(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.”
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.”