Jake Sasseville, the host and creator of a fledgling late-night show called The Edge With Jake Sasseville, is standing in his office, just back from lunch, when his assistant, Gina, walks in holding a bank statement. A camera is trained on him as he realizes his checking account is overdrawn by $2,500. It’s Thursday afternoon in November, and payroll—a $30,000 tab—is due the next day.
As executive producer, Jake, a 22-year-old with a Morrissey-style pompadour, is responsible for the bills. He’s neither cool (he likes to do this goofy shoulder shimmy he calls the “Jake Shake”) nor rich (he’s the son of a teacher and a life coach), and he is raising the money for The Edge as he goes along. Now, eight weeks into filming and three months before the premiere, he’s already out of cash. But Jake likes to characterize problems as “opportunities.”
He calls his bank, asking if there are any “short-term opportunities” to help “bridge the gap.” No luck. He tries to get on CNN. Nothing. When staffers arrive the next day, they refuse to work until they get paid. Jake decides to call his first significant advertiser, Overstock.com, which has already committed $125,000. He asks for $25,000 of that immediately, confessing that he’s in a bind.
With no firm answer, he hangs up and fires off an e-mail thanking the company, writing “Free Brownies” in the subject line. Around 2 p.m., Jake takes a cameraman with him to the bank while he asks for a line of credit. He returns to have his head writer, a former Chappelle’s Show staffer, quit. And then, at four, his business manager, sitting at Jake’s desk, sees an e-mail from Overstock.com: “Re: Free Brownies.”
“What does it say?” Jake asks.
“Send the brownies, and I’ll send the $25,000.”
Even in this age of viral marketing, when Verizon and Chase have Facebook pages, why would Overstock.com, which sells sewing machines and slipcovers, give this kid $125,000? When Jake e-mailed Overstock’s branding department last year, The Edge was little more than a stash of rented cameras, a small staff, and an idea. He wrote a short, not especially well-punctuated e-mail, framing his show as a David-and-Goliath story. Something about it—his audacity, his youth, his potential to reach the Generation Y demographic—struck a nerve, and Overstock senior vice-president Stormy Simon e-mailed back. “Is it a gamble? Absolutely,” says Simon. “He’s sincere, he’s trustworthy, he works so hard, and if he strikes gold, it’s worth being affiliated.”
Jake’s is a simple, if old-school, plan for stardom: Buy airtime on ABC affiliates across the country, generally stations where late-late-night programming means reruns or, more often, infomercials. (In fact, Jake’s show is arguably an informercial itself.) Pitch advertisers on a new route to the lucrative twentysomething demographic, build a cult following, and eventually walk into a network meeting holding all the cards.
Beginning on Valentine’s Day and then continuing for thirteen weeks, The Edge will air after ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live in about 40 markets (and on My9 on Saturdays in New York). The name refers to the kind of unscripted, cheeky comedy that Jake is aiming for, which he characterizes as “the space between mainstream and extreme.” When pressed, he agrees that the show’s theme, like its financing, is being worked out on the fly.
Loosely speaking, The Edge revolves around short, informal interviews with various folks on the sliding scale of celebrity (30 Rock actors Katrina Bowden and Keith Powell, MTV V.J. Cipha Sounds) and homespun comedy bits shot on the streets of New York. Jake has plans to pogo-stick across Brooklyn, racing the G train. He’s already panhandled and played guide on a New York City bus tour. “I tried to do it like a stand-up routine,” he tells me with a wince. “We’re going to redo it.”
Perhaps the closest The Edge gets to a philosophy is its transparent self-obsession. “I don’t just want to host a talk show,” Jake says in one episode. “I want to show how a 21-year-old gets his own show within a talk show ... Is it Jake making an advertising deal? Is that the show? ... Or is Jake going speed dating with the cast of Saturday Night Live? Maybe that’s the show.” Jake crosses a street. “What if it were all the show, all at the same time, while the show’s in progress? Yeah!” he shouts, and trips over the sidewalk.
When Jake was in high school, in southern Maine, he started a cable-access show for teens, and scored interviews with Dennis Kucinich and a former Survivor contestant. He arrived in New York as a freshman at the New York Institute of Technology, determined to re-create the show as his generation’s version of The Larry Sanders Show.
Jake’s uploaded a handful of clips to YouTube and updated his MySpace page, but he’s shirking the Web 2.0 route to success. His Website directs visitors to a form letter (“I want my Jake after Jimmy on ABC!!”) that is sent to ABC’s development offices in L.A. “If I can get myself on in 70 percent of ABC markets, they’re going to have to at least take a meeting with me,” he explained last fall. And long-term? “I want to create an empire.”
In the meantime, part of the show’s appeal is built around whether it’ll make it at all. Tune into The Edge and watch a hyperactive kid careen toward fame or oblivion. See him plan his show in Queens (where, incidentally, he sleeps on a nearby deflated air mattress). Then gawk as mock triumph is followed by mock defeat. The camera rolls when Ford delivers a new car (Ford has signed a six-figure deal with The Edge), and is still rolling 24 hours later, after it’s been towed.
In January, Jake scores a short interview with Wyclef Jean at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square. I ask Jake if he’s a fan. “Not until we booked him.” Two index cards filled with Wyclef facts are tucked in his pockets, but he has no questions. “I think I’m just going to let it flow,” Jake says, as he grabs a diet Red Bull. The Edge gets eight minutes of Wyclef’s time, and Jake spends it mainly on small talk. He asks what it was like to work with Shakira and awkwardly tries out some slang he learned from Cipha Sounds. Wyclef obliges Jake with a quick, a cappella version of “If I Was President,” and the interview ends. As the two men stand for pictures, Wyclef leans in and asks Jake if he’s read much about Alexander the Great. “He conquered the world at your age.”