So I Just Watched: Cake Boss

Ninth in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

Well, to be fair, I’m through just two seasons (of five?) as available on Netflix, so it’s an ongoing endeavor.  Why?  Well, some reasons!

There is a comedian by the name of Paul F. Tompkins, with whom I have been familiar for some time.  I first saw his work on the legendary Mr. Show With Bob and David, a mid-to-late 90’s springboard for a whole slew of emerging alternative comedians (in addition to writing, Tompkins made a few appearances, such as in this sketch where he briefly appears as an entertainer-for-hire, Champion “The Drinker”).  Later, I’m sure I’d seen him in other things, maybe a few clips in rotation on Comedy Central in the days where they’d chop up as many stand-up specials as they could and repackage them into those interminable clip shows.

Most recently, though, I’d become reacquainted with him through the intimidating world of comedy podcasts.  He is probably the most prolific man in podcasting, having contributed hundreds of hours of appearances across dozens of shows, as well as sporadically releasing episodes of his own, The Pod F. Tompkast.  There used to be a website that kept track of them all, but I believe they must have given up a few months ago, realizing it to be an exercise in futility.

So wait, what does any of this have to do with Cake Boss?

Well!  Ya see!

Tompkins will very often appear on podcasts as a character.  All his characters have begun as parodic portrayals of various celebrities.  Not a master mimic (that honor would go to James Adomian), but Tompkins picks a few key characteristics as his foundation then, through improvisational play over the course of an episode, spins the characters off in wild directions.  On Comedy Bang Bang, which is like the Grand Central Station of comedy podcasts, he has appeared as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ice-T, Werner Herzog, Garry Marshall, and   oh yeah: Buddy Valastro, Cake Boss.

Over the course of many appearances, Cake Boss had developed a very particular ‘mythology’, if you will.  In addition to randomly repeating his appellation under his breath, it has been learned that he has the ability to make living cakes and, after being bitten by a cake bug, has been blessed/cursed with the Second Sight, which allows him to see the moment of somebody’s death.  Anyway, that’s all a really long lead-up to saying this: I wasn’t familiar with the show before I heard Tompkins’s character, so it was a point of curiosity for me to watch.  I wanted to see what he was basing his core character on, what mannerisms and voice he was modeling.  So I started watching!

Cake Boss follows the basic formula of predecessor/counterpart Ace of Cakes: in-demand bakery makes elaborate cakes for high-profile events, we are treated to behind-the-scenes hijinks, drama as pressure from deadlines and other complications mount, and finally catharsis when the customers see their cakes at last.

Partly I’ve let it run as background noise at work and at home while I do other things, looking over now and then to see their progress, but between Cake Boss and Ace of Cakes, I like CB better.  As a personality, he’s more amusing (though not nearly as wild as Tompkins’s portrayal, but I do crack up whenever I hear the mannerisms and inflections that Tompkins latched onto).  As a cakeist(?), the work they do is more visually appealing to me.  Ace of Cakes abused fondant endlessly, but Cake Boss relies more often on modeling chocolate for similar sculptural effects.

I could be misremembering, as it’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode of Ace of Cakes, but I have no memory of them mentioning modeling chocolate (at least by that name). This is not to say that Cake Boss doesn’t use fondant when it’s warranted (such as for larger flat surfaces, and as a base for texture) but my recollection of most Ace cakes was, oh it’s just a flat foundation of sheet cakes with heaps of Rice Krispies treats covered in fondant. Cake Boss does more sculpting of a core of stacked cakes, as I am recalling.

Is one way better than the other, ultimately? Why does this matter to me?  Well, it’s a dumb reason!  But I think modeling chocolate sounds tastier.  Plus I think they get a much more cake-y candy look in the finished product versus the matte, clay-like appearance most of the Ace’s cakes end up with.

There is much showcasing of pretty straightforward and classic cake decorating techniques which, as a long-time reader of the blog Cake Wrecks, I have an appreciation for how simple things even can abused or ruined through ineptitude.  So it’s nice to see a positive portrayal of what’s possible without relying solely on fancy foodstuffs.

One thing I don’t like about Cake Boss, though, is that he has a penchant for merciless, borderline-abusive pranks played on his staff.  On the occasion of his sister’s birthday, for example, he ambushes her from within a fridge, rendering unto her a non-consensual pie to the face. In another instance, a cake was too large to fit in the onsite walk-in fridge, so it was left in the back of the van overnight when temperatures in New Jersey would drop sufficiently low.  To stand watch, Cake Boss (I’m not gonna call him by his real name, come on!) orders their delivery boy “Stretch” to sleep in the truck cab overnight.  Why does he agree?  As he laments, he has no pillow or blanket, and winds up draped awkwardly across two bucket seats.  Still, godspeed, he manages to fall asleep.  Only to be awoken in the morning by Cake Boss dousing his head with a bucket of cold water, poured in through the open driver’s side window.  This same lad was previously subjected to buckets of water and flour dumped onto him from the roof as he exited the building. Eff that ess, man.

Plus there was that whole making fun of transgendered people thing.

To bring it back to Mr. F. Tompkins, it is interesting that he hasn’t really capitalized on the weird dichotomy of a baker who on one hand delights people with whimsical cakes and treats, but on the other hand establishes himself as the patriarch of this weird, insular cake tribe by exerting a physically aggressive stance but turns around and laughs it off right after. If there’s a solid investigative documentary angle to be explored, it’s that as Carlo’s Bakery as a tribe with its own customs which may strike outsiders as overly harsh.

So we come to that perennial question: can we still enjoy an artist’s work when we find the artist personally detestable?  Maybe that’s a bit heady a concern for a show about fancy desserts.  But I will take Cake Boss, both the good and the bad.  We all wear many masks, and I’m sure I’ve done things which would not come across well if shown on television.  But then again, I am not being shown on television (to my knowledge).  Still, Cake Boss knows full well that he is, and if this is the face he wants to put forward, so be it.

Anyway, I find enjoyment in watching craftspeople ply their trade, so even the pop-documentary approach is acceptable if it generates a permanent (or at least lasting) record of an art which is by its nature ephemeral.  First, cake is inherently perishable, and second, though it would be possible to make a cake-looking sculpture, these cakes are meant to be eaten and we are in fact shown them being eaten in the show.  Some of them are pretty impressive bits of edible engineering, too, so I find value in it.  Do I rate it highly?  Not really, but it’s pleasant enough.  Were I forced to grade it on a scale, I would rate it three tiers out of five (which, as I learned from this show, five tiers would be an unusually tall cake).

Is the ‘real’ Cake Boss as enjoyable to me as Paul F. Tompkins’s portrayal?  Not by a long shot, but now the next time he brings that character out, I’lll have a fuller appreciation for what he’s working with.  Cake Boss:modeling chocolate::Paul F. Tompkins:people.  They each take these simple materials and, through extensive molding, sculpting, tweaking, and tuning, turn them into delightful, cartoonish things.

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