Thanks to The Interweb and roughly eight billion cable channels, even the niche-iest of shows has a chance to find its audience. This was not the case even 10 years ago, when there was very little hope for an offbeat show, unless you expand your definition of “offbeat” to include “Bill Cosby verbally torturing his children”. If a show couldn’t succeed in the strictly middlebrow world of network TV, it had no future.
Every now and then, a show with a cockeyed view of the world and a bold spirit would sneak onto a network lineup. Such a show would inevitably be either retooled or shuttled around the schedule until it suffered death by underexposure. These kinds of shows were, inevitably, the kinds of shows that I loved as a kid. I was attracted to complete lost causes–the television equivalent of a dog at the pound with one eye, half a tail, and the mange.
Some of the shows I’ve loved and lost were later lamented, rediscovered, and given a proper DVD release. Thanks in part to the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin , Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks has received the belated acclaim it deserves. There was a great series on the now-defunct Trio network, Brilliant But Cancelled, that highlighted awesome shows like EZ Streets (aka The Sopranos Before The Sopranos ).
There is one show I loved as a kid that has yet to get its day in the sun. I mean, I absolutely worshipped this show. This show should never have been made in the first place, because it had every odd stacked against it from day one. But if it had been come out more recently, I’m convinced that it could have run for 15 seasons or more.
The show was a The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley , a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for only one season (1988-89). It starred an animated version of the titular character, voiced by Martin Short. It also featured the voice talents of a few of his fellow SCTV alums Joe Flaherty, Catherine O’Hara, and Andrea Martin. And for an
extra dollop of crazy on top, it also featured Jonathan Winters.
Just soak that in for a second. If you’re a fan of The Funny, imagine that lineup of talent doing almost anything else–sketch show, Christopher Guest-esque improv movie. You’d trample an elderly relative to view it. Instead, this sequence of events occurred:
1) These comedic giants got together and decided they wanted to do a Saturday morning cartoon show.
2) This show was pitched to Hanna-Barbera, authors of some of the most mind-melting, idea-devoid, shit-tacular cartoons ever made (for Jabberjaw alone, they should all be shot execution style). And Hanna Barbera said, “Sure, that sounds right up our alley!”
Had such a team assembled today, and if they were still determined to do a cartoon, they would no doubt have gone the late-night Adult Swim route, or maybe even tried prime time. But Adult Swim didn’t exist in 1988, and The Simpsons ‘ debut was still a year away. Seinfeld was only a gleam in Larry David’s eye. It had been years since sitcoms like All in the Family pushed any kind of envelope. As far as comedy went, the public’s taste for the off-kilter in prime time was at an all time low.
So the cartoon was confined to the already-dying Saturday morning ghetto, and therein lay its fatal flaw. Most kids who watched Saturday morning cartoons had never even heard of Ed Grimley. The show’s humor was too obtuse to allow an entry point for younger viewers, and the kind of adult who might be inclined to watch such a cartoon probably never even knew it existed.
Therefore, I’m sure Ed Grimley ‘s audience was restricted to kids like me circa 1988: dorks not quite in junior high who loved Saturday Night Live and SCTV . And there were not nearly enough of us to save it from certain doom.
[NOTE: The YouTube account that hosted these videos was shut down many moons ago, so you’ll have to use your imagination. Sorry.]
It seems that NBC at least had high hopes for its success, if the merchandise they churned out is any indication. There were at least two Ed Grimley dolls; one talked, the other had suction cups to attach to a car window (years after the show was cancelled, I found one of the latter in a clearance toy outlet, and snatched it up). There was an Ed Grimley lunch box, which I owned though did not actually take to school (I like not getting beat up). There was even an Ed Grimley handheld video game, in which Ed had to avoid pianos and other stuff falling on his head.
NBC went so far as to produce special bumpers just for the show, as you can see here. Other cartoons got the generic bumpers, but Ed Grimley had several all to himself. This, plus the merchandise, leads me to believe that NBC invested quite a lot of money and time into this project, which makes their abandonment of it surprising.
While Ed Grimley aired, though I thanked the TV gods for letting this bizarre bounty slip through the cracks. It spawned lines that are quoted around my house to this day (mostly by me). My favorite bon mot: After Ed’s landlord and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Frebus, split up, Mr.Frebus tells Ed between the tears, “It’s all my fault, Ed–although I do blame others.”
I taped the show, because even I knew it was doomed. After a few months on the air, it was slotted into the 11:30 am time slot, which meant death for Saturday morning cartoons. That was the slot that could be preempted for any special event–Final Four pregame show, college football pregame show, Arbor Day parade, you name it.
I just dug up a tape with several Ed Grimley episodes on it from The Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives. I think the show holds up surprisingly well; a lot like The Tick, another Saturday morning cartoon that would have been better served by a prime time audience. The wordplay is crisp and rapid-fire. (Miss Malone: “I’m getting my roots frosted.” Ed: “I hope that won’t effect the harvest.”) Like a Marx Brothers movie, the plots are weirdly intricate, yet utterly meaningless. The animation isn’t great, but it’s rather good compared to other Hanna Barbera product from the same era.
I realize that a major impediment to appreciating this show is its star. A lot of people don’t really like Martin Short. A lot of people absolutely fucking hate him. I’ll admit the man is not the most subtle performer in the world, nor does he have great quality control when it
comes to accepting roles. I would argue he’s got a better track record than Dana Carvey, although that’s not saying much.
But if anything, Short is actually more subdued in cartoon form. And the fantastic, obviously improvised stylings of Jonathan Winters are worth the price of admission (even if that price is zero). Jonathan Winters is awesome, period, and if you disagree, here’s where we part company. He was the first absolutely batshit crazy comedian back in the 1960s, a feat he pulled off by actually being batshit crazy.
But don’t take my word for it, gentle reader. Below are links to two complete episodes that I’ve compiled for your viewing pleasure, which are indicative of the show’s overall structure and quality. Hopefully, this can spur someone at Hanna Barbera to get on stick and get this show on DVD. Just shove it in between one of the 6,742 seasons of Wacky Races . Surely no one will notice if you release one thing of quality, fellas.
And just for good measure, here’s one to grow on.