Awesome Men Throughout History: Ed Wynn
I just finished a little mini-marathon of Adventure Time, which is quickly becoming one of my favorite shows, and the character who absolutely never fails to crack me up is Choose Goose. At first, I wasn’t sure why that was—he’s kind of a random choice even by the most forgiving standards—but now I’ve figured it out; Choose Goose’s voice is an homage to Ed Wynn, this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.
If anyone younger than, oh, a hundred years old recognizes Ed Wynn’s name, it’s probably because of his work with Disney towards the end of his career; he was the voice of the Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland, and he played Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, where he floated around the room giggling insanely and singing “I Love to Laugh.”
Watching that now, I can’t help noticing how much Ed looked like those portraits of Ben Franklin you saw in your middle school US history textbooks.
But before his work with Disney, Ed Wynn was a vaudeville comedian and actor who was also successful in radio. He began his career as a teenage runaway from Philadelphia, who left home at 15 to work as a utility boy (whatever that is) before finding work in the theatre. He worked his way into performing in the Ziegfeld Follies, which were huge theatrical revues that combined celebrity entertainers (Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, etc.) and hot girls who danced around in elaborate costumes.
The character Wynn ultimately developed was “The Perfect Fool,” who spoke in a bubbly, wavering voice and could be considered one of the founding fathers of prop comedy; Wynn used a lot of weird props on stage, including a windshield wiper, a typewriter, and a cuckoo-clock fiddle. I’m not saying that Carrot Top’s career is Wynn’s fault, but he sure didn’t help.
Wynn also stood out in radio, which was a great platform for comedians in the first half of the 20th century. His radio show, The Fire Chief, was popular throughout the 1930s, and was basically a live stage production recorded for the radio. Wynn, being a stage actor, played for a live studio audience and incorporated ridiculous costumes and his beloved custom props into the show.
In many ways, Ed Wynn should be the spirit animal of the modern comedian; he wrote and produced a lot of his own material, which was rare for his generation of comedians, and his radio show wasn’t unlike today’s glut of comedy podcasts that are also recorded live (Kevin Smith does a lot of that). He also wasn’t afraid to try more serious roles from time to time, and appeared in Requiem for a Heavyweight (alongside his son, Keenan Wynn) and The Great Man.
Ed Wynn was also an element of chaos, albeit controlled chaos, in a comedy landscape overrun with generic everyman characters. I’ll leave you with this clip from his short-lived variety show to show you what I mean.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.