Canada’s Subversive Sock Puppet: Ed the Sock Isn’t Afraid to Say Anything
Foul-mouthed chauvinist who flirted with chicks in a hot tub or celebrity-friendly sociopolitical satirist? The most candid media personality in Canada is Ed the Sock.
A food court in a suburban mall seemed like a good place to meet Ed the Sock. It was full of the sorts of people I used to be when I watched him on MuchMusic—bored, greasy-fingered teenagers. On Friday afternoon, I stood by the Burger King checking the bars on my phone like a kid with a curfew. We agreed on the Sheppard Centre shopping mall in north Toronto because it was convenient. “Not glamorous, but neither is Canadian media,” Steven Kerzner wrote in an email. He would know. He is the hand (and voice) behind the sock puppet whose loud gruff timber once rocked the quiet industry, and is about to do so again.
Most Canadians who grew up in the ‘90s know Ed the Sock. The green-haired cigar chewing ball of anger was a fixture on CITY-TV for much of the decade as host of the late-night hot tub talk show Ed’s Night Party, which debuted in 1994 along with MuchMusic’s video review show Ed’s Smash or Trash. (Ed later became ubiquitous on MuchMusic as a VJ, a celebrity interviewer at the Much Music Video Awards, and a host of the winter music fest SnowJob, Ed’s Big Wham Bam, and Fromage, the cheese-stuffed Christmas tradition that was packed away in 2006 but returned last year for charity.) Depending on who you ask, Ed was either Canada’s Howard Stern—the foul-mouthed chauvinist who flirted with chicks in a hot tub—or Jon Stewart—the celebrity friendly sociopolitical satirist. Either way, he stood out in a country whose media industry is often criticized for its milquetoast manner.
When CITY-TV dropkicked Ed the Sock off the air in 2008, he had been on the channel for 14 years, the longest-running late night host on Canadian TV. On Halloween Ed proved he has not been forgotten when he published a now-famous epistle in response to the Jian Ghomeshi scandal. In his signature style, it was the most un-PC and perhaps the most on point missive to come out of Canadian media. “CBC is singled out this time, but all broadcasters enable shitty behaviour from their meat puppets. They think they’re protecting valuable assets. They’re not, they’re guaranteeing decay,” he wrote. “So why don’t we use the Jian Ghomeshi revelations for more than some vindictive snickers, which I’ve engaged in too, and open a discussion about the workplace-enabling of assholes?”
The Facebook post received almost 5,000 shares and reached 423,000 people and, according to Kerzner, 3.5 million impressions on Twitter. It was picked up by The Huffington Post Canada and ET Canada and, since our meeting on Friday, two TV networks have “initiated contact” with Kerzner about Ed. He is also set to have a weekly video-column with a leading newssite, though, according to Kerzner, “It isn’t confirmed 100 percent yet.” Not bad for something that started out as an outlet for Kerzner’s anger. “I just got mad because this abuse of celebrity makes me sick,” he said. “You have this privilege to be famous and you use it as a cudgel?”
Ed the Sock is famous but Steven Kerzner is not. Based on his sock puppet, I expected him to be a burly bearded giant clad in plaid—basically, a Canadian Paul Bunyan. What I got was the opposite. Kerzner is small, bald, and a little nerdy. He speaks quickly and intelligently in a clear pleasant baritone, but you can still hear Ed the Sock’s bite in his voice.
Ed first appeared in 1987 on City By Night, a talk show on Newton Cable, a now-defunct offbeat indie cable network. Kerzner became the programming director in 1986—at all of 18—and conceived the gravelly-voiced puppet as a last-minute co-host for comedian Harland Williams. In high school, Kerzner and a friend had parodied their friends’ stepfathers and an early version of Ed appeared in a Super 8 film they made for class. So Kerzner had the voice, but not the body. He raided a metal cupboard at Newton where props for kids’ shows were stored. It contained, among other things, a park set with “green Fun Fur” for grass, a sock (“It was clean”), glue sticks and Letraset letters. Kerzner threw them together and called his creation Ed.
“His name was Ed because initially he was going to claim to be actor Ed Asner,” he said, pointing out the gruff editor Asner played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As for the cigar, that was an homage to The Thing from Marvel’s The Fantastic Four, as were some of the contractions in Ed’s speech. “Initially Ed was doing a shtick, sort of Borscht Belt vaudeville kind of stuff, doing mostly insults, and it was very, very limited,” Kerzner said. “It evolved almost from the beginning.”
He credits late comedian Eric Tunney, his co-host after Williams moved to Hollywood, with helping define Ed. It was Tunney with whom Ed got Robert Vaughn—the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” star who was performing dinner theatre in Toronto at the time—on the show to make fun of his anti-balding infomercials. By the time Newton was sold to Rogers, Tunney had gone out on his own (he died in 2010), and Ed landed his own talk show, Ed’s Night Party. After premiering on CITY-TV in 1994, it went on to air across the world, including G4 in the U.S, and inspire a cult following along with sock-drawers full of merchandise, all thanks to Kerzner, who was the show’s head writer, editor, booker, promoter, and executive producer.
“The thing about Ed is he’s so elastic,” Kerzner said (no pun intended).
Ed the Sock could be a chauvinist on Ed’s Night Party and excoriate pop culture on MuchMusic (he famously broke Lenny Kravitz’s stone face at the MMVAs in 2000), but he also offered thoughtful commentary on teen suicide, voter apathy (going so far as to stage mock election campaigns), the decriminalization of marijuana, and even 9/11. Kerzner made a conscious choice to turn Ed on to real issues to “maintain the integrity of the character” and to avoid becoming a mere gimmick.
“I realized at a certain point, on MuchMusic I think, that Ed’s voice was having such resonance and such influence on people that, OK, this is a responsibility,” he said. “I feel that there’s responsibility to use that voice to say things people are thinking but don’t have access to the media to say or don’t have the ability to enunciate.” Though Kerzner did concede that being a sock helped with his candor. “There’s a huge licence for non-human things,” he explained. “If you had a sitcom doing what Simpsons is doing it would never have gotten away with all those political jabs and all those social jabs.”
That’s not to say Ed doesn’t have his limits. Though Kerzner was once asked by a producer at MuchMusic to put Ed in Toronto’s Pride Parade, he resisted, instead dressing the puppet in a rainbow-coloured “heterosockual” shirt. “We were sort of a sheep in wolf’s clothing in some ways,” he said. “Ed being authentic and being who he was and people knowing he’s not just going to bow to politically correct pressures but then espousing progressive positions but in a language and a vernacular that the average person can relate to.”
It’s an approach that appears to be lacking in Canadian media. In an interview with Toronto Life last month, Jesse Brown, the Canadian crowd-funded journalist who broke the Jian Ghomeshi story, said, “[I] think, generally speaking, the Canadian press has strayed from its basic connection to its audience.” As an explanation, he offered, “I think that there’s a sense in the press that they don’t want to start something.”
Ed the Sock started something with Naomi Klein. The Canadian social activist and author of The Shock Doctrine wrote a lengthy column in The Toronto Star in 1995 lambasting Ed’s Night Party and the puppet’s media love-in, which was comparable to the U.S. media’s treatment of Lena Dunham today. Klein argued that Ed acquired his following by “an ancient ritual known as sexist jokes and lots of T&A.” She called him out for his misogynistic remarks and asked why, if the show was satire like everyone said, Ed had no foils. She also noted that Kerzner was a two-time candidate for Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party. “When I watch Ed’s Night Party now I see little more than a failed Tory politician cowering behind a couch, letting a sock do his dirty work,” she wrote.
Though it was unrelated—“Don’t even start me on Naomi Klein,” Kerzner said—Ed pulled his socks up after that. Two months after Klein’s article came out, Kerzner, who had been a conservative all his life, became a liberal. He continued to harbor core conservative beliefs, but started to believe they could be achieved “through liberal structures.” That and the conservatives pissed him off. Kerzner attended a P.C. Party meeting where he was labelled “comrade” by former friends for refusing to agree with them that women and kids were welfare cheats. “I quit the conservatives after Mike Harris got elected,” Kerzner said. “I quit right there, never went back.”
Then he met Liana Kitchen. The towering redheaded gaming journalist is “the unsung hero of Ed’s success,” her husband said (she and Kerzner wed in 1999). The duo first met in 1997 when Kerzner was playing Ed the Sock live. “I think there’s a better way to include women on your show that can be more burlesque and less stripper pole,” Liana told him. She suggested subtle changes that wouldn’t break the Ed formula but would give women more agency on the series. “My brand of feminism isn’t take things away, it’s let’s contextualize things,” she said. “Instead of being a sexy object, let’s be a sexy subject.”
Liana became a producer on Ed’s Night Party in 1998. She asked the largely male staff to drop instances in which women were presented as the other, but supported having porn stars as guests on the show because theirs was one of the few industries in which women were paid more than men. "We did our best to avoid cast members with obvious breast enlargements because we felt people were losing sight of what unadulterated bodies looked like,” she said. She added, “I wasn’t very popular.” But by 2004 Liana was the first female co-host on the show, which became known as Ed and Red’s Night Party. “It was clear that though Ed was this powerful character, he had a blind spot where women were concerned,” Kerzner said. Liana filled it in.
Four years later CITY-TV dropped Ed the Sock, but in 2011 he was back on what Steven called a “scrappy, independent” station, CHCH, with This Movie Sucks, which lampooned bad films, and I Hate Hollywood, which lampooned celebrities. That same year the Kerzners launched Ed and Red’s Podcast, which they revived this summer after a lengthy break.
Still, Ed the Sock is more active on Twitter these days, where he has more than 14 thousand followers. The Ghomeshi post further proved that there are people online who want him around, even if the TV networks don’t.
“I’ve been told by three places that Ed is too popular to put on TV,” Kerzner said. Liana added, “That’s code for, ‘We can’t own it.’” If the two networks that recently approached them don’t pan out, the Kerzners may take the character (or characters—there are currently 11 Ed puppets in their possession) online instead. “If broadcasters are going to serve as a filter keeping Ed out, then the best thing to do is to go to the next where there is no filter,” he said. “Ed’s sort of Canada’s inner voice. It’s the thing people are thinking but not saying, cause they’re afraid to say it. Someone needs to say these things.”