Geoff Edgers, an arts reporter for the Boston Globe, is risking his life -- or at least, the well-being of some vital muscles and ligaments -- to entertain America with a new show debuting Tuesday at 9 on the Travel Channel. Edgers, who wrote about arts for The News & Observer from 1996 to 2002, is the star of "Edge of America," a travelogue that combines the healthy spirit of American adventure with Edgers' love of quirky, off-beat people and places.
It premieres with back-to-back new episodes on Tuesday, January 22, at 9 p.m. Here's our review.
You may also recognize Edgers from his documentary about his quest to reunite The Kinks rock band called "Do It Again," which played at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham in 2010.
I talked to Edgers via telephone recently, while he was in the middle of filming an upcoming "Edge of America" episode, for which he climbed a 125-foot wall of ice in Ouray, Colorado. Edgers conducted the interview while following his crew up a steep hill in freezing temps.
Q: So what's the path from Boston arts reporter to Travel Channel daredevil?
EDGERS: I made the Kinks movie and a friend of mine who happens to be a Travel Channel executive liked it and he showed a short clip to some of his colleagues at Travel. They asked me to explore ideas with the production company, and we settled on the idea for this show. We filmed one pilot, which is the Oklahoma episode, in April, and they liked that so they said they'd buy six more. And they liked another one and they bought seven more, so suddenly we became a TV show. It's really just sort of about being in the right place at the right time, having that crazy Kinks movie and our having a good, creative meeting of the minds, you know? It's a very unlikely thing. I mean, it's not often that someone who's 42 years old ends up with a TV show kinda out of nowhere. Usually it's people who've been desperately trying to do this for years.
Q: You're going to make those people hate you by saying that.
EDGERS: I don't want anyone to hate me. I totally get that it's a rare opportunity that I appreciate completely, and I almost can't believe it's happening. But that said, it's not like when I was 25 I said, "Damn, my dream is to be on screen." It just kind of happened.
Q: Do you come up with the ideas for the episodes?
EDGERS: I work with Magilla [Entertainment] ("Long Island Medium," "Moonshiners"). At this point, I'm the host and the writer. In most situations I'm really just the host, but I really push to be the writer because I believe in writing, I love writing, and I want it to be in my voice. But the reality is, I've got researchers in New York who are coming up with places and events to go to and we all pitch 'em around and talk to the folks at the Travel Channel, and we come to a meeting of the minds, as far as what right for us. I know what's right for us, but I don't have to do all that grunt work because I'm not the producer.
Q: Has Travel vetoed anything you really wanted to do?
EDGERS: Yeah, but veto isn't the right word. It's more about the mix. So for example, I was desperate to do a demolition derby and I kept telling them I wanted to do it. I would find one in Maine or New Hampshire and they'd say no, and then we ended up doing one in Pennsylvania. There's a structure to the show. We have three events and you don't want to have, for example, three food-related things in an episode, three animal-related things, three sports. The show, what's beautiful about it, I think, is one day I might be eating something weird and then I might not eat anything else on camera for six episodes.
The purpose of the show is to find out about cool and unexpected things people are doing for fun around the country. But it really could be anything. It just has to be outside the mainstream and also be sort of special to that place.
Q: This one is from our guest reviewer, Tom Edwards. After watching the first two episodes, Tom wants to know if there's anything you wouldn't do?
EDGERS: I was looking at base-jumping off this bridge in Virginia or West Virginia. I looked at that because I do sometimes come up with things -- like in New York we played old-time baseball and I remember watching that on the Conan O'Brien Show, so I picked that and we did that. But the base-jumping, part of me was like, "That'd be pretty cool!" But then I looked at it and it was just like a death sentence, you know? You need a parachute, it's maybe a couple thousand feet, and I realized it was a mistake. And the reality is, Magilla is protective of me, too. They don't want me to get hurt or die, so they're always putting helmets on me, or sometimes they'll have me ride shotgun. So there are always things I can't do. But then I'm often surprised at the things I am doing that seem crazy to me. I'm flying a seaplane after never flying anything, or I'm smashing up a car or I drag-raced in Texas. These are all totally out-of-body experiences. Even this ice thing: I'm tied in, I'm not gonna die, but it feels pretty scary.
Q: Have you gotten hurt doing anything yet?
EDGERS: I have, yeah. My shoulder is kinda wrecked. I wrecked it throwing a bike in Oregon. It hurts. I still do everything but I've been going into physical therapy at Mass General Hospital and it's better. I think it's just a muscle problem. It hurts but it's not like a massive tear where I couldn't lift my arm. But then I'll be out, like today, I'm climbing the side of a wall of ice with a hammer and I'm using my shoulder and I know when I go back to the guy at Mass General, he'll be like, "what happened now?" And I'll be like, "Well, I was ice-climbing." So it's hard to heal. Also, from unicycle football, which I did in Texas, my whole body from my waist down was covered in bruises. The show, I think, doesn't work if I fake it. I don't know how much faking goes on on TV because I just don't have enough experience, but I assume some. But I don't think you can really get the feeling of what it's like to go bike-jousting unless you actually do it. So it's important to me to do each thing as genuinely as I can.
Q: About that premiere episode … What does still-beating-heart of a rattlesnake taste like?
EDGERS: You know, it had a kind of an aftertaste of blood. I have to admit I didn't chew it. But, that's an example. I was sitting there, thinking about it, trying to come up with a plan. And when you watch those macho guys like Anthony Bourdain -- have you ever seen him eat the snake heart? He did it once. He ate the heart of a cobra. And it's just funny because it's so different from the way I do it. He did it and he was like, "Gimme that thing before it gets cold!" I mean, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I mean, it's the heart of a snake, it's disgusting! But it's out in front of me, and I'm there and I'm thinking, "Should I do it? Should I not do it?" And the whole time they're filming and I'm going through this inner dialogue and finally I'm just like, "You know what? I'm here. I'm never going to be at the Rattlesnake Derby in Mangum, Oklahoma, again with a beating heart in front of me. I gotta do it." So I did.
Q: Any chance you'll bring your adventures to North Carolina?
EDGERS: Not in the first season, the first season is going to wrap up in California soon. I've been pitching North Carolina hard, I've gotta say. I really want to go there. There are two things I've done, because I'm always a promoter of North Carolina. One was in USA Today. They asked me for fun things to do on New Year's Eve for families and they published a list I put together. One of the things I mentioned was the Mount Olive Festival [NC Pickle Festival]. I love North Carolina. The second one I did was Travel asked me to put together a list of cool things to go see for festivals, and that'll go up on the website before the show starts. And I mentioned the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville. It just hasn't worked out yet [for the show].I hope that if we get a second season that we will go to North Carolina and I know that we did talk about a few different things going on there. It's just really become about the mix of 13 episodes.
Q: How has this experience with Travel been different from making your Kinks documentary?
EDGERS: Well, the beauty of this is that I don't have to lose money and I also don't have to do all the grunt work. I feel like I'm treated like King Olaf, you know? Never mind that we have professionals directing behind the cameras and working sound, but I have professionals arranging my airline tickets and car and getting me a bag of peanuts. It's exhausting and it's an incredible amount of work, but it's part of a team. And the Kinks movie, there was some team in it, but it was also just a lot of endless grunt work with no clear end in sight. We work on a schedule, these guys are professionals, they know what they're doing, and more than anything, they really have fun. Our crew has great fun when we're shooting and I know that Travel loves our show. They're really pushing it, I can tell. The amount of commercials and the amount of ideas they have … I just ripped my pants again …
But I loved doing the Kinks thing. It was in its own way really artistic and creative and you had real control over how it was going to play out. But it was also more seat-of-your-pants and also more ragged and I couldn't have been happier with the final product, but the reality is, I am probably thirty grand in the hole from that, and I actually get paid for this.
Q: Any chance "Do It Again" will ever make it to DVD?
EDGERS: I doubt it'll ever come out on regular DVD or download because really the only issue is that Ray Davies has never rejected or approved it. And if Ray Davies doesn't approve the licensing request, it can't come out. So I suggest to folks that if they want to see it, they send him letters because he's unresponsive. He doesn't want it to come out, I guess. I mean, I said I would put it out and give him all the profits and only take what it costs to burn the DVDs. Still nothing.
Q: So, you're at Travel and Anthony Bourdain is now at CNN. Did you get his parking space?
EDGERS: No! You know, it's a real interesting thing, because there's a whole new culture I think at Travel where Bourdain is obviously the king of non-fiction television, and he's gone. So there's a whole group of people who are now stepping in there. You have Adam Richman and Andrew Zimmern who have been there, but you also have Jordan Hembrough, the "Toy Hunter." He just got approved for a second season. I like that show a lot. I'm a collector type and I think he's likable. And Anthony Melchiorri, from "Hotel Impossible." So who knows where this is going to lead. Everybody wants to be the next Bourdain, but what I'm just trying to do is be myself.
Everything we do has to be active, it has to be special and it has to involve me doing something that I probably shouldn't be doing. You're never going to see me sitting with a rock star eating a juicy piece of steak. Unless I'm wearing a tutu.
Q: Even if that rock star is Ray Davies?
EDGERS: Even if it's Ray Davies. Only if at the same time, someone is trying to shoot an apple off my head at an archery event. We're not just not gonna do food porn or "Hey, look at this beach."
Q: You and your wife [Carlene Hempel] lived in Raleigh for about six years while you worked at the N&O. List the ways Raleigh is better than Boston.
EDGERS: Um, the weather is better, the traffic, the actual cost of living is better. . . . The fact is, we would have lived in Raleigh for the rest of our lives except that we really value our families and they're all up in Boston. But we were heartbroken to move away from Raleigh. We loved being there. We loved our house, we loved our neighborhood, we loved the diversity, the music, the food, the atmosphere.
Q: Are you at the top of the mountain yet?
EDGERS: We didn't shoot that thing after all. I'll have to ask the director why. But apparently we're going to get lunch and then do a bunch of interviews, and then we have a seven hour drive to the Fruitcake Toss. Is there anyone else on TV who would drive seven hours to participate in a Fruitcake Toss? Other than a bunch of fruitcakes?
"Edge of America" debuts Tuesday, January 22 on the Travel Channel at 9 p.m. Travel can be found on channels 354 and 1354 on Time Warner Cable; channel 277 on DirecTV; channels 254 and 1254 on AT&T U-verse; and channel 196 on Dish Network.
Don't forget to read our review of the show.
Photos courtesy of The Travel Channel