The legacy of a great television comedian follows a three-step path. While your show is still in production, you’re loved. You’re a star. Everything you do generates goodwill. Then, after your show has had its run, you ease into the second stage: you’re respected. People remember you, your show has probably gone into syndication and/or home video. Maybe you’ve receded into the background somewhat, but you’re still a presence. You’re still a familiar figure in popular culture.
But eventually comes the third step: you’re forgotten. This usually takes a while to happen, and it arrives quietly, like falling leaves in autumn. Your fans have become senior citizens. Some of them remember you, some don’t. Your show isn’t seen much anymore. The youngest couple of generations don’t know you at all.
This dynamic has played itself out many times in television’s brief history: George Gobel, Bill Dana, Don Adams, Joey Bishop, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, etc. If TV’s silver-plated names seem to be more prone to this syndrome than the gold-plated names, that’s only because there are relatively few gold-plated talents in comedy. But it happens sooner or later to everyone, and it happened to Red Skelton.
The Red Skelton Show was a staple of network television for twenty solid years. It went off the air in 1971, and ever since then his fame has slowly, quietly diminished— not because his stuff is no longer funny, but because it’s no longer easy to find, and… well, because of that three-step syndrome.
His specialty was sketch comedy (preferably for live audiences), and television was the perfect medium for him. Throughout those twenty seasons, it placed in Nielsen’s Top Ten nine times. But the culture changed swiftly in the late 1960s. The young and the urban now had the spotlight to themselves. The networks were suddenly so eager to court the Pepsi Generation that they’d scrap anything and anyone whose main appeal lay outside that demographic. That included Skelton. His show had been a Tuesday-night staple (seventh in the ratings), when CBS abruptly cancelled it. He moved to NBC but was denied his traditional timeslot; his show was cut from an hour to thirty minutes, and its format was changed. The ratings suffered, and rather than repair the damage, NBC closed it down.
Saturation re-broadcasts in the syndication market have kept a lot of old TV shows alive. But unlike I love Lucy or The Honeymooners‘ “Classic 39,” Skelton’s show typically wasn’t shot on film. It either went out live, or it was shot on videotape, which made it relatively unattractive for later syndication. Skelton owned the rights to his shows, and the experience of being pushed off the air by CBS and NBC permanently soured his enthusiasm for the medium. So, unlike Lucy, Red never did make it to syndication. Like the saying goes: out of sight, out of mind. My parents’ generation saw Red Skelton every week; mine never saw him at all.
I’m too young to remember when The Red Skelton Show was on the air, and it took me a long time to get around to giving Red a try. I didn’t know him. I’d always guessed that his material was basically the loud, broad, wacky kind of thing that Jerry Lewis did, and I’m not much of a Jerry Lewis fan.
But then I set those expectations aside and began watching some Skelton shows, and I found them to be really enjoyable. There’s slapstick, sure (and it works), but there’s also some standup comedy, pantomime and a dash of topical humor. What I enjoy most of all are his ad-libs, which are less cerebral than Fred Allen’s but just as funny, and executed perfectly. Any time a supporting player steps on his line, or a prop misbehaves, you can bet Red will instantly mark the event with a fast wisecrack, and that it’ll be both good-natured and hilarious. In fact, the ad-libs frequently draw the biggest laughs of the whole episode.
In the years since his death, his estate has allowed a broad sampling of The Red Skelton Show to be released on video. Timeless Media/Shout Factory has issued several DVD collections, all of which are still in print. They’re not bad, but they’re a hodgepodge: the shows are edited (sometimes heavily), they’re seldom in chronological order, you aren’t given the broadcast dates, and there’s often a giant “bug” in the lower right corner of the screen, to deter piracy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still good stuff. It’s just not presented very well.
But a couple of years ago, Timeless/Shout released a brand new set, and this time they really did it right. The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years, 1951-1955 presents 92 episodes (plus an unaired dress rehearsal for one of them), mastered from rare 16mm kinescopes from the comedian’s personal collection. Kinescopes can vary in image quality, but these all look great. You get the broadcast dates for each one (the earliest is dated 10/21/51 and the latest is from 3/8/55). At least three of the episodes have been available elsewhere, but not with this quality.
I’d like to focus on the show’s debut season. Twenty-seven of the episodes in the set are from Season One (October 1951 – June 1952). Skelton was a big hit this year, and the show has a lot of vitality to it. It was aired live, although each week’s offering includes a filmed “Skelton’s Scrapbook” sketch which always works in a plug for the sponsor’s product, Tide detergent. Early episodes this season include a musical segment with a nightclub or recording act (I was delighted to find that the guests one week were Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, my favorite cowboy harmony group.) The musical acts disappear about half-way through the season, though, which is odd considering Skelton’s mounting fatigue.
Incredibly, he was doing a weekly radio show, a live television show and a movie or two a year at this point. It’s no wonder that Season One’s later episodes are generally a notch or two below the quality of the earlier ones. But they’re all enjoyable.
Skelton dropped the radio show and discontinued the live telecasts in Season Two, which made his schedule less exhausting. But doing the show on film came at a price: some of the old electricity was gone, and the canned laugh track had the effect of subduing the comedy rather than enhancing it. Ratings fell, Procter and Gamble pulled out, writers came and went. But Skelton soon recovered the lost ground; deciding to tape the show before a live audience was probably the key. Big guest stars began popping up from mid-1954 onward, and he seems to have made it his mission every week to reduce his flustered co-star to helpless hysterics. When he succeeds (and he often does), the results are television gold.
There are some beloved TV comedies of the 1950s that I watch (and enjoy) without actually cracking a smile. This isn’t one of them. Certainly, some episodes are better than others, but Skelton’s batting average is pretty high. There’s some laugh-out-loud comedy here.
The man obviously loved his work, and he’s a delight to watch. So yes, The Red Skelton Show is good stuff, and I recommend this collection.