Pass the popcorn - and a whisk

Imagine a couple of rank amateurs with their own cooking show. Sounds silly, doesn't it?

Paul Gilmartin thought so when he and fellow comedian Annabelle Gurwitch were hired by the TBS Superstation to co-host "Dinner and a Movie."

Disbelief was the reaction of her parents, who greeted the news with uproarious laughter. After all, they knew their daughter's limited culinary repertoire, which she says consisted of just two dishes: fried chicken and deep-fried chicken.

"The original contract was for 16 weeks, so I thought, OK, I'll do those, and then this thing is done," Mr. Gilmartin says. To his amazement, though, the show's been a keeper. It's coming up on its 200th episode and seventh season.

Part of the success, as the name implies, is not kitchen-driven. The bulk of the time is devoted to showing a movie, which is interspersed with cooking segments that really give the show, taped in Los Angeles, its appealing pizazz and distinctiveness.

The movie, says Claud Mann, the professional chef who works mostly behind the scenes (see story below), "is the setup. The recipe is the punch line."

The recipes are often comically tied in with the movie. For "Star Wars" the hosts made Obi-Wan Cannelloni (as in Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi knight). For "Thelma and Louise," a film about a pair of female fugitives, they served Two Hot Peppers on the Lamb. And in a nod to the star of "Basic Instinct," they cooked Sharon Stone-Crab Cakes.

There are also dishes like Mobster Lobster Ravioli, No Spring Chicken, Soup on a Stick, Hippocratic Loaf, and Deja Vu Twice-Baked Potatoes. (See the show's website for more: http:// alt.superstation.com/DandM).

Gilmartin thinks the show succeeds, in part, because the comedy is improvisational.

He and Ms. Gurwitch do not tell jokes, but casually interact - and exchange jibes - as they chop, dice, stir, and season.

Viewers are sometimes unsure about the relationship between the two.

"We get a lot of people who ask, 'Are you married?' " he says. "Man, that's a sad comment on the state of marriage. I think it's because we're so honest with each other that people get that impression."

Although there's a mutual professional respect, there's also a tension between them that he believes is an asset.

"We aren't overly polite with each other, and I think people like that because it's kind of refreshing," he says during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "When you're reading stuff off a cue card, you never really have any sense of who that person is."

If there were cue cards, the taping might go much faster. As it is, to shoot half-a-dozen segments, none more than several minutes long, can take 10 hours. (The shows usually are taped in batches of six every two months throughout the year.)

Gilmartin and Gurwitch may have the toughest assignment in how-to television. Besides cooking, they must explain what they're doing to viewers, carry on an entertaining repartee, impart interesting tidbits about the movie, keep to the allotted time, and interact with the guest celebrities who often appear.

The hosts will read through a recipe to get the big picture, but they don't start cooking until the cameras roll.

"It's a crazy thing," Gurwitch says. "We don't rehearse. We go step by step. Right before we shoot, Claud tells us what we need to know for the next segment, since it would be too much information for us all at once."

The unfortunate aspect of this strategy, she acknowledges, is that she doesn't absorb as much as she'd like.

"I have so much to remember that by the end of the day it all goes out of my head," she says.

With so much to keep in mind, more glitches arise than would with a scripted show.

"The other week," an amused Gilmartin recalls, "I couldn't remember what sauteeing was. I'm on a cooking show for seven years, and I can't remember [sauteeing]."

Not all bloopers are cause for time-consuming retakes.

"We don't want to put out bad information, such as calling a cut of meat a leg when it's really a loin," says chef Mann. "But if Paul and Annabelle are in the middle of cooking something, and they make a mistake - maybe burning it - we'll let them go on, because a lot of people relate to that."

They may, for example, struggle to get the food processor top on or forget to have a needed utensil handy. "In the middle of a take, we might have to use a shoe to stir something," Gilmartin explains.

In addition to incorporating gaffes viewers can relate to, a conscious decision has been made to keep things unslick. "The set and the lighting look great," Gilmartin says, "but we all agreed that our show has a kind of done-in-the-basement feel that we like."

Using an unplugged blender for a fish bowl is an example of "Dinner and a Movie's" funky casualness.

So who is the audience?

Initially, Gilmartin says, it was young singles tired of going to bars. More women than men watch the show, he says, and now a lot of young parents who can't get out on Friday nights are viewers.

Gurwitch, an Alabama native and New York University graduate, falls into this latter category. She and her husband have a 3-year-old son. When the show airs early evenings in Los Angeles, she is often playing in the backyard with him or giving him a bath.

Although a cooking neophyte when she began the show, she says she is now comfortable but not overly ambitious in the kitchen.

"I love to cook. I'm just not very good at it," she says. "I forget when I'm home [that] I don't have Claud and other people looking over [my shoulder]."

She says she has only two cookbooks, the "Jewish Settlement Cookbook" her mother gave her, and "The Vegetarian Epicure," written by friend Anna Thomas.

She confines most of her home cooking to Sundays, messes up every pan in the house, and loves to eat out, since "fellow" cooks will sometimes roll out the red carpet.

Gilmartin, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Indiana University, brought a love of cooking to "Dinner and a Movie."

"I used to watch the Food Channel about every night," says the standup comedian, who still hits the road to work six to eight times a year and keeps a "number of irons in the fire."

He remains interested in food information, but not in food preparation.

"I used to cook quite a bit, and really loved it," he says.

"About a year and a half ago, though, I hit the wall. I literally haven't cooked [at home] since then."

***

The chef behind "Just the Facts Ham"

When the TBS Superstation approached Claud Mann, head chef at the Nicola restaurant in Los Angeles and graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, about a novel cooking show, they asked if he'd share what he knew - but not on camera.

His role was to be the phantom culinary expert, dreaming up recipes to go with various titles in TBS's movie library.

Mr. Mann was mostly an invisible presence in the show's early years, but he is increasingly used on the air. Although he enjoys the cameos, he doesn't have any desire to take it over.

"It's really fun for viewers to see two people who are not professional cooks, to see how they cook and explain things," he says of the show's comedian hosts. "I'll explain something to Paul in the way I would say it.... When he says it [on the show], it sometimes makes more sense then when I said it."

While viewers might find amusement in making such recipes as James Bon Bons, Bridget Fondue, or Just the Facts Ham, Mann's real objective is to impart tips and techniques.

"If you end up mastering a group of techniques, you can cook anything," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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