Horse talks. Makes smartass joke. Human master flustered. Viewer laughs. Repeat.
By Paul Mavis
We had a rather remarkable response to the first season review of Mister Ed here at Drunk TV (or so we’ve been told…the, um…offices were closed at that time due to a slight mix-up at the bank). So, what could be more natural than flogging a dead horse? Let’s giddyup with season two of the classic CBS sitcom Mister Ed, which aired from October, 1961 to April, 1962.
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At first glance, this second go-around looks exactly the same as the debut, with absolutely pin-point comedic timing by the quartet of pro comedic actors, funny scripts and killer one-liners, and expert thesping by Bamboo “Mister Ed” Harvester and vocalist Allan “Rocky” Lane. Closer examination, though, shows some tweaks to the formula: Mr. Ed whines and cries a bit more, while keeping his boisterous bullying in check; Wilbur finally gets a backbone; and Carol finally sees where she fits in in this marriage (behind the horse). Thank god one thing hasn’t changed: next-door-neighbors Kay and Roger Addison continue to hate each other’s guts.
A synopsis of Mister Ed‘s central story line seems absurd by this point―who doesn’t at least know what this show is about?―but here goes. Young Southern Californian architect Wilbur Post (Alan Young) decides it’s time to move out of the city and into the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Buying a beautifully appointed country house (at 17230 Valley Spring Drive) with his sweet, charming wife Carol (Connie Hines) by his side, Wilbur is looking forward to converting the ramshackle barn out back into his drafting room and office.
But on moving day, both he and Carol discover something in the barn that wasn’t there when they first bought the house: an equally ramshackle palomino horse. Wilbur, remembering his childhood days growing up in a house similar to this one―but without the pony he always wanted―is all for recapturing his youth and keeping the horse, something his wife Carol is against…even after Wilbur cleans and brushes the beautiful palomino. But that act of kindness on Wilbur’s part towards the horse convinces Mr. Ed to finally speak to a human, shocking Wilbur into wild-eyed incredulity (while convincing his bickering neighbors, Roger and Kay Addison, played by Larry Keating and Edna Skinner, that they sold their adjacent property to a certifiable head case).
Wilbur wasn’t hearing things―Mr. Ed the horse…can really talk. And to top off that miraculous feat, Mr. Ed is also a bit of a smart-ass and very probably more intelligent than the kind but fumbling Wilbur. And that context sets up the myriad number of gags and misunderstandings that will follow in Mister Ed, because Mr. Ed, out of a combination of stubbornness and laconic, needling perversity, will only speak to Wilbur―no one else. Let the farce begin.
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It’s apparent that in season two, Mister Ed‘s writers and producers were perfecting the gimmicks and techniques and comedy routines that had already worked in season one. Ed’s still obsessed with television, a nicely self-serving character motif that TV-crazy kids at home must have identified with (he wants an expensive color set for his one-year anniversary as Wilbur’s horse). And he still gets lonely stuck out in the barn; that is, when Wilbur isn’t in there working in his office right next to the stable (again, what kid didn’t get that Ed was just like them: a petulant smartass frequently sent to his room/stable for wising off?).
Ed’s remarkable ability to use the phone―his only real connection to the outside world since he refuses to speak to anyone other than Wilbur, fearing he’ll be labeled as “just another freak”―is often cleverly employed to create further tension between Wilbur and Carol (standard set-up: Ed calls Wilbur with fake emergency. Wilbur lies to Carol. Wilbur leaves Carol―often right before impending sex. Carol cries.). Ed’s phone adventures also provide plenty of funny afterthoughts for viewers once a particular gag is over. For instance, in Ed’s New Neighbors, Ed orders up a goodbye cake to moving-away Roger. Ed had the shop write, “Goodbye, Sour Puss,” on it (Ed reasoned, “It got a big laugh from the baker.”)…but who accepted delivery for the cake, and how was it paid for? The writers always seemed to take particular delight in suggesting a whole other world that Ed operated in to which we the viewers weren’t privy.
Roger and Kay’s marriage still operates like the demilitarized zone between two warring lands, with both of these bickering “hurtmates” locked in mortal verbal combat. In Ed the Voter, Kay cries despondently to Roger, “You don’t love me!” which prompts this qualified response from her cynical sharpie husband: “That’s not…exactly true.” In The Wrestler, Roger describes his wife’s performance in a ballet leotard thusly: “She looks like a plucked chicken trying to wriggle off a butcher’s hook.” Not to be outdone, in Ed’s Bed, a placid Kay reassures a shaken, hurt Carol, who’s ready to leave Wilbur, “It takes years of living together for a couple to really hate each other.”
Indeed, the one-liners for all the performers are still as strong here as in the first season (according to Alan Young, co-producer George Burns would still slip a joke or two in each episode). Choosing a favorite out of so many is impossible, but the first one that comes to mind is from Horse Wash, where a dirty, disheveled Ed tells Wilbur about his plan to lose 40 pounds (to impress the fillies): “So I went to the park to run it off,” “Where’d you go?” “Santa Anita. I came in second.” (how many of us from that TV generation heard countless “Santa Anita” racetrack jokes before we even knew what “the track” was?). Ed even gets his own catchphrase this season―”Holler, but don’t hit”―not exactly a knockout, but funny when Allan “Rocky” Lane warbles it (as is anything that pro says).
The traditional sitcom battle of the sexes continues at the Posts, the most significant skirmish waged in Ed the Salesman, where imperious Wilbur puts his foot down about Carol’s constant gabbing on his business phone line…and Carol’s determination to get a job and pay her own way. She capitulates at the end and comes home, but before I get a flood of angry comments about how limiting traditional gender roles were on TV back then (uh…go shave your armpits, ladies), Wilbur begs her to come back and be a homemaker because he misses her company…and that’s where she said she wanted to be all along, anyway (being a CEO is easier than being a homemaker, pal).
Further tweaking this framework, the writers have now firmly put Carol in the middle of the love triangle between herself, Wilbur and Ed…with Carol not loving Ed so much (the writers are careful, though, to have Carol always “come around” about Mister Ed, so as not to have the kiddie viewers out there think she’s unsympathetic to their hero). For example, in The Horsetronaut, Carol shows her displeasure when Wilbur innocently states he likes working at home, because of all the love and inspiration he receives there…from Ed. Increasingly, the writers will put Wilbur in a position where he has to choose between Carol and Ed, with Wilbur choosing Ed almost every time. However, they’re smart enough to have Carol ultimately forgiving Wilbur for his strong bond with Ed (turning her into a too-strident harpy against Ed would only sour the show’s sweet, sexy chemistry between Wilbur and Carol).
Come to think of it, the writers tweaked the Ed character a bit here, too, in this second season. During the first, Ed was much more assertive in his dominance over Wilbur (it was often implied that he was smarter than his “owner”), but now, Wilbur is far more likely to demand Ed bow to his wishes…with typically disastrous results. As a result, Ed seems to be a bit more sentimental about his relationship with Wilbur, and sensitive to Wilbur’s angry admonishments (there are numerous close-ups of Ed crying this season over some slight by Wilbur). Ed’s still a hipster, using terms like “gasser” and talking about “fillies that like to really swing,” but that more adult persona (so effectively used in the first season) isn’t used as often as the “Ed-as-whiney-child” character, where he constantly worries about Wilbur leaving him, or bitches about his living conditions, or runs away from home (at least twice this season), or when he does something childish he knows is wrong (eating all of Roger’s apples in Ed’s Word of Honor―after being told specifically not to―Ed whimpers, “My little tummy hurts,”).
Ed certainly isn’t a push-over; I love his good-bye note after he crashes through his locked stable in The Lie Detector: “They haven’t made the stable that can hold this horse.” But Ed seems a bit more circumspect in his antagonism towards Wilbur. In Horse Wash, Ed tries the trick made famous by every muttering teenager with a gripe out there―soundlessly mouthing insults to Wilbur―but Wilbur, showing his increased savvy in handling Ed (and his growing willingness to lay down the law), can read Ed’s lips, and he throws the insults right back at the smart-alecky horse…something that didn’t happen all that often in the first season. I’ve always wondered if this softening of the Ed character was demanded by CBS, when the formerly syndicated show moved to network.
As to whether or not Mister Ed‘s loyal fan base noticed these changes, it’s tough to say. In fact, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how many viewers indeed were loyal fans of the show, since it only played as a traditional “evening” program during its second and last years on CBS (during the all-important Nielsen prime-time ratings bracket). Originally sold directly into syndication in January of 1961 through its sponsor, the Studebaker automobile company, this “failed” network pilot-turned-syndicated-hit garnered such strong local ratings in towns all over the country that spring and summer of 1961 that CBS took another look at Mister Ed and brought it on board, unchanged in production and cast, as an official network series in October of 1961.
Running at the very early hour of 6:30 on Sundays, right before a powerhouse evening lineup of Lassie (15th for the year), Dennis the Menace (17th), The Ed Sullivan Show (19th), G.E. Theater, The Jack Benny Show, Candid Camera (10th), and What’s My Line?, Mister Ed didn’t qualify to be counted in the prime-time Nielsen ratings, but its success―even at that early time slot―was significant enough that CBS renewed the series for an additional four seasons. And of course, its popularity has never waned; to this day, it’s still playing somewhere in the world, every single day, and that hasn’t stopped in over sixty years―a true testament to this delightful show’s enduring appeal.