Making It Up

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(Pictured: Red Skelton, 1970.)

I have mentioned here before that when we were kids, The Red Skelton Hour was one of the highlights of week. In the home video era, I have not sought out Red’s shows—in fact, Red kept them out of circulation for years to spite CBS for canceling him in 1970, and actually threatened to destroy the tapes at one point. Their long scarcity has something to do with why Skelton, for 30 years a giant of American comedy, someone who inspired the likes of Steve Martin and Richard Pryor, is largely forgotten today. But some late-60s episodes of his CBS show have recently been added to Amazon Prime, and I have watched a few.

Skelton considered himself his own best writer and an expert on what was funny, and he did not have much respect for the writers he employed. Our friend Wesley, who’s written a book on Red’s show, told me:

[W]riters for his show tended not to last long either on their own volition or on Red’s whims. In the spring of 1967, when his show came close to beating Bonanza as the number one show on TV, Red unceremoniously fired Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, the men who contributed to I Love Lucy and would later work on The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show and Maude. Some slouches, eh? Anyway, the men talked to LA Times columnist Hal Humphreys frankly about Red’s tendency to use tried material rather than their new work and how the result was spotty at best, not to mention how many writers had revolved through the successful show. Irritated by what they said, Red decided he would get back at them by performing their last script word-for-word with no ad-libs, confident that the show would die. The final taping ran eight minutes over due to audience laughter.

Skelton’s disdain for scripts—or maybe it’s just a lack of discipline—is on full display in the episode of October 31, 1967. In “Hippie Days Are Here Again,” Red’s character, the hobo Freddie the Freeloader, meets a group of hippies in a park. There’s potential in the idea because Tim Conway is playing the hippie leader. Partway through the sketch, Red abandons the script entirely, breaking the fourth wall, talking to the backstage crew, and spouting non-sequiturs. Conway is a master of making it up on the fly, but Skelton’s ad libs are so insular that they leave Conway with nowhere to go. Red wants every laugh for himself, and he doesn’t care if his co-star never gets one.

Something similar happened on January 14, 1969. “The Best Thing to Get Out of Marriage Is to Get Out of Marriage” co-stars Audrey Meadows, famed for playing Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners, as Clara Appleby, the henpecking wife of Skelton’s recurring character George Appleby. Partway through, Skelton once again starts ad-libbing furiously. Meadows gets a laugh with a scripted zinger, but Skelton has to top her: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you.”

Wesley again:

Guests soon learned this is how he operated, which is why most of CBS’s other big comedy stars like Lucille Ball didn’t do his show, precisely because he’d go off script and get irritated if you got more laughs than he did. Harvey Korman’s son Chris Korman told me Red banned his father from the show for getting laughs in one minor role and Red thought he was stealing the spotlight from him.

(The January 14, 1969, show is the one on which Red delivered his monologue about the Pledge of Allegiance, which became a middling radio hit a few months later.)

The Red Skelton Hour and The Carol Burnett Show overlapped on CBS for three seasons starting in 1967, and the differences are instructive. As Wesley wrote in his book, The Carol Burnett Show never saw itself as a vehicle for Carol alone. She was happy to give the laughs to others. Her cast broke character plenty, but instead of tossing the script and flailing for jokes, they always stayed close to the core of the sketch. And partly because of a reputation for making guests look good, Carol was able to get practically anyone she wanted to appear on her show.

A half-century removed from watching Red on Tuesday nights, I think that what younger me responded to was Red’s silliness, and that just ain’t funny to me any more. A half-century later, all I can say is “Red, thanks for the laughs when I was eight, but we’re done now.”

17 thoughts on “Making It Up

  1. mikehagerty

    Red Skelton was required viewing in my house, too—but by ’68 or so (I was 12), with a little discernment and some better examples (including Carol Burnett), I was barely tolerating it. I think I eventually figured out that if I “scheduled” my homework at that hour, I could just skip it.

    I was astonished that the show stayed on the air as long as it did. I’d never heard the stories about his disdain for and disrespect of writers, but it doesn’t surprise me a bit.

  2. Wesley

    Great article again, jb, and I’m not saying that just because you quote me and obviously read my book about the show. Love hearing your observations about two shows I didn’t have at my disposal when I wrote the book some 15 years ago and all that existed of many of his CBS shows were a few random copies in archives. Anyway, three things to add that aren’t in my book:

    1) After CBS canned Red in 1970, NBC gave him that fall a half-hour Red Skelton Show as the lead-in to Laugh-In (Mondays 7:30-8 p.m. Eastern). It lasted only one season, beaten handily (and deservedly) by Gunsmoke on CBS. Red’s producers then tried to sell the show into syndication with new episodes for the fall of 1971, but stations rejected that notion in favor of Hee Haw, which had replaced Red’s Tuesday night slot on CBS in 1970-71 before the “rural purge” knocked it out despite being in the top 20.

    2) A lot of times during his ad-libs, Red would look directly into the camera and smile and the crew would be laughing loudly. This is because they remembered the off-color jokes Red did during rehearsals that he could only allude to during the taping, obviously. And yes, Red was one of those old-school comedians who disparaged those doing what he called vulgar humor while he in fact indulged it regularly off screen.

    3) A few years later, Red complained in Variety that he was being blacklisted by the networks for his conservative views. This was at the same time Bob Hope was having hit specials on NBC. Red frankly just struck many executives as both crazy and passe, especially since he announced his retirement in 1972 before trying a comeback in the mid-1970s that never really sparked.

    For a man who had been on TV 20 consecutive years (1951-1971), Red ended up nearly forgotten before his death in 1997, even though in 1962-63 and 1966-67, his show was #2 overall in the seasonal ratings. Fame can be fleeting indeed, whether it be success in music, TV, movies or any other venue of entertainment. At least I hope his widow Lothian Skelton (who was 24 years younger than Red when they wed in 1973 and just turned 83 on Oct. 16) is getting some monetary compensation for these shows on Amazon Prime after refusing to release them, allegedly due to Red’s request to, as you noted, get back at CBS for canning him in 1970 while in the top 10.

    1. mackdaddyg

      “2) A lot of times during his ad-libs, Red would look directly into the camera and smile and the crew would be laughing loudly. This is because they remembered the off-color jokes Red did during rehearsals that he could only allude to during the taping, obviously. And yes, Red was one of those old-school comedians who disparaged those doing what he called vulgar humor while he in fact indulged it regularly off screen.”

      Whenever I watch an old tv clip on YouTube, and somebody has posted something like “this is back when comedians didn’t have to be dirty or political to get a laugh,” I think of Red Skelton. If any of the dirty stuff is actually around, I might post a link and imagine that person clutching their pearls in disbelief.

      I’ve read so much negative stuff about ol’ Red, so he’s not really a fave of mine, although it would be interesting to watch some of those shows. Come to think of it, excepting people like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, a lot of these old school comedians have a lot of bad stories about their behavior despite their “clean” image.

      1. Chris Herman

        On “The Simpsons”, many of the episodes about Krusty the Clown are based on those stories about Red and other old-school comics. In fact, Krusty seems to be heavily based on Red Skelton (and Jerry Lewis to a lesser degree).

      2. Wesley

        Look up “Risque Martha Raye on Red Skelton Show” on YouTube. You’ll see the two of them in rehearsal trying to outdo each other in blue material during a Cleopatra sketch from 1963.

  3. Brian L Rostron

    I actually like watching Red as a radio program detective kidnapped by a widow-swindling New Age cult in “Whistling in the Dark” from 1941. He mugs and is obviously a ham, but it’s tolerable with people like Eve Arden and Conrad Veidt.

      1. mikehagerty

        True. That and concert appearances. He was damn near a regular at John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino in Sparks, Nevada when I worked in Reno (1977-84). Such a regular, in fact, that he had a home there and Ascuaga gifted him a new Cadillac so he’d have something to drive while he was in town.

  4. Chris Herman

    Red Skelton’s variety show went off the air when I was 6 so I only have vague memories of it. That said, one reason I heard why his show continued pulling down big ratings in the 60s was that Red (or whoever was in charge of booking music acts on his show) managed to get some of the hottest bands to appear on his show like the Rolling Stones and The Hollies. In fact, for a few years, it seemed like he and Ed Sullivan engaged in some intra-network competition for booking top rock acts. I also suspect that’s related to why it took so long for reruns of Red’s CBS show to be rebroadcast since trying to sort out music rights must’ve been a legal nightmare.

    Also, Red Skelton played a big part in launching Johnny Carson’s career. Carson was doing a local show in LA when Skelton hired him first as a writer and then as a substitute host of his variety show when he was unavailable due to a sudden emergency.

    1. JP

      Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough, but I was just looking at the episode guide for Red’s final season on TV.Com. There were hardly any musical guests at all.

      1. Wesley

        Yeah, for the half hour show, something had to go, and musical guests were it. They had the Burgundy Street Singers on a few times, but that’s your grandparent’s idea of what “contemporary music” should sound like in 1970-71. They did keep the “Aren’t hippies weird?” and “Isn’t women’s lib stupid?” jokes and routines intact though, to the extent where the last season is in many ways more dated than most of Red’s shows 10 or even 20 years earlier.

      2. Chris Herman

        I did a little digging online for a list of musical guests on Skelton’s CBS show during the 60s and came across a book about the program’s history. I wanted to either provide a link or cut-and-past a passage but it was in PDF format. Anyway, after Skelton did a show in London in1964, he hooked up with a British talent agency that supplied a steady stream of top UK rock acts eager to break into the American market. These included the Rolling Stones (who made at least 3 appearances on the show), The Kinks, The Yardbirds, and The Hollies. Skelton’s show also had similar success booking the leading Motown acts like The Supremes and Marvin Gaye. I’m not sure if you can find clips of these performances on YouTube or whether they’re all locked up pending the resolution of the music clearance rights.

  5. spinetingler

    Yeah, I had pleasant childhood memories of watching (though I couldn’t tell you a single sketch or bit) so I picked up some VHS cassettes a decade or so ago. Never managed to get through them.

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