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Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

"It's All My Fault, Although I Also Blame Others": The Curious Case of the Ed Grimley Cartoon

In 1988, Martin Short collaborated with fellow SCTV alumni Catherine O'Hara, Joe Flaherty, and Andrea Martin, plus legendary comedian Jonathan Winters, to produce a Saturday morning cartoon called The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. I'm writing this down plainly because, even though I was one of the very few who watched this show during its initial run, I can still barely believe it happened. Despite the presence of these comedic heavyweights, Ed Grimley remains unavailable on DVD, rarely rerun, and in desperate need of rediscovery.

The show was the product of a very brief period of fortuitous timing. According to Short, he was approached by Hannah-Barbera a few times over the years about doing an animated version of the Ed Grimley character. He rebuffed the offers, thinking Ed wouldn’t really appeal to children, until one Halloween, when “two kids came to the door dressed as Ed Grimley. I thought it was strange because it had been a few years since Saturday Night Live, plus it was on late at night, and here were these kids looking like Ed.”

Right around the time Short had his change of heart, there was a seeming paradigm shift in Saturday morning fare. CBS had handed live-action kids’ shows to Pee-Wee Herman and Jim Varney (aka Ernest) for the 1988-89 season. When the Ed Grimley cartoon was announced, most TV critics characterized it as NBC’s stab at trying something similarly “hip.”

The time seemed ripe for Saturday morning fare that was a little weirder than The Smurfs. At least Short thought so; the production "bible" for Ed Grimley insisted, "Kids today are quite adept at making sudden leaps in logic and accepting wacky twists of the story, and these slightly bizarre ways of linking the departments together will help make this show different from the standard Saturday morning fare."

Short cited Rocky and Bullwinkle as his primary animation inspiration, “the total mentalness of it all…that there were jokes I just wasn’t getting.” Like the Jay Ward classic, Ed Grimley's emphasis was firmly on the jokes and wordplay. The animation did not quite capture Short’s unique physicality — we’re talking about Hannah-Barbera here, after all — but the animators did manage a passable job of reproducing some of Ed’s manic mannerisms, such as his tendency to execute a short leap and continue scurrying mid-air.

Knowing the limitations of the medium, Ed Grimley concentrated on Ed’s strange monologues, his tendency to break into Broadway-esque nonsense songs, and Candide-esque view of the world around him. Episodes frequently opened with Ed making an entry in his diary, detailing the fantastic events of his day.

His "misadaventures" invariably started in the most mundane way possible, with Ed cleaning his apartment or, as in this clip from "Grimley, P.F.C.," pretending he was weathering a huge storm. The plot of this episode is fairly typical of the series: In an attempt to do a favor for his neighbor, he accidentally joins the Marines and has a run-in with comedian Bobby "Doodles" Dawson (guest Dave Thomas doing his Bob Hope impression).

Many of the episodes revolved around Ed's love for Miss Malone (voiced by O’Hara), a lovely but ditzy aspiring actress who constantly tried out for roles in productions with titles like “Tell the Conductor to Stop His Machine!", and whose younger brother Wendell frequently made Ed's life more difficult. Ed’s foil was his landlord, Mr. Freebus (voiced by Winters), a tiny, grumpy man annoyed by nearly everything Ed did, and by the fact that his aggressively cheery wife Deidre (voiced by Andrea Martin) took a shine to this weird man.

At one point in each episode, Ed would break away from the action to watch his favorite show, “Count Floyd’s Scary Stories.” This live action segment featured Joe Flaherty revising his SCTV character, who showed his “monster chiller theater” features to a studio audience of obnoxiously bored children.

A regular semi-educational segment featured The Famous Gustav Brothers, scientists who would cut into the show when Ed was in “a bit of a spot of trouble” to explain the science behind why he was about to meet his doom—or to work through some lingering childhood issues, as in this clip.

Ed Grimley also featured random live-action bits, such as this Entertainment Tonight takeoff starring Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara at their best.

Ed Grimley was exactly as great as you'd expect from cast assembled to make it. The fact that this show was produced in the first place — ostensibly for children, no less — is amazing. NBC put some weight behind the show, at least at first, taking out a full-page ad in Variety touting its virtues, and producing show-specific bumpers.

But if NBC was truly motivated by their competition greenlighting Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Hey Vern, It’s Ernest, they failed to recognize that Pee-Wee and Ernest had recently appeared in smash hit movies that attracted big kid audiences. In contrast, Ed Grimley was previously seen on SNL and SCTV, shows that aired well after the average Saturday morning cartoon viewer's bedtime. In order to be interested in an Ed Grimley cartoon, you had be both old enough to know who he was, yet young enough to fall into the typical Saturday morning cartoon audience.

In 1988, I was firmly within this demographic. My dad exposed me to Monty Python at a criminally young age, and I struggled to stay up late each weekend to watch as much of SNL as humanly possible. But I also still had a religious dedication to Saturday morning cartoons. This put The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley right in my wheelhouse. I taped every episode I could, suspecting the show might not last. That tape was watched time and time again in my house, to the point where my family is one of the few (I assume) who can quote Ed Grimley at length.

For a show that was so clearly doomed, Ed Grimley engendered a surprising amount of merchandise. There were Ed Grimley dolls, sold in talking and non-talking versions (I had the latter). There was an Ed Grimley handheld video game, an Ed Grimley Halloween costume, and an Ed Grimley lunchbox. This was the last lunchbox I actually took to school, since I had to explain exactly who this weird guy on my thermos was every time I sat down to eat. (By the end of the year, I’d moved on to brown paper bags.)

In the early 1990s, shows like The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy showed that a cartoon could appeal to both adults and kids. Had Ed Grimley appeared at that time, it might have had a chance to succeed and find an audience, perhaps in prime time or on cable. But in 1988, placed in the same Saturday morning lineup as Gummi Bears and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the show never had a chance. Kids watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead, while adults who might have dug Ed Grimley remained largely unaware of its existence.

Once its original run of 13 episodes aired, Ed Grimley was slowly fazed out of the Saturday morning lineup, and in May of 1989, NBC announced that the show would not be renewed. Martin Short mentioned wanting to sell the show to another network, though this thought went nowhere, either due to lack of interest or interference from his movie career.

The closest Ed Grimley has come to receiving any post-mortem exposure is a few intermittent appearances on Cartoon Network and Boomerang over the years, though never with enough regularity to catch on with a new audience. The only bit of Ed Grimley you can purchase legally is found on the generically titled collection Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s, Vol. 1. Unfortunately, the episode included on this set, the series pilot (“Tall, Dark, and Hansom”), is one of its weaker episodes. Not to mention that being placed in the company of the other shows on the set — dreck like the Mr. T cartoon and Goldie Gold and Action Jack — does Ed Grimley no favors.

An enterprising soul can locate Ed Grimley in the murky reaches of the Web, but it’s a shame that you have to skulk in the internet equivalent of a darkened alley to watch a show that should be readily available. Though perhaps we should all be grateful it existed in the first place, and that a series of shortsighted, ill-thought-out decisions allowed this cowlicked comet to briefly streak across the sky.

Matthew Callan gripes about the Mets at AmazinAvenue.com and about everything else at Scratchbomb.com. You may have seen his writing in McSweeneys, the New York Press, and Best American Non-Required Reading. If so, please return it to him.

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  • Podger D.@twitter

    In the early 1990s I bought an Ed Grimley lunchbox in Palau. It was the only kind of lunchbox they sold there. At that time, I was a big fan of the SCTV and SNL sketches, but I didn't even know that the cartoon had existed, so the whole thing seemed very bizarre.

  • Ben Carter@twitter

    Funny thing with the fall of 1988: not only did Ed Grimley show up in animated form, but at the same time Nick at Nite began showing reruns of SNL and SCTV, both of which featured some Ed Grimley skits.

    I seem to recall that a Grimley sketch showed up on one of those "Best of SNL" specials on NBC sometime in 86 or 87, because those were the kinds of things my friends and I would tape and watch over and over again, so we knew who he was. (The best of these was the 25th anniversary special, which really combined great highlights in two hours, and had everyone at school singing like Buckwheat for months.)

  • HerooftheBeach

    The animated show was actually my introduction to the character! I was really surprised later to find out he was a live action character first.

  • Ron Mwangaguhunga

    Very strange, indeed. But in a good way. I vaguely recall that there was also a Saturday morning cartoon about Laverne and Shirley on an island with a pig in some sort of military uniform. Either that, or I did too much LSD in college.

    • Brett Glass@facebook

      @Ron Mwangaguhunga YEAH, that was real. Lavern & Shirley joined the army, and the pig was their commanding officer, always yelling at them. It seemed to be based on Private Benjamin?

  • Peter-john Byrnes@twitter

    I was a senior in college during its run. No matter how hungover we were, we got up on Saturday mornings to watch Ed Grimley. I never missed an episode. If there were a DVD set, I'd proudly put it right next to The Tick on my shelf, and happily introduce it to my kids.

  • H Anthony Hildebrand@twitter

    This was shown on Australian TV in an afternoon slot in the early 90s, if I recall correctly. Loved it as a teenager. But I had no idea at the time that it was an adapation of an SNL character.

  • Alfred Ramirez@facebook

    I still have my Ed Grimley talking doll.

  • Suzanne

    I've actually had the pleasure of meeting Martin short and I told him how madly in love with Ed Grimley I am. He kind of laughed. I think he thought I was nuts.

  • gilgamess1

    I remember this, along with the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. That, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, as well as Hey Vern, It's Ernest made for interesting Saturday mornings.

    This was a great show. The whole cast was wonderful, with impeccable timing and there were quotable lines by the score. Two that come to mind are Miss Malone's auditioning for a play called, "Douse that Fire, Mister!" Also, I am certain that Jonathan Winters' abstract way of thinking worked its way into the script. He was one of the Gustav Brothers and he also played Mama Gustav, who was trying to teach the brothers the rudiments of baseball. She chided them by saying, "You boys stink like an exploded possum!" That is pure Winters.

    This show, as you say, was doomed. What 1980's kid would be able to get in-jokes about Bob Hope, Amelia Earhart or Katharine Hepburn?

    Good news! This series is now on DVD.
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Completely-Mental-Misadventures-Grimley/dp/B00B1FMS94