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It's prime time for 'Late Show' writers

Sunday, October 08, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Whether you love or hate your boss, most people want to please the head honcho. Squirrel Hill native Jon Beckerman is no different. Except in one way: He has to make the big guy laugh. His boss is David Letterman.

Tv Review


Beckerman, a 1987 graduate of Shady Side Academy, worked on "The Late Show With David Letterman" writing staff from 1992 until March, when he and Rob Burnett created "Ed," a new comedy-drama premiering tonight at 8 on NBC.

Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, produces "Ed," and Dave himself is one of the show's executive producers, giving notes on scripts and contributing dialogue.

Actually, Burnett and Beckerman didn't just create "Ed." They've been working on it for almost four years, first as a script for a CBS half-hour comedy, then as a one-hour CBS pilot called "Stuckeyville."

When CBS passed, NBC picked up the project, filmed a new pilot in the spring, changed the title to "Ed" and scheduled the show for a fall premiere.

In "Ed," the show's namesake (played by Tom Cavanagh) returns to his home town of Stuckeyville -- somewhere in the Midwest -- after he gets fired by a Manhattan law firm and discovers his wife cheating on him with the mailman. Once home in Stuckeyville, Ed Stevens falls in love anew with the prettiest girl in his high school class, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), and one fleeting kiss leads him to buy the town bowling alley (called Stuckeybowl) and set up a law practice inside.

Viewers watching "Ed" are treated to a law show, a relationship drama and the crazy personalities attendant with small-town life. Not surprisingly, the show is drawing favorable comparisons to "Northern Exposure" for its blend of sweet romance (the Ed-Carol relationship parallels the Joel-Maggie mating dance on "Exposure") and off-the-wall humor -- although "Ed" puts a greater priority on the off-the-wall elements.

"The thing Dave has taught us is that we hate cliche humor," Beckerman said in July, after an NBC news conference in Pasadena, Calif. "Every time we write a joke or think of a situation, if it feels like something we've seen a lot of, we steer clear of it. We just imagine Dave rolling his eyes."

As head writer for a year on "The Late Show," Beckerman was on the receiving end of Dave's rolling eyes on occasion.

"He's a perfectionist. He's very selective about his own sensibility, and if it doesn't feel like him, he won't do it," Beckerman said. "I give him credit for that. That's why he is where he is. To me there's nobody funnier, certainly that I've ever met, and it's nice to imagine him enjoying the stuff we're doing."

Burnett, who has worked with Letterman for 15 years, agreed that the talk show host's comedic instincts are always in mind. "As much as I love the folks at NBC, as much as I love [TV critics], when we're sitting at the typewriter, there's only one person who we care about making laugh, and that's Dave," he said. "That's the truth, because that's what we've been doing for our whole lives."

That's especially true for Beckerman. After graduating from Harvard in 1991 (he was president of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon), Beckerman wanted to try his luck at TV comedy writing.

"I moved to New York after graduating, hoping to write for Dave, and a distant second choice would have been 'Saturday Night Live,' " Beckerman said.

He sent submissions to both shows, heard back from Letterman's then-head writer, and, nine months later, a position opened on Letterman's staff. "I started as a writer as a young guy and just sort of stayed there."

That puts Beckerman in an enviable position: Now 31, he achieved his career goal eight years ago.

"I have nothing to look forward to," he said with the timing you'd expect from a comedy writer. "This is kind of it."

For an encore, he and Burnett created "Ed" and now bear all the responsibility.

"This is the first time for me where there's no one to blame if things go wrong," Beckerman said. "At 'The Late Show,' even when I was head writer, you had David Letterman, and if you give him garbage on a given night because you didn't get your job done, he can still go out there and do an amazing show and sometimes it's a better show. On this, there's really nobody but me and Rob who can make this thing succeed or fail. For the first time, it's purely our creative vision we're trying to shove down America's throats, whereas before we went to work for a show that was established."

If "Ed" fails, it won't likely be for creative reasons. The series is getting positive reviews, but it's stuck in an unforgiving time slot, opposite "Touched by an Angel" on CBS and "The Simpsons" on Fox.

"I can't say I'm thrilled about that because it means I, as a viewer, would have to try to decide which one to watch," Beckerman said of the decision many viewers will face between watching "The Simpsons" or "Ed."

Beckerman and Burnett are trying not to worry about the time slot, but Burnett acknowledged it will be an uphill battle even as he used humor to defuse time-slot concerns.

" 'The Simpsons' is fantastic, but it's been on the air since 1963, I think," Burnett said. " 'Touched by an Angel,' most of that audience is passing away as we speak."

NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier said the network will handle "Ed" carefully.

"Ratings expectations are quite low," he said. "We have not done well on Sunday night in many, many years. If we're brave enough to hang by our bootstraps for that long is another question."

If they don't have that courage, "Ed" could be this year's "Freaks and Geeks." Ancier thinks "Ed" has a better shot.

"It's more optimistic; it's a sweeter show," Ancier said. "With 'Freaks and Geeks,' they did such an accurate job portraying how high school really felt that half the time I walked away wanting to slit my wrists."

There's no fear of that with romantic, silly "Ed."

In addition to a cast of lovable oddballs -- Ed's bowling alley employees: take-charge Phil (Michael Ian Black), timid Shirley (Rachel Cronin) and monosyllabic Kenny (Mike Starr) -- another one of the show's primary characters is the town of Stuckeyville. Although it was originally set in Ohio, Beckerman says Stuckeyville will remain generically Midwestern on TV, a 30-minute drive from some metropolitan area.

But what about that name?

In the CBS pilot, a character was named Stu Stuckey. That character no longer exists, but Burnett and Beckerman, who wrote tonight's pilot, tried to create a name for the town -- and at that point, the series, too. Nothing sounded right.

"We were trying to come up with the title for the show based on the town and we went through a lot of 'Something Square' and 'This Crossing,' and it sounded like we were doing a soap opera," Burnett said. "So we thought, we'll come up with sort of a distinctive name of a town."

"And then we thought, what's the worst distinctive name?" Beckerman joked in an appearance in front of TV writers in July. "We did it as a favor to you critics so you could leave out the 't' in your little headline when you review the show."

NBC changed the title to "Ed," but the name of the town remained Stuckeyville. "Ed" is actually filmed on location in Northvale and Ridgewood, N.J., with an abandoned bowling alley doubling as Stuckeybowl.

"You'll be seeing a lot more of Stuckeyville as the episodes unfold," Beckerman said. "It's a small town of 10,000. We like the idea that this is a town that does not have Starbucks and Barnes & Noble and everything that's become homogenized in all our cities and towns."

Stuckeyville isn't remote, Beckerman said, but it is quaint.

"I definitely think a suburban upbringing is something I love writing about," he said. "I spent a lot of time in Monroeville growing up, and that kind of place is sort of near and dear to my heart. I think there will be a lot of that in the show."

With a busy work schedule, Beckerman has thrown a few references from his Pittsburgh childhood into "Ed" scripts.

"Every now and then, when we need a detail, I'll put something in to make myself laugh," Beckerman said. That would be the pet store on Walnut Street that's referenced in episode No. 8. A high school band in "Ed" is called The Storm, the name of a band Beckerman was in with friends from Fox Chapel when he was in school here.

"Maybe as things go on, there will be more," Beckerman said. "Right now, there aren't a lot of things everyone would get. People in my family laugh, though."

And why wouldn't they? The delicacy of Stuckeyville, which is never defined, is something called Suzeechio, a word Beckerman's Uncle Kenneth used.

"My brother and I thought it was funny, so pretty much to make my brother laugh we sprinkled that name throughout an episode," Beckerman said. "It's never revealed what it is, but it's the local food item of Stuckeyville that you can't get anywhere else."

His parents, Alan and Natalie Beckerman, still live in Squirrel Hill, and his grandmother lives in Oakland. His brother James is a resident at a hospital in Boston.

"They're really excited about it," Beckerman said. "I think they really like it rather than just pretending to like it. Everyone there is rooting for us."

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