Working with a Limiting Character: Mister Ed (TV Showcase #13)

I’ve watched alot of shows from the 1960s, and often, I see formulation. The shows become predictable in almost every episode. This was displayed in adventure shows like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” among others. But more than dramatic shows, I see formulation in sitcoms. While running gags are continually funny, 60s sitcoms oftentimes use them as a crutch and make the actual plot of the show predictable (this is especially present in “Get Smart”). There was a show from this era, however, that I looked for this kind of thing in, and surprisingly enough, it never bored me. Episode after episode, “Mister Ed” kept me wanting more, and naturally, there’s a reason.

“Mister Ed” was started in 1961 and ran for 143 half-hour episodes over six seasons, ending in 1966. The show was about Wilbur Post (played by Alan Young, voice of Scrooge McDuck and Jack Allen on “Adventures in Odyssey”) and his wife Carol, who buy a new house, behind which is a barn. Within the barn, Wilbur discovers that the owner has left his horse behind and doesn’t want him back. The horse then reveals to Wilbur that he can talk, and that his name is Mr. Ed. Ed has decided only to talk to Wilbur, which create some comedic situations that Wilbur must work his way out of (similar to “I Dream of Jeannie”). This doesn’t sound like a show that wouldn’t bore someone after a few episodes, but it was for me. But why?

Additionally, “Mister Ed” used a real horse for the main character, with a voice actor speaking off-screen while the horse had been trained to move his mouth. But this is a horse, who is the star of the show, which means that the gags are fairly limited. Verbal gags are definitely available, but as far as physical gags go, Ed can pick things up, push things around, and show up in places where horses just aren’t seen. So the character is very limiting to the overall show. So the question remains: how does the show pull off its level of entertainment with a main character like Ed?

One thing the showrunners did well was combining two ideas. You see, the Posts had two neighbors, who were a bit older, called the Addisons (and later the Kirkwoods). Oftentimes the Posts and Addisons had adventures completely separate from Ed while still keeping Ed at the focus of the show. It happened frequently that there would be a portion of an episode with Wilbur and Ed, and a portion where the storyline would switch between Ed’s escapade and the Posts and Addisons. I’ve come to describe “Mister Ed” as Francis the Talking Mule combined with “I Love Lucy”. And that’s basically what it was. The tension of Ed’s limited range of gags was lifted by Wilbur’s adventures elsewhere.

As far as human gags went, physical comedy was far and few between (though when it did happen it was fantastically done). Really the only thing that stood out about “Mister Ed” was its combination of two kinds of humour in order to make a very limited character into one that kept me entertained, even fifty years after it aired. What do you think?

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