Prime time's first countercultural hero was a palomino named Mr. Ed.
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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Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell. Clips from Mister Ed © Orion Production Corp. All rights reserved.