The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.
What if David Letterman produced a show featuring a guy from The State, one of the funny actors from Modern Family, and the Mac from those Mac vs. PC ads? Well, actually, he did make a show that met every requirement of that very specific rhetorical question. The show was called Ed, and while it may be one of the newest examples to be examined here in From the Archives, its lack of DVD release and reruns has made it a largely forgotten show. Today we’re going to examine the pilot episode of Ed (Technically. More on that in a minute.) and look at what made it special and possibly what made it cancelled.
When Ed premiered in October of 2000, the television landscape was a very different thing. With the exception of the second season of Survivor, Fox’s Temptation Island, and the five nights a week of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, there are no reality shows, leaving the schedule much more open for scripted television. Ed is a little hard to classify as a television show: there are signs that it’s a drama, such as the fact that it’s an hour long, it talks a lot about feelings, and deals with trying to learn to love again after being trapped in bad relationships. On the other hand, the premise, in which the titular character buys a bowling alley and runs a law practice out of it in his hometown in an attempt to woo the girl he had a crush on in high school, is insane. So let’s go with “dramedy.”
For me, it’s the tone of the show that truly sets the show apart from any other comedy from its time. The popular comedies of 2000 like Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond are witty quip-fests with loud, sometimes abrasive characters arguing their way through the day, in front of their live studio audiences. Ed couldn’t be more different. In the pilot, Ed leaves New York City (where the friends from Friends live!) after getting fired from his attorney job, and finding his wife cheating on him with a mailman (not the mailman). His hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio is a bit of a Mayberry. Things move slower (the comedy takes half an hour longer to get through), the conflicts are quieter, and the problems are smaller. There’s a constant vibe of positivity in Ed, and the constantly smiling face of actor Tom Cavanaugh reinforces that feeling. Rather than get discouraged, Ed is the type of guy who would look at a defeat and say “well, I’ll get ‘em next time.” It’s a feeling that feels more at home in the early days of television than 2000, and certainly wouldn’t feel right in the sardonic, meta, and detached post-9/11 world of comedy.
Once in Stuckeyville, Ed tracks down Carol Vessey, his high school love, played by the wonderful Julie Bowen, who is now a teacher. The bad news is that she’s dating Nick Stanton who, when Ed went to high school, was the cool teacher. Now he’s just the bad guy. Somehow Ed convinces Carol to go to the bowling alley with him, and after a lovely night together, she kisses him and to have something to keep him in town, he buys the bowling alley.
Now here’s something interesting about the first episode of this show: all of that backstory? From Ed getting fired in NYC to him buying the bowling alley? That’s given to the audience in two minutes. It feels like they squeezed the pilot episode into the first two minutes (with somebody doing voice over that never appears again) and they use the rest of the episode to just pick up where they left off. That’s because that’s exactly what they did. Instead of recasting a few of the roles and reshooting the pilot, the producers decided to just cut together the important pieces from the first episode and make that part of the real first episode. It’s a lot of information to pick up at once, and it kind of feels like you accidentally missed the first episode, but it works!
Though it’s a pretty great group of people, perhaps the most notable member of the cast to the readers of this site is Mr. Michael Ian Black. Prior to Ed, Black might have been known from MTV’s The State, Comedy Central’s Viva Variety, and the voice of the spokesockpuppet for Pets.com, but this was his first sustained chance to appear on national television week after week. On Ed, Michael plays Phil Stubbs, the lovable loser who works and lives in Ed’s bowling alley. He speaks with a bit of a surfer/dumb guy voice and when he speaks he proposes things like his suggestion to save the bowling alley: “We fill the place with whores. Fun, singing whores like in that Dolly Parton movie.” His character is one of the few who is there purely for comic relief, and if he feels Feelings (capital letter is intentional) like the others, he certainly doesn’t talk about them.
Also in the show, though just barely in the first episode, is Justin Long, who plays Warren, the super shy, nerdy kid who has a crush on his English teacher, Carol. His moment to shine in the pilot comes when he is in class, dramatically performing Shylock’s big monologue from Merchant of Venice, when Ed, who is making a grand dramatic gesture of delivering flowers dressed in a full suit of medieval armor, interrupts him. Flustered, but desperate for the attention from his teacher, Warren tries to keep going, despite the massive distraction. While he makes only a quick appearance in the pilot, it’s clear Justin is able to play nerdy, which obviously led to his most recent role as King Nerd in FunnyorDie’s Steve Jobs biopic.
Despite the lazy, sunny tone, the show does surprise the audience with some genuinely funny jabs throughout the episode. When Ed is convinced to take a case as a lawyer, the defending attorney begins to fan himself with his straw boater, and speak in a stereotypical Southern drawl. “Yaw honor. The prosecution has hired a big, fancy New Yawk Citeh lawyer…” He is then cut off by the judge who tells him to drop the bit and he returns to his normal Ohio accent. Or when Michael Ian Black’s character surprises Ed with a “free legal advice with bowling” promotion and makes a fake diploma that reads “Ed Dershowitz Graduated from Lawyer University.” Ed is very quick to point out to everyone that that is not his last name. Though it’s very different from their previous work as writers on Letterman’s program, creators Jon Beckerman and Rob Burnett bring some of that show’s sensibility to their dramedy.
Ed never made a great splash in the ratings in its four seasons on NBC, but it did have some very loyal fans, which makes it surprising that it is nowhere to be found today, besides the Paley Center. While it’s not the edgiest of programs, it did have it’s own style and brought something fresh to television that really hasn’t had an equivalent since. Ed may not have been for everyone, but it did what it did well, and was truly something special.