Of Waffles and Men
Me, My Father, and ‘Ed’
“Yeah, it’s about time to start watching Ed again,” my dad muses over the phone. I’ve probably just told him that I’ve begun binge-watching Mr. Robot or True Detective or X-Files, shows that indifferently pass him by. John, my dad, is oddly selective in his television viewing, preferring either to stick with actors he knows, like Tim Allen (Home Improvement, Last Man Standing) or to compulsively revisit shows he has seen countless times (Gilmore Girls, Men Behaving Badly, Bosom Buddies) because they are familiar, comfortable, trustworthy. But when it comes to Ed, the nearly forgotten early-aughts rom-com, my dad gets more than simple entertainment: it’s as if the show were an extension of his life and not some made-up TV sitcom, and he can experience through it a sense of solidarity and tangible friendship. Perhaps this is because Ed evokes the ideal world my dad wants to inhabit, a small town that boasts colorful seasons and clean air and lets people be as zany as they wish and as successful as they deserve. A place quite different, that is, from the congested LA suburbs where my dad has spent his entire life.
Similar in tone to Gilmore Girls, Ed was a tiny spurt of energy, a flicker of quip and charm in the network TV universe. The quirky romantic comedy is about a hotshot contract lawyer, Ed Stevens, who moves back to his hometown of Stuckeyville after simultaneously being fired from his elite law firm and discovering that his wife has been cheating on him with the mailman. Once back in Stuckeyville, a Mayberry-meets-Stars Hollow town filled with an assortment of oddball characters, Ed impulsively purchases the local bowling alley and attempts to win the heart of his high school dream girl, Carol Vessey. What follows is four seasons of the overly romantic gestures, necessary heartbreaks, and winsome eccentricities that only a small town can provide. Though the show ran for only four years, from 2000 to 2004, it attracted a small but devoted fan base, many of whom remain adamantly enamored. One of those hardcore fans is John Allen, my dad.
I don’t remember watching Ed live on television. Perhaps it’s because I was in elementary school and wasn’t interested in a boy-gets-girl comedy where a majority of the jokes went over my head. Or perhaps it was on during nights I spent at my mother’s while she still lived in the state. I don’t really recall watching the show on VHS either, though I have seen the stacks of tapes in my dad’s now boxed-away VHS collection, which includes, among other things, marathons of Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, and Land of the Lost; old New England Patriots games (Dad has been a fan since the Steve Grogan days of the 1970s); and three copies of Back to the Future. Ed exists in the now-rare limbo of being unreleased on DVD — a peculiar thing, given the good pedigree it sports (its producers hailing from The Late Show with David Letterman) and given that it launched the careers of actors Tom Cavanagh, Julie Bowen, Justin Long, and Ginnifer Goodwin, while serving as a springboard for Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), John Krasinski (The Office), John Slattery (Mad Men), and Michael Ian Black (Wet Hot American Summer).
The lack of syndication or hard copy format has forced those who cherish Ed to watch worn-out VHS tapes of personal home recordings; to search for glitchy, rough, and partially silenced videos on YouTube; or to resort to illegal and homemade but semi-cleaned-up DVDs that can be purchased on sites like eBay. My dad now views the show on the bootlegged DVD set he got in 2007, one with a fully functioning episode menu and even an array of extra features (a large portion of which my dad contributed to, giving him a discounted price on purchase as well as a sense of pride in being a dedicated Ed-head). Though the sound in a few episodes is not in sync with the action and the resolution is far from HD, my Dad cherishes this set. He knows every joke, beat, background song, and filming location — demonstrating his expertise of this last category when he obliged me to deviate from my East Coast college tour for a day and visit several small towns in New Jersey instead, all so that he could say he had “been to Stuckeyville”.
For a long time, I didn’t understand my dad’s affinity with the show. I would sit on the couch and watch, not because I necessarily wanted to but because I wanted to share the experience — to participate in something that clearly meant a lot to him. My familiarity with the show was so deep that by the time I read Walden in high school, I already knew half the famous lines because I had seen ‘Live Deliberately’ — my dad’s favorite episode of television ever — so many times. (The episode’s title comes from the first line of Thoreau’s Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”)
When I came upon the sentences that Ed’s writers had lifted from Thoreau, I associated them with my father and his relationship with Ed, rather than with Thoreau and his reflections on the self in Nature; when I summoned up an image of Walden’s narrator, I pictured Justin Long as awkward high-schooler Warren Cheswick rather than a nineteenth-century Thoreau. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see the show through my dad’s eyes, acknowledging those moments that seem to resonate with him. I’ve transitioned from patient daughter to willing Ed follower — though I’m not quite an Ed-head (yet).
I’ve also begun to have my own moments of Ed resonance: moments where the show gets under my skin because it’s unpredictable and playful while dramatizing the Stuckeyville version of the human comedy. Take my favorite episode, “Pretty Girls and Waffles”. This episode has four storylines: Ed defends a pretty woman from being sued; Mike (Ed’s best friend) goes head to head with his boss; Molly (Carol’s best friend) has troubles casting the school play; and Carol breaks up with her long-term, egocentric novelist boyfriend Nick because she couldn’t toss him a waffle like a Frisbee. I’ve always been bothered, or perhaps inspired, by the waffle, so let’s talk about the waffle.
Carol walks into the kitchen to make breakfast. As she pulls a box of waffles from the freezer she is singing, ‘Hello, Mr. Waffle. Good Morning, Mr. Waffle. Tasty, tasty waffle’. Nick enters. He sits, harshly grades a paper, then asks for a waffle. Carol pops one out of the toaster and curls her wrist, loading up as if to throw a Frisbee.
She hesitates, and her face drops as she realizes that she can’t toss the waffle: Nick won’t understand the impulse. He will only find it a silly, strange Carol Vessey moment, perhaps even annoying in its eccentricity; he won’t appreciate her craving to live playfully, unbound by the constricting rules of adulthood. Shaken, Carol tries to gather her composure as she places the waffle on a plate and walks it over to Nick.
Carol then begins to obsess frantically over her next move — whether to stay with Nick or break up. Should she choose a stability that’s restrained and uncomfortable or close the book on seven years of constant hard work keeping the relationship alive? She chooses the latter; she chooses herself. And it’s absolutely the correct decision. It took a disc-shaped, cross-hatched breakfast food to reveal to Carol her own personal needs and limits, but it also set her free to grow as a person (and, in future episodes, the decision also opens a window of opportunity for Ed). The dual lesson of the waffle — how we need to express our most foolish impulses and how we must be ready to face difficult life decisions in the most random, unforeseen ways — has always stuck with me because it is so darn ridiculous and simple. If you’re not comfortable throwing a waffle at your partner of seven years because you fear being judged, then that person isn’t meant to be in your life. Isn’t that what being in a relationship is all about — the freedom to be silly, absurd, and vulnerable, to be fully yourself, while still being accepted unconditionally?
At the close of the episode, in an attempt to be both cute and sincere, Ed stands on Carol’s lawn and tosses dozens of waffles at her window. The action is both obnoxiously romantic, a reprise of so many ‘balcony’ scenes, and beautifully simple: Ed understands what the waffle meant to Carol; he saw her need and responded in the best way he knew how. But he also knew that in using the waffle he could dramatize his own special understanding of her; all those waffles are a winking demonstration of his friendship and his candid, unwavering affection for her. The many layers of meaning make this scene one of the most romantic yet unsentimental scenes in all of television for me, and speak to the surprisingly cutting intelligence of the entire series. Sure, two star-crossed lovers coming together despite all odds in the pouring rain a la The Notebook is romantic, but the thought of Ed buying a hundred waffles to toss at Carol’s window because he knows she is upset, and because that’s the only gesture that will make her know that he understands and sees her for who she is, odd irrational impulses and all: that is exceptionally moving.
My dad came to visit me the weekend before Thanksgiving, as I wasn’t going to be able to come home for the holiday. We were sitting in my living room on the couch deliberating what to do next; it was pouring rain outside. We talked about going to a movie or a museum, but the idea of braving the rain appealed to neither of us. A moment later, my dad pulled something from his laptop bag. He handed me a CD case. I opened the black square; inside was my very own, personally-ripped DVD compilation of Ed. He smiled at me, impishly. “Those are for you,” he said. “Why don’t we order in some pizza and start up some Ed?”