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Northeastern Exposure

'Letterman's' Rob Burnett returns to the leafy suburbs of his youth to film his new show. That's so 'Ed.'

October 22, 2000|ROBERT STRAUSS | Robert Strauss is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey

NORTHVALE, N.J. — For a guy with the big title, the office doesn't have much of a view. Even on the sunniest of days, Rob Burnett looks out of his ground-floor window onto a cinder-block wall painted several shades of dirty beige. It's certainly not Broadway, which is where Burnett has resided the last four years as executive producer of "The Late Show With David Letterman."

But for now, Burnett is taking leave from his daily "Letterman" duties and is the creator and executive producer of "Ed," a critically embraced new hour comedy-drama that Times television critic Howard Rosenberg described as "a warm, tender, funny, smart brand of storytelling that potentially may lift this series high into the stratosphere of elite television." It drew an estimated 16.46 million people to its season premiere earlier this month.

"Ed" is the first major network series in recent memory to be shot primarily in the leafy suburban towns of Bergen County, just across the Hudson River from New York. "I am not scared to be quoted saying that I love New Jersey," says Burnett, in almost Lettermanic deadpan.

He is sitting in his spare office, dotted mostly with videotapes, scripts and an eclectic array of relatively healthy snacks--Diet Coke, Diet A&W Rootbeer, Fiber One cereal. He says, though, that he is becoming partial to the doughnuts from Trautwein's farm market in nearby Closter. "Yes, I love New Jersey," he sighs.

While Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants production company produces "Ed," mostly inhabits high-end 5th Avenue suits, Burnett is comfortable in the "Ed" offices and on the set across Paris Avenue in a Jerseyfied shorts and T-shirt ensemble.

That is appropriate since "Ed" tells the story of a New York lawyer fired from his firm for forgetting a comma in a 500-page brief. (Unfortunately, that lost comma cost the firm nearly $2 million in a case.) In addition, Ed's wife left him for an allegedly better man--the mailman.

So Ed (played by previously unknown actor Tom Cavanagh) heads back to his small hometown of Stuckeyville, Ohio, where he spent the best years of his life. He's out to woo the girl he had a crush on--but never dated--in high school, and in the process finds joy in buying the town's old bowling alley and moving in with his best buddy, a doctor, and his beautiful wife and new baby.

To re-create all this uplifting wonderment, Burnett and his crew have taken over the defunct Country Club Lanes on Paris Avenue, just off the main shopping strip in this small village just south of the New York state border. Sixteen of the old AMF automatic lanes in the vintage 1950s alley are now the Stuckey Bowl, while the crew has outfitted the rest of the building for stage sets.

Outdoor scenes are being shot in the close-by towns of Westwood, Ridgewood, Norwood and Old Tappan in Bergen County and at Montclair High School in Essex County. The Runcible Spoon restaurant in nearby Nyack, N.Y., doubles as the pie shop where Ed and his buddies hang out, and Joel's in Ridgewood, N.J., plays their favorite coffeehouse. Yet all of these towns are stand-ins for a vague Midwestern feel that Burnett wants for "Ed," in the same way Washington state played Alaska and its sensibility for "Northern Exposure."

"We want people to hear the cicadas chirping and the branches bending in the breeze," says Burnett, not altogether sardonically. "It's amazing how Midwestern New Jersey can feel, and we want that kind of feeling through the show."

Burnett also wouldn't mind the cult status that "Northern Exposure" had in its heyday, because he hopes that "Ed" has that same texture.

"This is definitely not a sitcom," he says. "There are few zingy one-liners and there is a definite dramatic element. We want it to be funny, sure, but there is a story to it. It's a humorous drama and there are very few of them. I guess I'd have to say that either people will really like it or I will be asked to leave television forever."

That is unlikely, since Burnett is keeping close ties to Letterman. He has been careful not to steal any writers from "The Late Show" and spends part of his 18-hour days in touch with that show's staff.

But for the next several months--and pending success in the ratings, the upcoming years--Northvale and the old bowling alley, with its kitschy light turquoise and off-white interior, will be the primary home for Burnett and "Ed."

"I think this will mean great things for the Greek restaurant around the corner," says Burnett of the Greek Village on Livingston Street. "Especially if they keep filling me up with their souvlaki."

"Ed" was originally created for CBS, and even though Burnett's producing partner is Viacom, which now owns CBS, the network passed on it and let it go to NBC.

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