Though the characters wore cowboy hats and rode horses, the case could be made that Maverick was more of a comedy than a Western. The series threw as many punchlines as punches — not to mention "Pappyisms" — and relished the chance to poke fun at the competition. In season five "Three Queens Full," Maverick took aim at Bonanza, casting Jim Backus of Gilligan's Island and Mr. Magoo as "Joe Wheelwright," a thinly veiled parody of Lorne Greene's Ben Cartwright. Just to ensure you didn't miss the joke, Joe Wheelwright had three sons — Moose, Henry, and "Small Paul." They indeed were dead-ringers for Hoss, Adam, and Little Joe.
But by that point, Maverick was well versed in satire. Three seasons prior, the show set up Gunsmoke in a hilarious spoof that many fans rank as one of their favorite episodes.
The two-syllable title itself was a far more obvious joke: "Gun-Shy." Just in case that went over your head, the story opens with a shot framed in the exact manner of the Gunsmoke opening. The marshal stands in a dusty street, the camera low to the ground and pointing through his legs which dominate the foreground. Far away — comically far away, a mere speck, really — stands Maverick at the other end of this showdown.
"Shall I stand a little closer, Marshal?" Maverick shouts. This was essentially Mad Magazine material.
The opening scene of "Gun-Shy" was an exact replica of the Gunsmoke premiere, "Matt Gets It." Marshal Mort Dooley strolls through a graveyard while chewing through voice-over dialogue like a strip of beef jerky.
"Arguing doesn't fill any graves," Matt Dillon had ruminated. "Take me — I'm a U.S. Marshal."
Mort Dooley, on the other hand, goes to the graveyard for pleasure. "It's a nice place to visit," he says, leaning on his shovel. "I like to come up here sometimes to think and maybe get ahead a grave or two."
The rest of the characters in "Gun-Shy" follow suit as funny facsimiles of Gunsmoke's core cast. Deputy Clyde Diefendorfer limps and wheezes just like Dennis Weaver's Chester. "Doc" is, well, Doc. Amy Ward runs the Weeping Willow Saloon, just like Kitty and her Long Branch Saloon.
There's a running joke with Amy (Kathleen O'Malley) where, like Kitty, she constantly worries for the men. Even when she trips Maverick down the stairs, she declares, "I do hope you're going to be alright!"
Another running gag is Matt Dillon continuing to brag about his ownership stake in the Weeping Willow. "I own 37-and-a-half percent," he reminds the audience.
None of this would have been lost on the viewers at the time — and, oh, how many viewers there were! The episode had a whopping ratings share of 49 when it originally aired in January of 1959. This means that one out of every two TV sets in the country was watching.
Gunsmoke, of course, was the most-watched show on television that season. It was prime material for spoofing. And Bret Maverick was just the man to throw the punchlines.
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