Monday, January 16, 2017

“Good night…and may God bless…”

"A mime whose greatest success was on the radio.  A folk humorist in the years when American entertainment was becoming urban.  A vulgar knockabout at a time when American comedy was becoming sophisticated and verbal.  A naïve ne'er-do-well in the age of the self-conscious schlemiel.  Red Skelton's career is a study in how to miss every trend that comes down the pike."  This assessment of the legendary comedic clown by writer Ross Wetzsteon is excerpted by Leonard Maltin in his chapter on Red from his indispensable reference The Great Movie Comedians, and it’s one that’s stayed with me for many years—particularly the first sentence.

See, I am a huge fan of Red Skelton’s work…but I sincerely believe his shtick—what I have referred to many times in the past as his “Gallery of Grotesques”—worked better in an aural medium despite Skelton’s undeniable talent for pantomime and physical comedy.  I’ve had the marvelous pleasure to have worked on any number of collections of his radio broadcasts during my tenure at Radio Spirits—many of these shows have been previously uncirculated among old-time radio hobbyists, and have recently resurfaced with the stamp of approval from the Skelton estate.

That estate has not neglected the comedian’s television legacy, either.  You’ll find a myriad of DVD collections available from Skelton’s twenty-year boob tube reign as “the clown master,” and in casual conversations with those who share my obsession with nostalgia, I gleaned an impression that Red’s TV work is what they remember best.  (I don’t think my parents ever watched his show, so that’s why most of my memories are from radio.)  Time-Life added a magnificent set to the mix on January 3 of this year with The Red Skelton Hour in Color, a 3-DVD set featuring twelve episodes from Skelton’s mega-successful variety hour that convulsed audiences over CBS-TV on Tuesday nights from 1962 to 1970.  (Skelton made the leap into TV in 1951, but his weekly show was a half-hour for the first 11 years he was on the small screen.)

Many of the telecasts showcased on The Red Skelton Hour in Color haven’t been seen by audiences in over fifty years.  They are an incredible wallow in nostalgia; a time when the variety show format, practiced by TV legends like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, etc., amused millions of viewers who wanted little more from that appliance in their living room than an hour of non-think entertainment.  The Red Skelton Hour naturally attracted big-name celebrities as guest stars; you’ll be delighted at seeing the likes of John Wayne, Phyllis Diller, and Mickey Rooney cavort with Skelton, who, it would appear, started the long TV variety hour tradition of not taking the proceedings too seriously…breaking up his guests with wild ad-libs and unrehearsed asides at every opportunity.

My favorite show on the collection is a September 24, 1968 outing featuring Thrilling Days of Yesteryear idols Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as a pair of mad scientists who are convinced that Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper is their robot creation come to life.  (Price, Karloff, and Skelton also do a hilarious musical number in the same telecast.)  Clem is also the focus of a September 20, 1966 telecast with guest stars Rooney (who does a first-rate job alongside Skelton…and I say this as an individual who accepts all things Mick with the enthusiasm of a proctology exam) and Simon & Garfunkel, and a Diller outing from January 23, 1968 that also features Lou Rawls (performing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”).  Skelton does “Deadeye” in two telecasts on the Color set: a December 13, 1966 episode featuring Robert Goulet and a hilarious show from October 15, 1968 with “The Big Mouth” herself, Martha Raye.

Merv Griffin guest stars in a March 18, 1969 show that’s sort of unusual in that Red does one of his radio characters that didn’t receive the prominence that favorites like Clem and Deadeye would later achieve on TV: obnoxious Brooklynite Bolivar Shagnasty (“T’ink nothin’ of it!”).  The Griffin telecast also lets Skelton do my two favorites in his repertoire: Cauliflower McPugg and Willie Lump-Lump (“You don’t look right, boy…you just don’t look right!”)  Some of Red’s radio creations never really made a smooth transition to the small screen; the comedian did “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid” on many occasions but the visual medium spoiled the effect—he looked like an adult with a severe case of arrested development.  To offset this, Skelton introduced new characters like Freddie the Freeloader, who’s the focus of an October 31, 1967 show that features not only Tim Conway but Jackie Coogan and Nancy “That Was the Week That Was” Ames.  (“There’s nothing like a well-rehearsed show,” Skelton ad-libs to Conway when a comedy prop doesn’t work as planned.  “And this is nothing like a well-rehearsed show.”)

With a January 14, 1969 telecast guest starring Audrey Meadows, Red frolics as another of his boob tube creations, George Appleby (he has a funny ad-lib for one of Audrey’s zingers: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you!”).  (This show also features one of Red’s most beloved routines: his interpretation of The Pledge of Allegiance.)  Two of the telecasts on this collection casts Skelton as Forsooth Fromkiss, a simpleton who’s apprentice to the scion (played by Milton Berle) of a torture device salesman in a January 4, 1966 outing, and sidekick to Christopher Columbus (guest star “Lonesome” George Gobel) from February 14, 1967.  The Berle and Gobel shows are a lot of fun to watch, because Skelton seems to have a great deal of fun matching wits with his fellow comics.

The Duke himself, John Wayne, appears on the remaining shows on The Red Skelton Hour in Color.  The earliest telecast is dated March 1, 1966, and allows Red to reprise many of the routines requested by TV viewers (including his legendary “donut dunking” routine, which cemented his fame in vaudeville).  (This type of telecast was apparently a Red Skelton Hour tradition, known as “The Skelton Scrapbook”—a kind of callback to his radio days, when many of the broadcasts were identified as “The Skelton Scrapbook of Satire.”)  An October 28, 1969 show pays tribute to Wayne’s forty years in the movies, and features a hilarious routine where Red plays a variety of autograph hounds encountering The Duke on the street.  In the set-up to the bit, Red suggests that Wayne “pretend you’re a movie star—you’ve been doing that for years, see…”

This produces a hearty guffaw from The Duke, prompting Skelton to observe: “That’s what I like—a guy who can laugh at himself!”  “You’ve been doing that for years!” Wayne retorts, to loud audience laughter and applause.  Another great thing about the Skelton Hour shows is seeing familiar character faces; I spotted Henry Corden in two programs, not to mention Peggy Rea, Elaine Joyce (in a see-through dress that you have to see to believe), Grady Sutton, David Sharpe (Grady and Dave are Boy Friends alumni!), Bern Hoffman, Stanley Adams, and Robert “I was kicked in the haid by a mule” Easton.

I’m not going to lie to you.  A lot of the material on these telecasts (Skelton’s writing staff during the 1960s included hard-working scribes like Charlie Isaacs, Fred S. Fox & Seaman Jacobs, Bobs Weiskopf & Schiller, and Dave O’Brien—the guy from the MGM Pete Smith shorts) are crammed with wheezy jokes that even Abbott & Costello might have considered abandoning.  But there’s an unbeatable sense of free-wheeling mirth (even Red refers to his hour as “a hokey old show”) that’s positively infectious, and at the risk of resorting to a hoary cliché—they truly don’t make them like this anymore.  The 3-DVD set of The Red Skelton Hour in Color (Skelton was the first CBS star to tape his programs in color) is great entertainment for the SRP of $29.95 (and for those of you watching your pennies, a single disc with four shows is available for $12.95), and it’s wonderful having the work of a tried-and-true comedic icon available for a new generation of fans.  (Gracious thanks to my pal Michael Krause at Foundry Communications for providing the blog with the screener.)


Caftan Woman said...

Red's was the first show we watched on our new colour set. It used to tick my dad off when Red would laugh at his own jokes, but we were still laughing as well, so it was okay.

The last time I saw Red was on a Canadian talk show hosted by Dini Petty (I think there are clips on YouTube). I was almost afraid to watch, thinking he would just be a rambling old guy. I'm so glad I watched because he was magnificent with his wonderful stories and had the audience right in the palm of his hand.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Our Lady of Great Caftan reminisced:

Red's was the first show we watched on our new colour set. It used to tick my dad off when Red would laugh at his own jokes, but we were still laughing as well, so it was okay.

"You're some comedian, laughing at your own jokes," my father would always scold me as a kid. One day, I pointed out that Red Skelton laughed at his own jokes ("Why should the comedian be the only one not allowed to laugh?" he once asked) Dad came back with "Yeah, but you're no Red Skelton." (He really knows how to hurt a guy.)

Dad was digging through a strongbox filled with important family documents and he came across a receipt for our first color TV...purchased in 1976. (I guess we were waiting to see if it caught on.)

Scott said...

I've always found Red Skelton vaguely repulsive, and I never stopped to wonder why - until now. It was the clowns, I think. The clownish costumes, the clown-like make-up and pantomime, the clown paintings which always seemed like something you'd find in John Wayne Gacy's garage. The whole aptly named "gallery of grotesques" just haunted and unnerved me as a child.

Ironically, I probably saw many of the episodes on this set, since my parents and grandparents were devoted to the show so there was no escaping it, save for leaving the room with the TV in it, and that, of course, was simply unthinkable. Like I Love Lucy, which I watched for years through hot, salty tears of hatred, I would rather be tortured by television that entertained by a book.

The odd thing is, while I hated Red's TV shtick, I rather liked his moves when I later discovered them, leading to my Rainbow Rule for Red Skelton: Red in Black and White: Good. Red in Color: Bad.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Scott opined:

I've always found Red Skelton vaguely repulsive, and I never stopped to wonder why - until now. It was the clowns, I think. The clownish costumes, the clown-like make-up and pantomime, the clown paintings which always seemed like something you'd find in John Wayne Gacy's garage.

No more calls -- we have a winner. (The irony is that those garage paintings have fetched truly astronomical and obscene amounts of money at auctions and the like.)

I've tried to reconcile why listening to Skelton on an old-time radio broadcast never fails to reduce me to hysterics...and yet I just don't warm up to his TV show like others do. Some of these shows -- particularly during his "Silent Spots" -- had me glancing at the watch I no longer wear on my wrist.

Red doesn't get the credit for his movies like he should, even though a lot of them were splashy MGM affairs, a studio not generally known for its comedy expertise.