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Trojan Horse

Prime time’s first countercultural hero was a palomino named Mr. Ed.

Since humankind first donned stirrups, this planet has been home to two groups of people: those who love horses and those who find the creatures, with their shaggy bangs and Richard Branson teeth, a little weird. Mister Ed, which premiered in 1961 and ran for five years, was born in equal measure of both tastes. For horse lovers, it was an anthropomorphic Liebestraum, a vision of the world in which hoofed beasts were not just lithe and gorgeous but possessed of an uncommon, prime-time-eligible wit. (Ed, the talking palomino, got his own billing in the credits and most of the show’s best lines.) For the ambivalent, there was the added comedy of seeing a gawky animal enjoy the sacraments of postwar culture. Ed submits to psychoanalysis, goes to costume pageants, orders shoes over the phone. The joke is not just that he acts human; it’s the implication that the better part of early-’60s home life could be managed, quite adeptly, by a horse with a vocabulary.

Today, the show remains bizarrely, often startlingly, funny, and the reason is largely this playful skewering of the era’s domestic conventions. Mister Ed was both a product of its time and an indictment of it. The show straddled a seam in postwar life—the great migration, basically, from long skirts to long hair—and channeled both worlds as a result. Its first episodes were sponsored by a group of Studebaker dealerships, then ascendant, and they aired during the final three weeks of the Eisenhower administration. By the time the finale appeared in February 1966, Studebaker had the death rattle, Johnson was ramping up the war, and Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde. Like most TV shows of that era, Mister Ed was flying into a cultural crosswind. Unlike many, it had seen the storm approaching from the start. The oracle of change, in this case, was the horse.

In order to appreciate just what Mr. Ed brings to the small screen, it is helpful to imagine Mister Ed minus its four-legged star. A horseless version of the show would have been uninspired but not unwatchable. Stripped of its barnyard conceit, the program is essentially a couples farce like I Love Lucy: Husbands and wives drop in on one another’s homes for badinage and card games; team up, men vs. women; and bumble through domestic and career imbroglios that vanish by the closing credits. The first episode of the show’s debut season (recently rereleased on DVD) begins with Wilbur Post, a freelance architect, carrying his wife across the threshold of a Southern California house they cannot quite afford. “Oh, darling, isn’t it beautiful?” she exclaims. “And it’s all ours.” “Yes,” Wilbur croons back. “Yours and mine and man from the bank.” Their first domestic argument follows after a short commercial break.

It’s into this precarious late-Eisenhower bliss that Mr. Ed appears. He is a horse with an uncertain past. The previous residents of the Posts’ house “had to leave in a hurry,” whatever that might mean, and left the animal behind. Wilbur is smitten. When he finds the horse can speak—and only to him!—he takes up the animal as his life coach, prophet, and professional consultant. Wilbur configures his home office such that his drafting board is beside the window where Ed holds forth, and he spends hours of each week playing attorney to the horse’s whims. Frequently, Mr. Ed’s whims run directly contrary to those of Wilbur’s wife, Carol. Alarmingly, Wilbur often ends up siding with the horse. It is difficult to shake the sense that underneath the Doris Day-grade cheer, this is a wickedly dysfunctional household.

What, exactly, is Ed’s hold over his owner? This is unclear. Mr. Ed and Wilbur’s shared live-work space casts them into a bizarre yin-yang symbiosis: Ed is the horse who talks, and Wilbur is the man who spends his days in a barn. Wilbur is naive and suggestible. Ed is tetchy, enterprising, urbane. The horse’s default mode is accusatory going on paranoid, and he retches his sentences from deep within the throat like William S. Burroughs after a hard night. His mangy teeth flash at the camera. Ed finds Wilbur and Carol’s chaste lovey-dovey exchanges “sickening” and doesn’t shy from bawdier flights of erotic realism. In one episode, Carol starts spending a bit too much time out with her club for her husband’s taste. “If you were a real man,” Ed chides Wilbur, “she’d stay home nights.” We know what he’s talking about, but it’s hard to believe that Wilbur does.

At the start of the first season, Wilbur’s white-bread innocence and Mr. Ed’s picaresque retorts come from two different worlds. (Both were actually scripted by a rotating cast of writers, including Ben Starr, who went on to write for The Brady Bunchand The Facts of Life.) For the modern viewer, this cross-lighting can produce some strange illusions. Ed’s ironic rejoinders seem, at times, like the jaded commentary of someone watching the show 50 years later.

It is tempting to regard Mr. Ed as Wilbur’s id incarnate: the racy voice that speaks to him when he is all alone, unhampered by his wife, his neighbors, and their all-devouring Gemütlichkeit. That’s a fair assessment—Mr. Ed’s complaints could easily point toward a black-hole-of-the-postwar-soul of the kind we hear so much about. But take another step back, and a more surprising constellation comes into focus. The horse’s quirks gesture less toward suburban malaise and more toward a kind of nascent counterculture.

Slowly, details of Ed’s background emerge. In his younger years, he was “a crazy, mixed-up 2-year-old.” These days, his sensibilities run toward the funky arts: He plays the harmonica, digs slushy Leonard Bernstein concerts on TV, and once moonlights as a songwriter. As Wilbur leaves the house one night after a painting project, he stumbles on Ed dressed à la bohème. “Ed, what in the world are you doing in that beret?” he says. “I got a little filly coming over for a sittin’,” the horse croons. His attitude toward sex is libertine and rakish. (Wilbur: “Women—think we’ll ever understand them?” Ed, with a low drawl: “Don’t try. Just enjoy ‘em.”) Wilbur accuses him of being a layabout and a financial drain. In short, Ed hails from a world more Greenwich Village than Greater L.A. When Wilbur and his neighbor plan a fishing trip to Ensenada, south of the border, the horse is weirdly keen to come along. Those of us blessed with cultural hindsight can’t help but wonder about his motives: Just what business does Mr. Ed have in Mexico in 1961?

It’s useful to think of Mr. Ed’s irony as a form of gallows humor, coming after the culture’s best promises have been condemned. There is no happy future for the ideals Wilbur and Carol chase: Their best friends, Roger and Kay, about a decade older, consistently remind them that their love will fade; their house will turn into a war zone. Meanwhile, the world outside was changing. Howlhad been tried for obscenity four years earlier and won. An early Mister Ed fundraising junket shared an airplane with the Kennedy campaign. And by the time the first season concluded, the birth-control pill was being marketed. Ed himself listens in compulsively on every call via a phone extension in the barn, terrified of collusion and entropy in the midst of a brief era when such fears were relatively suppressed in public life.

The clearest evidence that Mr. Ed resonated with uniquely early-’60s anxieties is that previous conceptions of the show, in various forms, fizzled. The character of Ed is based on stories by Walter R. Brooks, but the concept of a speaking equine came to the screen in the ‘50s with Francis the Talking Mule. Francis shared with Ed a director, Arthur Lubin, and trainer, Les Hilton. And Francis is, like Ed, a drawling wisenheimer. But Francisis tedious. Where Ed comes off as a laconic roué, the talking mule is a chatty pedant, the sort of character you spend a cocktail party trying to avoid. An early Mr. Ed pilot, with a different cast, fell flat as well. It wasn’t till the 1961 show, with its central opposition—Wilbur and his family-friendly clowning running up against the cooler, wryer, Dylan-era humor of Ed—that the concept clicked. (The series won the best-comedy Golden Globe in 1963.)

Ed is not actually a swinger, or an agitator, or a folk musician, of course. He’s a horse. But he serves as a repository for signs of cultural unrest—disenchantment with postwar domesticity, educated profligacy, arcane tastes, vindictiveness. His role, as a comedian, was to neutralize those signs in prime time. He makes the first stirrings of cultural upheaval laughable by keeping them contained, quite literally, in a small suburban barn. The containment effort may have worked too well: If there’s an arc of change across Mister Ed’sfirst season, it’s a slow erosion of the boundary between Wilbur’s and Ed’s worldviews. By its final episodes, he is crying because he “got a tummy ache” and vacuuming Wilbur’s office out of the kindness of his heart. He starts, in other words, to be domesticated.

In 1966, the network canceled the show, claiming its subject matter had become too “bucolic.” Perhaps this was a way of saying that by 1966, the culture of Mister Ed—Wilbur’s world of separate beds and neck scarves—was draining out of the zeitgeist. Alan Young, who played Wilbur, went on to voice Scrooge McDuck and other 2-D personalities. Bamboo Harvester, the animal who played Ed, retired to a stable in Burbank, Calif. Several myths surround his demise, but according to the most compelling one, the horse passed on in 1970. The cause of death was said to be a tranquilizer overdose.

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