Talk about weird stuff.
Helen: That’s horrible.
Marc: Yeah, horrible story, but a true story.
Helen: Oh my god, I mean I guess these are the perils of reality television.
Marc: That’s it! Oh my god, I could tell you stories, make your eyelashes curl. Let me tell you.
Greg: So right before we jumped in the studio with you, Marc, one of our colleagues, Dan Rubenstein, who also hosts a podcast and does many great things for our sister publication SB Nation. He came up to you because he was on —
Marc: Pick Your Brain?
Greg: Pick Your Brain, and —
Marc: Which was a show that I produced back in the day. TV stations had to do a certain amount of "educational programming." There was a company out of Chicago called Tiger Toys, and they asked me to take a toy they had, XXL, a robot, and turn it into a game show, which—
Greg: That sounds like an abstract dream.
Marc: It was.
Greg: Here’s a toy, turn it into a game show.
Marc: And I did, and Dan was on that show, and believe it or not, we used to give college scholarship money. That was the prize, $5000 towards your college.
"I just think viewers expect more than ever before. And the attention span of people is shorter than ever. You have to make it compelling, and it’s not necessarily easy."
Helen: ’Cause it’s educational.
Marc: Exactly. We would give every kid—first, second, or third place—would get a sweatshirt, and my daughter at the time who was maybe six would bring out the sweatshirts and [earlier today] Dan said, "Do you remember what university I wanted to go to?" It was the University of Hawaii, and I remembered, I came back from commercial break and I said, "Why do you want to go to Hawaii?" And he said, "’Cause of the women." Here’s a little nine-year-old boy, in heat apparently, and now I meet him all these years later.
Helen: Here in the Eater Upsell studios.
Greg: And he’s not in Hawaii.
Marc: And he’s not in Hawaii, he’s here in New York City.
Helen: But he did become a game show host.
Marc: He did! So, living the dream.
Helen: You made quite an impression.
Marc: I’ve inspired him.
Greg: I imagine that must happen to you all the time.
Marc: Every day, listen—
Greg: Every day?
Marc: I’m in Philadelphia a lot, so people come up and talk about being in the audience— ’cause we started in Philly, moved to New York, back to Philly, then to Orlando. And the best part is, they do Beer Week in Philly, and for the last five years, we’ve done Dunkle Dare. Drunk Double Dare. And it’ll happen the 8th and 9th of June. Nothing better than alcohol and physical challenges. People who grew up on the show can’t wait to get slimed and liquored up. It’s fantastic.
Helen: I think it’s everybody’s dream. I cannot count the number of birthday parties I went to as a pre-adolescent that had a Double Dare theme, it was just physical challenges. We’re going to make slime out of cornstarch and just it throw it each other.
Marc: It was never out of cornstarch, they never got it right.
Helen: It was the dream. It created such a locus of aspirational fantasy for my fellow 11-year-olds, all we wanted to do was go to Orlando and get slimed.
Marc: That’s funny.
Helen: It’s so bizarre and beautiful.
Greg: The slime — they should have a jar of the slime in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. It’s a cultural avatar.
Marc: It really is.
Helen: All anyone wants to do is eat it.
Marc: I know, and the original recipe was apple sauce and vanilla pudding and green food coloring. That’s basically all it was ’cause the insurance company back in the day made sure, in case it ever got in the kids' mouths, it was edible.
Helen: That sounds delicious.
Marc: So we made 100 pounds of fresh whipped cream and slime every day.
Helen: That’s so beautiful. I love that you embrace this huge part of your past and identity, and that the nostalgia isn’t something that you’re running away from.
Marc: It’s part of my life. Listen, I’ve had a charmed career. I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve been able to do entertainment. I was never a waiter, I was never a person who worked at Macy’s. Every job I’ve had has been in the entertainment industry from wet t-shirt contests to being a disc jockey at a place called the Hungry Tiger in Los Angeles. I have nothing to complain about. It’s all been fun.
Helen: Do you still do magic?
Marc: You know what, from time to time, I do magic. I just actually a year ago went back to my stomping grounds at The Magic Castle and did a week there.
Marc: And it was pretty frightening, but I called up an old friend of mine, Stan Allen, who runs the largest magic magazine in the world, Magic Magazine. We used to work there all the time together and we went back and did a week. It was fun.
Greg: So how do you rate your sleight of hand? Was that your thing, or were you more of other sorts of illusions and tricks?
Marc: I did sleights. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle. You have to do it on a little more regular basis, but I grew up having to entertain my children from time to time, so I would always do a magic trick. I would take—I can’t do this stuff any more — but I would put a napkin over there and make it disappear, that kind of stuff.
Greg: That was smooth.
Helen: Marc Summers just did a magic trick on our audio show. It was very visually compelling.
Greg: Could you hear the magic?
Marc: That’s right. But anyways, unless you do it on a daily basis like I used to, it’s not that easy, but it kind of comes back to you.
Helen: I thought that was incredibly magical, that totally worked for me. I have no idea where that wad of napkin is now.
Greg: All right well, Marc, now it’s the time in the show that we like to call the lightning round.
Marc: Okay! Oh my god.
Greg: So we’re going to ask you some questions and just tell us the first thing that pops into your head here.
Helen: So the first question in the lightning round is, when you’re at the airport, if you’ve got an hour to kill and $20–30 in your pocket, what do you do?
Marc: I’m generally on my iPad all the time. Airport food generally is horrible, although I will tell you I was just in Indianapolis, there’s a place called Harry & Izzy’s that is part of the St. Elmo Steakhouse and I always know I can get a good meal there. In Chicago it’s a hot dog, but I’m not hanging out in airports that much, so I’m generally on an iPad.
Greg: What is your go-to dish if you have to cook something, nothing special, just the stuff that’s in your house? What do you cook?
Marc: In LA?
Greg: In LA.
Marc: Okay, LA. I’m the king of barbecue. I love, love, love to cook outside and my wife doesn’t touch the grill. It’s all about me. I do a mean barbecue shrimp with a sauce that has tremendous paprika. I’m an old Hungarian guy. Chicken, and steak, I like doing salmon as well. I’ll do any fish on the grill, so that would be it.
Helen: How about in Philadelphia?
Marc: Philly, I eat out every night. I’m a whore. Every night there’s a great restaurant and when my wife’s not there, I’m just too lazy to cook, so I drink too much and eat too much out in Philadelphia, I do.
Helen: Speaking of drinking, if you showed up at the perfect bar, the bar in heaven, and the bartender is waiting with the prefect version of your perfect drink, what is it?
Marc: It would be Grey Goose vodka and fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice.
Marc: It’s unbelievable.
Helen: Where did you first have that?
Marc: In Hawaii.
Helen: Of course.
Marc: And passionfruit is maybe the most luscious, lovely thing to eat ever. Then we get the juice of the passionfruit, it’s even better. So Grey Goose and passionfruit. There’s a place in Philly that I can get that and I’m the happiest man in the world.
Greg: So you’re on a road trip. You’re by yourself. There’s music. It’s cranked up. You’re singing along to it. What is it?
Marc: James Taylor.
Greg: James Taylor?
Marc: Yeah, yeah.
Helen: Which era of James Taylor?
Marc: I’ve been following him for many years. I’ve probably seen him live 50 times.
Helen: Are you a Tanglewood aficionado?
Marc: Never been to Tanglewood. I just haven’t thought about it, but it makes no difference. Whatever city I’m in, if I find out that JT’s there — Harvey, our old announcer on Double Dare, had never seen JT live and last year I took him, got front row seats, just on the other side of New Jersey. So that was great. I think James might think I’m a stalker at this point. My music library on my iPad goes form Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, James Taylor, Jethro Tull, certain Stones songs, so I’m all over the place. And a lot of Broadway.
Helen: What my husband recently pointed out to me that "Sweet Baby James," which is one of James Taylor’s most famous songs, it is about James.
Marc: No it’s not.
Helen: No, but when he sings it, if you are not familiar with him —
Marc: No, it’s about his brother, Alex’s son.
Helen: Oh, really.
Marc: Who was named after him.
Helen: Oh man.
Greg: That album’s really good and kind of dark in places.
Marc: That was when JT was into a lot of drugs. I’ll tell you a really funny story. I called William Morris last year and I said, "Could I get some tickets for JT?" and they said, "Where is he?" and I said the venue, and they said, "JT’s not there." And I said, "He’s there." They thought it was Justin Timberlake, they didn’t think of James Taylor.
Marc: So that scared the living hell out of me. But I love James Taylor. I think he’s amazing. I mean, Sammy Davis Jr. was probably the most talented man in so many different ways, so I can listen to Sammy 24/7. I’m just kind of an old school music guy.
Helen: If you were not a multifaceted entertainer, producer, creator of all sorts of enjoyment and happiness for millions of viewers, listeners, and watchers across the world, what would you be doing with your life?
Marc: Whoa, there’s a tough question. I’m not sure. I always thought if I was going to be a chef, I would be a pastry chef because I always feel you should eat dessert first, and then, if there’s room, you eat whatever is left. So having been to CIA several times and spoken at Johnson & Wales, that might be one direction to go. People generally say teaching. I lecture a lot at colleges, and it’s fun but frustrating. I think the reason people who are successful are successful is because they have a passion for something, and if you go to a college and there’s 2000 kids in a journalism class, 1980 of them have no frickin’ idea what they want to do. I get frustrated with that and don’t have the patience for it. Maybe it’s my job, as a teacher, to try to build some enthusiasm, but I don’t think you can teach somebody passion. They either have it, they’re born with it, or not. My son was born with passion. My daughter was born with passion. And they followed their dreams, so that’s cool.
"If I was going to be a chef, I would be a pastry chef. I always feel you should eat dessert first, and then if there’s room, you eat whatever is left."
Helen: That is super cool.
Greg: Well, hey Marc —
Helen: Wait, no, I have to cut you off because I have one final, really really important question.
Helen: On What Would You Do? —
Helen: There would be this segment where you would go through the audience and find people and make them do their secret trick.
Helen: What is your secret trick?
Marc: I don’t think I have one.
Helen: You have to have one!
Marc: A secret trick? Wow. You know what, nobody’s asked me that. Good job, first of all. I always tell people when they ask me to do these things, I always say, "Okay, don’t ask me the same old questions," which you guys haven’t and you’ve done great. But my secret trick? You know, I don’t have one. Woody, the executive producer, always used to try to make me do stuff. He once made me do jumping jacks with peanut butter under my arms. I remember that. And the worst one he ever did, he took chameleons—back in the day, people would wear live chameleons as earrings.
Helen: This is not true.
Marc: This is absolutely true in Florida, so people with live chameleons—
Helen: Oh my god.
Marc: And those little sons of bitches had, you know, sharp teeth, and so on live TV, when you’re doing a kid’s show, you can’t yell, "Ahhh f—" I couldn’t wait to get that thing off me.
Greg: Why specifically chameleons? So that they would blend in or —
Marc: I guess so, I don’t know, but it was just the weirdest thing.
Helen: The 90s were the weirdest era, man.
Marc: It was, when you think about it. I mean, anything went. You know what, you stumped me for the first time. I have no secret trick other than I do magic, but I have nothing. Do you have a secret trick?
Helen: I don’t and this has actually been a huge source of anxiety for the last 25 years of my life. I would watch the show and I would be terrified that somehow you would appear in my life and ask me to do my secret trick and I don’t have one.
Marc: And you don’t have one.
Helen: I’m not double jointed in my shoulders, I can’t pull my foot around my back.
Marc: Yeah, people do weird stuff. Do you have a secret trick at all?
Greg: I can juggle?
Marc: Oh, that’s good!
Helen: That’s totally a secret trick!
Marc: See, that’s something I can’t do.
Greg: It never comes up, never comes up here in the Eater offices.
Marc: But you can do it, you can do it.
Helen: Well, Marc and I will be over here in the corner—
Marc: That’s right, watching!
Helen: People who can’t do anything except talk through a microphone.
Marc: But we’ve done so well so far.
Helen: Thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell studios, Marc Summers.
Marc: Thank you for the cookies and the water. I feel like I’m in prison.
Helen: Yeah, you can check out Marc’s all sorts of everything. He’s got a one-man show coming up that will be in New York in November.
Marc: We’re opening in New York, we’re locking up the theater right now, but it’s going to be in November. We did it at a place called Bloomington Playwrights Project in April and it went so well that we had an offer for a tour off-Broadway, so we’re doing it in off-Broadway. Go figure. So it’s chapter three of my life, who knows.
Helen: The Life and Slimes of Marc Summers.
Marc: That’s it!
Helen: That’s super cool. Go check it out, everybody. Marc Summers is basically the coolest person I’ve ever met. This is like the highlight of my life.
Greg: Yeah, thanks for hanging out, Marc.
Marc: You guys were great, I appreciate it.
Helen: Thanks for coming by.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin
Read more transcripts from this season of the Eater Upsell:Alex Stupak Only Wants Success on His Own Terms
Carla Hall Is a Total Badass, Culinarily and Otherwise
Ted Allen Explains the Hoax that Is His Career