John Markus (photo by Ken Goodman)
A Stanford University grad, an Emmy award-winning sitcom writer, and a BBQ pitmaster walk into a bar, and … it saddens me to report this joke set-up has no punchline. Perhaps I should have requested a little help from the man who — in a rare turn of bar joke events — embodies all three of these characters, the man who began writing comedy at age 16 and whose résumé is about as diverse as it gets (and he's not done yet). Perhaps I should have asked John Markus for some comedic assistance.
During his college years at Stanford, the English literature major wrote material for legendary comics such as Bob Hope and Joan Rivers, using his talent with words in a much different way than his family expected.
“I studied English literature because I promised my parents I would become a lawyer, which was a lie,” says Markus.
Post graduation in 1978, Markus moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote for a revival of the animated show Mighty Mouse, and eventually for shows like Working Stiffs, Gimme a Break! and Taxi. Later, in 1984, the London, Ohio, native packed his bags for the Big Apple to join the original writing staff of a little sitcom called The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 until 1992.
Markus co-wrote 67 Cosby episodes, earning an Emmy, a Peabody and a People's Choice Award for “The Greatest Sitcom of All Time” — now drawing attention because of the tarnished reputation of its star, Bill Cosby.
In recent years, Markus, a barbecue connoisseur, has been the producer for the last six seasons of Destination America's docu-reality series BBQ Pitmasters, which features Richmond's own Tuffy Stone, owner of Q Barbeque.
“Tuffy Stone has been a mentor to me in the world of barbeque,” Markus says of one of his many ties to the River City.
Of his initial infatuation with all things pulled pork, Markus says his “interest in barbecue was about learning to make it, trying to get as close to duplicating what Southern pitmasters can do.”
It wasn't until four-time world champion pitmaster and mentor Chris Lilly suggested that competition barbecue might make good television that Markus combined his passion for entertainment and what he calls his “hobby in need of an intervention” in creative pursuit.
“The TV part of my hobby just grew out of it naturally,” he says. “Truth is, sometimes television can turn something you love into something you don't love.”
While that may be true, it certainly wasn't the case for the entertainment Renaissance man, who directed the documentary The Kings of BBQ: Barbecue Kuwait, where a partnership with the USO enabled five of the world's greatest pitmasters to bring roughly 5,000 stationed troops a saucy taste of home. The film will be released online by the end of 2015.
Markus' latest role as stage director brought him to Richmond, where rehearsals are under way for a production of The Fabulous Lipitones at Virginia Repertory Theatre’s Hanover Tavern.
A previous trip to Richmond and a fortunate series of events eventually paved the way for his original play to come to the capital city.
Emily Skinner, a Tony award-nominated actress who starred in Virginia Rep’s production of Mame last year, had seen The Fabulous Lipitones and handed the play to Phil Whiteway and Bruce Miller, the company’s managing and artistic directors, Markus says.
“After they read it, I came to see Emily star in Mame and met with those guys, and they extended an offer to do the play at Hanover. That visit to Richmond was definitely a win/win."
Markus and longtime friend Mark St. Germain co-wrote The Fabulous Lipitones, a four-person comedy play in which the lead singer of a barbershop quartet dies after hitting a fatal high B-flat and is unexpectedly replaced by a young, turban-clad Sikh.
“Mark’s approach is very much rooted in the theater, and so we have different perspectives, but we are really united in what we think is funny,” Markus says of St. Germain, whom he describes as a “writer's writer” who “cares really deeply about the craft of structuring a story.”
Markus will direct an entirely new four-person cast, of which three members — Joe Pabst, Ford Flannagan and Steve Boschen — are from the Richmond area. The fourth, Levin Valayil, hails from New York.
Fresh off directing the play in Los Angeles, Markus looks forward to working with actors who will play the Lipitones roles for the first time, and he sees the new cast as a fundamental difference between television and theater.
“Each of the productions are quite different because all actors bring their own personalities to the work,” he says. “Every new cast member has their own spin on things, their own style, which makes directing it fun.”
Unique to Markus is his ability to employ comedic storytelling as a vehicle for a profound cultural statement. He seeks to achieve this sort of subtlety in The Fabulous Lipitones by creating relatable characters that the audience are not only entertained by, but also moved by.
“In the Lipitones, the characters are so relatable, and their foibles and their dilemmas are so enjoyable that people don't know until it's over that they've actually seen a story about tolerance,” he explains.
Markus describes The Fabulous Lipitones as a “promise of the American melting pot,” that challenges the audience to examine their first impressions of another person and to “keep tabs on how we judge other people.”
“I'm not saying that judgment is a bad thing. I'm saying that openness and the chance to allow yourself to fairly look at another person's humanity is really important,” he says of the story's message.
The show will make its Richmond debut at Hanover Tavern on Sept. 18, and will play on until Oct. 25.
Just in time to welcome the world to Richmond for the UCI Road World Championships, Markus will host a BBQ event with Tuffy Stone appropriately titled “Championship Ribs” at Legend Brewing Co. on Sept. 20 — yet again marrying two ardent passions with near perfect, barbershop quartet-esque harmony. (Tickets will be $65, including rib fixings and beer; the event will take place from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and will be limited to 100 people. Proceeds benefit Virginia Rep. For details or to purchase tickets, call 282-2620 or visit virginiarep.org.)