Popular culture can teach us much about jobs and employment. Novels, movies and even television shows yield insights into how people approach employment at a certain time, their hopes and worries, conscious and subconscious.
Which brings us to Mr. Ed, the television show centered on a talking horse that aired between January 1961 through February 1966—143 episodes.
Donna and I have been watching episodes of Mr. Ed from the first three seasons, and are pleased to report that they hold up very well. Alan Young who plays Wilbur Post, Mr. Ed’s owner, Carol Hines who plays his wife Carol Post, and Larry Keating and Edna Skinner as their neighbors Roger and Kay Addison are all fine comedic actors.
Further, the writing is clever, sharp, original. I challenge anyone, including our publisher Joel Fox, to top this episode in which Mr. Ed gets into a dispute with Clint Eastwood (part 1 of 2 of Mr. Ed and Clint Eastwood, part 2 of 2).
Perhaps the main lesson from Mr. Ed about employment at this time is the absence of storylines that involve employment. Finding or holding a job and workplace dynamics are rarely discussed on Mr. Ed, just as they are rarely discussed on other sitcoms of the time.
Unemployment in the United States was below 4.5% for much of the 1950s. Even during the recession of 1958, the unemployment high only reached 7.5%, before dropping to 5.3% by the end of 1959.
Wilbur Post is actually an outlier in employment at the time in that he is an architect who is self-employed and works at home (sharing an office in the barn with Mr. Ed). In the 1950s and early 1960s, self-employment in California was the exception, with most employment in private firms and government. This was the heyday in California of the large private companies in aerospace, as well as heavy manufacturing, finance, insurance, and telecommunications, of DJ Waldie’s Holy Land and Kevin Starr’s Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance.
There are a few references Wilbur makes to projects he is involved in, such as designing a home in Encino, but the viewer never learns about these projects. Roger Addison is retired, and Carol and Kay aren’t employed. In one episode Carol does take a job at a dance studio, after Wilbur accuses her of running up a phone bill of $140 (it turns out Mr. Ed has run up the bill when he sells real-estate by phone). However, when Wilbur realizes that Mr. Ed is at fault, he quickly asks Carol to quit the job, and she readily agrees.
In the sitcoms at the time, we see concerns expressed, on the conscious and subconscious levels, on issues such as juvenile delinquency, nuclear warfare, and the cold war; but not employment. In such sitcoms as My Three Sons, Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, having a job or being able to get a job is taken for granted.
It is different in popular culture today. Movies and television shows are filled with concerns about job loss, job scarcity, meaningless work, and horrible bosses. This is true of sitcoms as well as dramas.
At the same time, employment today is not always portrayed in negative light. As we have observed previously, the long list of work reality television shows gives prominence to and celebrates craft in everyday jobs—jobs as baker (“Cake Boss”, “Cupcake Wars”), hair stylist (“LA Hair”), car repairperson (“Pimp My Car”), chef and restaurant worker (an entire Food Channel), and, my favorite, pawn store operator (“Pawn Stars”).
Speaking of craft, last Thursday, my youngest daughter, Anna, and I went to a taping of “Fashion Police” with Joan Rivers. Ms. Rivers is the ultimate professional, and in her career and current efforts, we find good advice for workers in all fields in California. I’ll have more to say about this in the next few weeks.