Entertainment

Ed the Sock wants to disrupt television — again

This is the second instalment of On Location, a series about art that thrives in creative spaces.

Ed the Sock is giving a tour of his Thornhill, Ont., bungalow.

The cosy home is filled with an immense toy collection, and also houses a dusty cabinet that is essentially the Ed The Sock museum. It features the puppet in all its incarnations since it first appeared in the 1990s.

“That’s the first one, when I didn’t have eyebrows,” says Ed’s alter ego and creator Steven Kerzner, before pointing to another version of the perennially scowling puppet with the classic green felt brows.

In his tiny basement, Kerzner shows a camera rig that he created using a dollar-store magnifying glass and a GoPro-sized camera to film Ed.

“The reality is, you don’t need a huge television studio and millions of dollars to be a broadcaster anymore,” says Kerzner. “Especially if you are doing grassroots media that speaks to people.”

Ed the Sock was Canadian TV’s original television disrupter.

Before the blitz of social media channels and online broadcasters, the foul-mouthed sock puppet voiced by Kerzner on City’s MuchMusic (now owned by Bell Media and renamed Much) provided an alternate, interactive universe for viewers. That included variety show Ed’s Night Party where guests would be interviewed in a hot tub, and Fromage, which mocked the cheesiest music videos of the era.

MORE IN THE SERIES:

The front porch becomes a venue for self-expression

The grouchy sock, darned over the years by Kerzner’s writer-producer wife Liana, started life at tiny Newton Cable with a household subscriber base of 12,000. From there Kerzner would go on to greater fame at the scrappy, perennially underfunded City TV, another outlier in the world of conventional broadcasting.

And the couple are still doing it, in their most ambitious attempt to shake up the status quo yet. The Kerzners are launching FUN, The FU Network, which could stand for a profanity, but is really just short, they say, “For Us.”

That irreverence is the heart of the brand. Or as Ed would say, it’s “just like classic MuchMusic before they sh-t the bed.”

So the partners are launching more than a dozen web series from their basement headquarters that include talk, cooking, game, and music video shows.

It’s not such a crazy idea. Jared Keeso’s sketch comedy Letterkenny shot in Sudbury, Ont., was a YouTube lark before it got picked up by Bell Media’s CraveTV and now launched on a bigger stage by American broadcaster Hulu. Markham’s Lilly Singh is one of the Top 10 grossing stars on YouTube in a venture than she started from her bedroom in her parents’ Markham home.

But still, a whole network of shows?

“When I first started Ed, people laughed and said it would never work,” says Kerzner. “But there is a real hunger for shows that speak to people.”

That’s especially true in an age where most of the broadcasters are owned by media conglomerates. Productions such as MuchMusic, where you could be the person answering the phone one day and the veejay the next, don’t exist any more. Conventional broadcasters seem to need scale to survive.

But that’s where Kerzner sees an opportunity.

“That whole space has been vacated by the big guys. They are focused on fiction, these big dramas and international co-productions that’s what makes money overseas,” says Kerzner. “But we need to have stuff in the spirit of the original City-type shows that were ground level and honest. The first reality stars when you think about it were our Veejays.”

YouTube has largely supplanted that vision. But Kerzner sees an Ed The Sock brand that would lure viewers in to see shows that are meaningful to their generation, not unlike an Oprah channel for slackers, a brand premise where viewers tune in hoping to see something uplifting and positive.

“In our case, we’re a channel that viewers would like to have a beer with,” says Kerzner.

In the spirit of tiny Newton Cable, the labour so far is free. The shows, many of them still in development, have titles like Black Coffee, where “Black People have coffee and talk about issues that affect them.” There is the “Is This Racist” panel hosted by Ed The Sock to talk about hot button topics and Eclectic Circus, a spin off of MuchMusic’s Electric Circus, where dancers strut their stuff in front of cameras shooting their own selfies.

Other shows are provocative (and silly) concepts, including Shooting the Sh-t, where celebrities like Mike Holmes and George Stroumboulopoulos are interviewed in a public washroom stall. Hosted by Adamo Barbieri and Aaron Rajan, it’s brilliantly awkward. Then there is Brew Wizards, a kind of liquored-up Wayne’s World hosted by Norm Reynolds and Kyle Kornic, who discuss beer and pop culture in the basement of their craft-beer-and-board-game cafe in Oshawa.

To fund the shows, the couple hosted a social media fundraiser recently with a $35,000 goal. For that some $75 donors got Ed the Sock socks as a gift. For $1,000 you could get an actual Ed the Sock puppet. Or for $1,500 you could get Ed to go to your place to have a party.

“We’re not being pigs about it. It’s a proof of concept. It keeps us going for a little while so we can launch our shows. Everyone is working for nothing, it’s for love of the project,” says Kerzner.

In the cramped basement, the colourful set for Liana K’s Lady Bits show is prepped. The tiny set has a couch surrounded by pictures and a trophy wall. The show, which has 21,000 subscribers, looks at the depiction of women in the video game industry. There are pictures of viewers’ pets on the wall, a reminder of just how interactive digital media can be in connecting with viewers, something that mainstream broadcasters would find hard replicating.

“Fans are really passionate, they’re really invested,” says Liana. “And this allows them to see a piece of themselves in the show.”

The success of FUN hinges as much on Liana K’s production and technical expertise — she is not just a host and game nerd, but the technical wizard behind the scenes, keeping the production running.

She was the first to broadcast Ed the Sock in HD, a claim they say was the first weekly entertainment show to do so. And she also broadcasts her show in 4K definition, despite the fact that only 100 subscribers view it in that way. It’s a sign that you might be small, but it doesn’t mean you can’t fight on the big boys turf.

“I think it’s important to push boundaries,” says Liana K.

Certainly, that’s the goal of FUN network. The business model is lean. But the upside, particularly if some of the shows take off, could be huge. If FUN becomes a feeder network to conventional broadcasting, it could mean future upside as the Kerzner’s potentially take a piece of the action as producers.

“Who is grooming the next generation of Canadian talent? That’s the goal,” says Kerzner. “We are stepping in to fill a void. It wasn’t too long ago that we were making cable TV shows with cardboard boxes. We don’t look at something and see a lack of resources and say it’s impossible. We say this is going to be fun. That’s the heart of the network. We want to be a part of the Canadian media industry. Not apart from it.”

Tony Wong is the Star’s television critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydwong