The Edge, a weekly sketch show, premiered on Fox over twenty years ago, back in 1992. It only lasted for a single 18 episode season and no one seems to remember it, but in hindsight it probably should have succeeded based purely on the talent involved. It had everything going for it: it was created and run by David Mirkin, who had put in a few years running Newhart, as well as working as a writer on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Tracey Ullman Show, and Three’s Company. He was coming fresh off Get a Life, the cult Fox sitcom starring Chris Elliott that ran from 1990 to 1992. Mirkin brought one of his Get a Life writers to The Edge, with Charlie Kaufman writing on both. Up until that point Get a Life had been Kaufman’s only credit. Six years later he’d have huge success with Being John Malkovich, and go on to write other films like Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman was far from the only one on the show who would go on to do big things. I mean, Mirkin had already done a lot of amazing things but it wasn’t until after The Edge that he got his most notable and lasting gig on The Simpsons. But, The Edge had more than just writing talent, the really amazing thing was the cast.
It’s hard to know how to talk about the cast of The Edge without just making a matter-of-fact list. It starred a pre-Friends Jennifer Aniston, a pre-Freaks and Geeks Paul Feig, a pre-Newman Wayne Knight, a pre-Mr. Show Tom Kenny and Jill Talley. Alan Ruck had already come down from his Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame, but he was about five years away from the career resurgence of Spin City. It was like lightning in a bottle, except all of the lightning struck years later in a number of other completely different bottles. And out of all of the names I’ve listed so far, absolutely none were intended as the draw to the show. Feig and Ruck weren’t even listed in the main credits (those spots went to James Stephens III and Carol Rosenthal). Instead, the show was created as a starring vehicle for Julie Brown.
You may not recognize the name now, but at the time it was big. Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve spent years listening to friends complain that MTV isn’t what it used to be. There’s no more Kennedy or Kurt Loder. The Real World went from being a show about the group dynamics of seven strangers to being a show about the group dynamics of seven people who know exactly what being on The Real World means. “Where are all of the music videos?!?!?!” But the reality is, as a man in his mid-twenties, I never really experienced what MTV used to be. By 2000, they’d already cut out most of their music videos. I never really understood what the Road Rules in Real World/Road Rules meant. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
MTV made Julie Brown famous back when MTV was still the thing no one under thirty remembers it being. If you happen to be over thirty, or just really care about these sorts of things, she’s also probably not the Julie Brown MTV you’re thinking of. That’s Downtown Julie Brown. This is Miss Julie Brown. She released an album, Trapped in the Body of a White Girl, back in 1987. It had gotten a lot of play on MTV and spawned the 1989 movie Earth Girls are Easy, which she wrote and starred in. All of that culminated in MTV giving her a show of her own on Friday nights called Just Say Julie. She played amazing videos, and the segments in between all came together into this mini-sitcom in which Brown played a ridiculous caricature of a valley girl. If you’re a fan of Jake Fogelnest and the Fogelnest Files, there is a pretty solid chance you know everything I’m saying right now. If not, you should definitely go back and give Julie’s episode a listen. When Just Say Julie ended in 1992, it wasn’t clear where she would end up but it was clear she was headed somewhere. In addition to The Edge, Brown had sitcom pilots at NBC and CBS. Neither of those ever made it past the pilot stage, but Fox picked up The Edge for a full season. It premiered in September of 1992, about seven months after Just Say Julie went off the air. Anyways. Enough context.
At least a part of the reason no one remembers The Edge is its focus on topical humor. Most sketch shows with any real staying power – The State, Mr. Show, Monty Python – steered clear of focusing too heavily on pop culture and current events. It’s much easier for a sense of humor to age well than it is for a news story. It seems like the key to remaining relevant and to delivering topical jokes is to just always be around with new topical jokes. Saturday Night Live has a new Weekend Update segment every week so we don’t have to focus on the ones from 1983. Mad TV was never as popular as SNL but it absolutely disappeared from the consciousness the second it stopped putting out new episodes. In 2015 it isn’t a selling point for The Edge that one of its big claims to fame was Aaron Spelling’s very public hatred for the show’s parody of Beverly Hills 90210.
Or at least, it isn’t as much of a selling point. Beverly Hills 90210 didn’t actually go off the air until 2000, and hasn’t completely disappeared from the public consciousness. The show is currently just far enough to be out of touch but not quite far enough to be irrelevant. Did you realize we’ve been making jokes about Mariah Carey’s high notes for over twenty years now? One recurring runner would check in on what various famous people were up to at that exact moment, and served as my barometer for just how much the world has changed. Sometimes it showed people like Paul McCartney who was famous thirty years before The Edge and will still be famous thirty years from now. Other names, like Buster Douglas, had me frantically taking notes so I could check and make sure they were real. For the most part though it was people like President Bush (original recipe) and Michael Dukakis that you remember as clearly being relevant then but haven’t thought of in a real long time.
The show’s other default mode, when not functioning on jokes-of-the-week, is definitely trying to play to Julie Brown’s strengths. Her claim to fame was her over-the-top valley girl character, and the show really draws from that well a lot. In fact, the show sort of just seems to really hate women? An early sketch has Brown and Aniston playing Guns N Roses groupies who (literally) can’t figure out how to count to ten. That’s more or less the case with most of the women Brown plays on the show (though I will always have a soft spot for her Madonna, who has run out of ways to shock people with her music and has taken to just poking them with cattle prods). It runs over into the writing for Aniston as well, like the sketch in which she plays a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model who can’t figure out the difference between right and left. The joke of the sketch is actually that everyone around her is talking about her art and her uniqueness when she’s just posing for the swimsuit issue, like a genderbent Zoolander. But the jokes about her intelligence aren’t as good as the jokes in Zoolander, and they feel meaner when pointed at a woman.
So, the show was at its best when it strayed from Brown’s MTV too-hip pop culture roots and just functions as a sketch show. The best of the “What They’re Doing at Right This Minute” sketches were the ones that checked in on Alan Ruck as “Bad Novelist,” writing things like “the rat ate the cheese like a rodent devouring fermented cow’s milk.” The same episode had a great sketch that perfectly straddled the two worlds, in which The Three Stooges stopped acting and started working as exorcists. In the opening of each episode the entire cast would run out to introduce the show and be killed in some new and bizarre way. As the episodes went on, the only words they’d manage to get out before dying would be an apology for dying the week before. It felt very much like something that could have happened on The State, or a version of The Edge with a better and more unified voice.
Sketches like “Bad Novelist” and the Three Stooges sketch are also the ones that aged the best. Or at least, the ones that are still easy to appreciate today. A recurring sketch called “Armed Family” followed a gun obsessed American family through their lives, as they ducked and rolled into each room. When a car tries to pass them on the highway, Wayne Knight insists they start shooting. His son, Tom Kenny, tells him not to worry.
“I recognize him from school. He’s in math club.”
“So was Son of Sam.”
Hopefully gun control isn’t a timeless issue, but it’s just as relevant now as it was in 1993, if not more so. Same goes for a sketch in which sex-obsessed Christian moms watch Body Heat over and over again to count the “crotch shots” they don’t want their kids to see. Or a sketch in which the new reality show The Exterminators is introduced “because it doesn’t have to be good or interesting, it just has to be easy to produce.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s a very real program on A&E now?
The Edge is not a gem that slipped through the cracks. In each episode there were on average one or two solid sketches, and a lot like “Cracklin’ Crotch” in which a cowboy inexplicably had a crotch that crackled like Pop Rocks. I promise, that sketch peaks at me telling you the premise. The show is still worth your while though, if only as an interesting artifact of nostalgia. It’s full of reminders of the weird shit from 20 years ago we’ve forgotten all about, and a look at the very different world that could have been. Watching Tom Kenny interact with Jennifer Aniston is a bit unnerving. As is the idea of Jennifer Aniston as the “young attractive girl we can use to fill roles.” But the weirdest part of watching The Edge?
Wayne Knight really should have been a famous sketch comic. He’s actually pretty awesome at it.
Cass is a Canadian comedy writer of very little note. He recently started publishing his own magazine, Bad Movies, which you can find here.