Last night, Pee-wee Herman was the guest judge on Top Chef. And I don’t mean that “Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee-wee Herman” was a guest judge. No. I mean that Paul Reubens in character as Pee-wee Herman showed up for the Quickfire and opined on everyone’s pancakes. Then he told them they’d be riding bicycles to pick up ingredients around San Antonio before serving him lunch at the Alamo. You know, because Pee-wee’s Big Adventure revolves around a lost bicycle and the supposed basement of the Alamo. And that’s really relevant because that movie came out in August of 1985, making this… no kind of anniversary.
But look: I don’t even care about the speciousness of the theme. What bothers me is thatTop Chef degraded itself and its contestants (as well as Reubens) by having everyone pretend that Pee-wee Herman was a real person. Never once did they acknowledge he was playing a character, yet everyone’s pained eyes told us they were straining to act like they enjoyed the charade. Let me break it down like this:
* The contestants suffered because they had to turn their legitimate art into a grotesque sideshow.
* Paul Reubens suffered because unlike other guest judges, he wasn’t given the dignity of legitimately engaging in a discussion of the food. Instead, it seemed like there were producers standing just off-camera with a gun at his head, saying, “Make a joke about loving beef cheeks so much you want to marry them!” Watching his flop-sweaty display made me feel nauseated, particularly because like the chefs, Reubens is a smart, talented person who might have had something more to offer as himself than as his character.
When Charlize Theron came on a few weeks ago, the show developed an entire theme around the fact that she’s playing the wicked queen in that new Snow White movie. The chefs had to cook her something “evil” and the food was served in a Gothic setting. But otherwise, people got to act normal. Charlize was just Charlize. She wasn’t cackling over the forbidden rice and pretending it was going to help her catch that poor young waif in the forest. That freed her up to have legitimate thoughts and interactions, which also freed up the chefs to be creative yet also professional. It was a great episode—one of my favorites in the history of the series, in fact—and its strengths were magnified by this week’s pitiful descent into the world of make believe.
* Top Chef itself suffered because the producers clearly ignored what makes the show work and what makes Pee-wee work. At its best, Top Chef is a savvy celebration of the skill and intensity of professional chefs. That is not an environment for a frantic man-child… or least not a man-child who doesn’t know how to sear a duck breast. And at his best, Pee-wee Herman lives in a world that mirrors his mania. He makes sense in a playhouse where the clock and the floor and the local cow can make jokes. His presence in the Top Chef kitchen is tantamount to going to your senior prom and noticing that one girl’s date is dressed like a clown.
This is exactly what happened on Project Runway: All-Stars a few weeks ago when the designers had to “create a look” for Miss Piggy. They acted like they had thoughts about her and her “style.” The judges had to fucking consult her about her opinions on the dresses. It was just so ludicrous and insulting, and it made me feel like I was watching a children’s show parody of my favorite programming.
And I’m not saying a faux guest can’t work in any context. Top Chef: All-Stars featured a Quickfire where the Muppets judged cookies, and everyone pretended they were real. But you know what? That lasted 5 minutes, and then the show brought in a real judge for the main challenge.
I understand that reality competitions can’t just keep airing the same old challenges, and I understand that the producers have to come up with something every week. They took a gamble here, and it didn’t pay off. But still. I couldn’t just say nothing. I couldn’t just pretend I was okay with that clown at the prom