Theft is a constant controversy in comedy. Hardly a day goes by that some comedian isn’t accused of ripping off another. Sometimes it’s blatant and obvious, such as in the cases of Carlos Mencia or the kid who did Patton Oswalt at his commencement speech or The Fat Jew’s ongoing “attribution” issues. But most of the time, it’s a lot murkier (see Trevor Noah supposedly ripping off Chappelle, or Amy Schumer supposedly ripping off Patrice O’Neal), impossible to prove that a similarity was the result of a deliberate lift, rather than someone inadvertently internalizing something they heard, or a simple case of parallel creative evolution. The perfect joke is a mix of familiarity and surprise — thus certain ideas just have a way of “ripening” at the same time. Go to any open mic and you’ll hear at least 10 jokes with a similar premise.
I first heard about Steve Kerzner a while back when I was in Canada, as I was listening to some Canadians reminisce about their favorite bits by “Ed the Sock.” Ed was, as they told it, a surly, gravel-voiced, cigar-chomping sock puppet who would do antagonistic interviews (or the Canadian equivalent of antagonistic, anyway) with celebrities, and other bits, sometimes for MuchMusic, Canada’s answer to MTV. One often repeated anecdote was how at the 2000 Much Music Awards, Ed asked Lenny Kravitz whether women should be “savored like fine wine, or guzzled like Colt .45,” which made Denzel Washington laugh so hard he knocked over a food tray.
“Gee, that sounds like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog,” I eventually said, the thought that had been running through my American brain the entire time, never realizing what a potentially inflammatory statement this was.
Turns out, Ed The Sock, created by Canadian broadcaster Steve Kerzner in the ’80s, predates Triumph, who debuted on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in February 1997. Triumph has become more known, globally, of course, and similarities between the two have fueled Canadian conspiracy theories ever since. If you never heard the uproar, it’s probably only because Canadians are so polite. Not only that, but it turns out Kerzner was actually negotiating with Conan O’Brien’s producers about appearing on the show months, possibly even weeks before the debut of Robert Smigel’s own now-famous puppet.
Does that make Triumph a case of theft? Not necessarily, but you can see why it’d be infuriating for Ed the Sock. It’s one thing to be able to point to a thief profiting from your work and rage against the injustice of it. What if you’re not sure? What if you’re constantly being compared to someone you beat to the punch? Who do you yell at then?
What was the genesis of Ed the Sock?
Steve Kerzner: I was running a cable access station. I was 18 at the time, and I was actually doing political programming as myself. I had a friend doing a variety comedy show, but he needed a co-host. And it needed to be somebody who was going to be there all the time, because he would come in at irregular times. The only person who was there for sure all the time was me. I didn’t want to be a co-host on his show [as myself], so I went to the kids show cabinet and there was a sock in there, some glue sticks, and there was this park set, which had some grass. It was made of green fun fur. So I just pulled it all together. I don’t remember where the cigar came from, but that became Ed the Sock. The personality came from a blend of a friend’s father and stepfather, including the voice.
They were sort of testy gentlemen?
No, actually. One was an old womanizer, but nobody believed his stories. But he was full of bluster. The other was just odd. When Ed started he would sometimes say odd things. He evolved into being a character that insulted people and then he evolved further from there. But that was the state that it was at when I was dealing with Conan O’Brien.
[Ed eventually graduated to being carried on all the cable access stations in Canada, where cable access is a bigger deal than in the U.S. Ed was playing on Canada’s cable access network every Friday by the late ’90s.]
And how did you come to be in touch with the Conan people?
I was ballsy, I just kept sending tapes of the show everywhere and I sent it to Conan O’Brien’s people. I was dealing with a woman, I believe her name was Paula Davis [here and here], who was the talent person at the time. We had three conversations about having Ed come on as a character. She was saying, “We’re just trying to figure out how to work him in. We think it could be a good addition to the show.”
She was supposed to call me back and I didn’t hear from her. Eventually I got a hold of her and she said, “Well, we decided that it’s not right for the show.”
Okay. Then a short time later, possibly within two weeks, I hadn’t been watching Conan but people called me and said, “Congratulations, you made it on to Conan!”
I said, “No, I didn’t.” People had actually confused the dog puppet for Ed, for some reason, which shows how much brand confusion there was. It turned out that their head writer had come up with this idea of a puppet who insulted people and had a cigar and had a distinctive voice. According to him, all on his own. I have zero direct proof that it was a copy, but it’s one of those coincidences that should go into a Time Life book series. I was dealing with the talent person, who said she was dealing with the writers. Then, all of a sudden, this puppet that is remarkably alike to my puppet is created by the head writer.
Do you think it might have been that they liked Ed, but Ed was this off-beat thing that you created almost by accident. Do you think that they might’ve liked it but just wanted to give it a simpler backstory?
Nah. Do I know? No. But they wouldn’t have needed to do any backstory. The character would have just popped up and been there. The character speaks for itself. You don’t need to delve into history. The character just is what it is. Ed, the insult sock puppet, they could have called him.
Having been in TV more than 30 years now, I know that what sometimes happens is, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, but we’d rather do it in-house because we control it more.” There’s also been instances where American shows have copied Canadian shows and just figured, “What the hell are the Canadians going to do?”
Have you lost out on any opportunities because of Triumph?
Years later my agent and I went to New York and met with Comedy Central at one point, after Ed had been on City-TV [a cable network where Ed moved after public access] and it started picking up and doing well. The woman was very interested, but she just found out that they were doing a show with the dog puppet. The opportunity I had there went out directly because of the dog puppet.
I would imagine that’s probably the most annoying thing about it, when people assume that yours was a take on theirs.
This woman knew that it wasn’t but it didn’t matter. It was what had reached the American public first. And yes, it gets annoying when someone says, “You’re like Triumph.” It’s like, “No. Triumph is like Ed.” Triumph followed Ed in everything he did. Ed was doing bits with celebrities at the MuchMusic video awards before the dog was doing anything with Eminem or anyone else at the MTV awards. Ed was going to science fiction conventions before the dog went to talk the Star Wars people. There’s virtually nothing that Ed didn’t do first and by some distance. It couldn’t have been, “Oh, they were both thinking of it at the same time.” They were separated by some time. I’m not saying he copied it. I’m saying that Ed came first by an appreciable margin.
It seems like you did get on American TV eventually [two seasons on G4], just not in the form you necessarily would have wanted, right?
No. Not with the prominence and not on a major network. It was on a cable channel. It wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I mean, I can’t complain. I’ve done remarkably well in Canada, so I can’t complain in that way. A few years later, the company that owns City-TV and MuchMusic brought the Conan O’Brien show to Toronto and he did a week’s worth of shows. Actually, Ed crashed the press conference with Conan and Conan said, “See, we create these ideas and people around the world get inspired by them.” And that was a piss off. Ed said, “No, I think you got it backwards.” He said [sarcastically], “Oh, that’s right. We copied you.” And everyone in the audience was like, “Yeah. Yeah, actually you did.”
I figured at that point in time, water under the bridge. The dog exists. Whatever. Conan’s in Toronto. Let’s have Ed take the dog around to some places in Toronto that people wouldn’t normally know about, non-touristy places. Interesting places. I spoke to the executive producer and he said, “Yeah, yeah. We’re not going to do that, but you can do me a favor.” And he asked me to do something for him with the channel, which is like, “Wow, you got balls.”
I was willing to let bygones be bygones and let’s make a joke out of this whole thing, but they weren’t. I remember reading in Entertainment Weekly, Smigel saying that sometimes he redubs the dog’s voice after encounters with people or celebrities. He puts in other lines, which we never do. If you don’t get it when you get it, you don’t get it. At that time I was wondering whether they didn’t want the comparison between the two because, by then Ed had become far more well-rounded. The dog continues to just be that Vaudeville shtick. That really simple concept, whereas Ed has gone from being really politically incorrect to being much more on the side of intelligent people. Ed’s considered to be one of the intelligent characters on television, which tells you something about Canada. One of the most trusted. Ed does documentaries and stuff now about social issues. Funny still, but he does them for Huffington Post Canada and for EveryJoe in the U.S. It’s all commentary.
If Kerzner sounds a little bitter about Triumph (of whom you may have noticed Steve’s tendency to refer to simply as “the dog puppet”), who can blame him?
As for Smigel and Conan, you get the sense they’re sick of answering the Ed The Sock Question too. Smigel addressed it in a Reddit AMA earlier this year:
I like Ed the Sock, but there’s no connection. Never saw him until I heard people saying we had stolen from him. […] I thought of Triumph independently. It came out of a bit I started on the show in 1994.
As I wrote in another reply, our goal was to do crazy made-up stuff in contrast to the reality-based stuff Letterman was doing. Everyone was ripping off Dave back then, and for us, the show replacing him, to go anywhere near his act, in my mind, was lethal. I didn’t even let Conan do remotes for the first year. I know it sounds idiotic now, but that was my thinking. On balance, I still think that mindset yielded a lot of original cool comedy those first few years. So, Letterman had the Westminster Dog Show winners on, and they just ran down the aisles to big fanfare. My response was to do a fake Westminster bit with these dog puppets my wife had got me for my birthday…I won’t digress too much more here, but we had found these incredibly realistic dog, sheep, cat, seal puppets at a furniture store. They cracked me up, and I immediately put one on and sniffed my wife’s ass with it. So for my birthday, she surprised me with a bunch of them. This was right before Westminster, actually.
Anyway, for our Westminster bit, Conan would say “these dogs are getting more and more talented every year” and then the puppet dogs would sing “The Bodyguard,” or perform Dueling Banjos, or do magic. One dog did a Nicholson impression where he put his paw over his forehead to pull back his hair, like any hack impressionist would. I had everyone do the dog voices with the same Russian accent I’d been giving dogs since I was a kid.
This bit was successful, and we kept doing it even after I left in ’95. Then in 1997 I called Jon Groff, the head writer, and suggested we do another with an insult comic. I’d done a wisecracking dog, with a different puppet, years ago, but this was different and very specific…he was also gonna be an old school catch phrase comic, and say “…for me to poop on” way too often. I showed up, picked the rottweiler and asked for a bow tie and cigar (a cliche of old school Catskills comics). Deb Shaw, our wardrobe whiz, made the bow tie gold, a hilarious choice.
And that was it. It went well, and we started bring the dog back, just to poop on Conan’s first guest, and he evolved from a one dimensional character into the decidedly two dimensional one that exists today. That’s what happened.
Conan’s made the point that the idea of a grumpy puppet is pretty old, anyway, as is anything cute but grouchy (see Baby Face Finster from Bugs Bunny).
I never thought the two had much in common anyway, other than the cigar. Triumph mostly does jokes, and Ed’s more of a funny commentator.
Anyway, all these extraneous points, as I said, are moot, because I’m telling the truth…didn’t steal it.
Conan, naturally, was asked about Ed during the attempted ambushing of Conan’s Canada tour back in 2004.
“I hate to disappoint Ed the Sock but grumpy puppets have been a mainstay of comedy for a long time,” O’Brien said. “The grouchy puppet is not unlike the depressed clown, it’s been a comedy staple for 40 years and everyone does their take on it. But more power to Ed the Sock!”
For what it’s worth, their answers seem genuine, if a little defensive, probably for the same reasons as Kerzner. That’s the irony of two creators coming up with a similar bit — theoretically it should feel like a moment of pleasant kismet, that you and someone you’ve never even met have sensibilities that led you to the same, or similar places. How strange is that? But then, of course, it runs up against a much more unpleasant possibility, the idea that maybe we’re not that unique after all.
These days, Ed makes videos for HuffPo Canada and Every Joe, and Kerzner says he’s developing a network that’s inspired by Ed, though he can’t say much more just yet. Triumph’s most recent venture, The Jack and Triumph Show, co-starring Jack McBrayer, aired seven episodes on Adult Swim before being canceled. Robert Smigel also wrote Hotel Transylvania 2, which has made $400 million worldwide so far.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.