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Review: THE RED SKELTON SHOW, Season One

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 1The 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.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 2The 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.

A Bob Hope cameo appearance, 11/25/51.

A Bob Hope cameo appearance, 11/25/51.

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.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 5But 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.

05.29.16 - Red Skelton 4Skelton 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.

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Posted by on May 29, 2016 in 1950s Shows

 

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My Television Diary: 5/16/12

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1:1, pilot), August 27, 1993

I never watched this tongue-in-cheek western during its run, but when it was slammed by the usual finger-waggling do-gooder watchdogs for being the most violent show on TV, I made a mental note to check it out. I’ve finally gotten around to watching the pilot episode, and it’s reasonably good fun. The violence is part shoot-’em-up and part Looney Tunes, really nothing that anyone should’ve gotten worked up over.

Bruce Campbell is appealing, and I loved his Evil Dead movies. But though he tries hard, he’s just not a very good actor. Fortunately, this show is such a circus that acting isn’t something it really needs a lot of. What it does need is non-stop action, and there’s plenty of it here. What it needs less of is the goofball comedy, which must have seemed pretty funny on paper but doesn’t translate to the screen too well.

What really got my attention was the supporting cast. Besides R. Lee Ermey, James Hong and John Astin in fairly substantial roles, you also get a few stars from TV westerns of the past: James Drury (The Virginian), Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Robert Fuller (Laramie) and Stuart Whitman (Cimarron Strip). Also on hand is old Sierra Number 3, the same locomotive that starred in everything from Petticoat Junction to Casey Jones to Iron Horse. There’s even a Barnabas Collins wolf’s-head cane on display. I was less happy with the cast members who carried on into the regular series— Kelly Rutherford is terrific as a crafty saloon vixen, but Julius Carry is loudly annoying as Brisco’s inevitable black sidekick.

Anyway, this would be a better show if it took itself more seriously. It wants to be a rollicking good time, and it succeeds to a point, but you can’t build any suspense or dramatic tension when everything’s one big joke. Even so, its heart is in the right place, and I’ll probably watch a little more of this show.

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Night Court USA (untitled episode, date unknown), circa 1957

Some of you might suspect that I love anything and everything from the vintage era of television. Well, Exhibit One in my defense is Night Court USA.

The show’s premise is that you’re a spectator at an actual night court, in which an actual judge hears actual cases and passes judgment. That probably would be a good show, except that you don’t get that here. Instead, you get a Hollywood set dressed up as a courtroom, with Jay Jostyn playing a grumpy judge, and defendants who seem to have all been dropouts from the Ajax Acting School.

There are attempts at cinema verite, and those are superficially successful. Clerks wander back and forth around the courtroom, muttering to each other. The defendants’ dialogue sounds semi-improvised. But nothing deflates faster than a reality show that’s all phony. This one became a boring waste of time in its first sixty seconds, and stayed that way right down to the end.

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The Red Skelton Show (9:30, “Clem and the Beanstalk”), May 24, 1960

Like Lucille Ball, Red Skelton ended a long and legendary TV career in the early 1970s (let’s overlook the attempted comeback Life with Lucy for the moment). But while her reputation stayed aloft in the upper atmosphere of stardom for a generation or two, Skelton’s reputation began sinking the minute he left the air, and it’s been descending ever since.

The simple reason for this is that the best work of Lucy’s career has been in perpetual re-runs, while Skelton’s stuff has languished on the shelf. His weekly show had been done live right into the 1960s, and no one ever wanted a syndication package of kinescopes, so it’s gone largely unseen. What’s unseen doesn’t get written about. No buzz, no reputation.

Well, any comedian who could stay on the air for twenty years (on TV, not even counting radio) had to be pretty good, and Skelton was great. I selected this episode because of the guest stars (the irresistible duo of Peter Lorre and Mamie Van Doren), and it didn’t disappoint me. The script is very good, but the show works mainly because of Skelton himself. Jerry Lewis would have been just as good at the physical comedy, but not as good with the verbal stuff. Bob Hope would’ve done well with the verbal, but not with the physical. Jack Benny would have played everything too deliberately and Jackie Gleason would have made everything subordinate to his own performance.

Skelton makes it all work while keeping everything in perfect balance: the verbal, the physical, the pacing, the tone, and he keeps throwing in ad-libbed lines and bits of business to keep it all fresh. (In fact, everyone playing a scene with him eventually breaks into spontaneous laughter at some point, which is probably the most delightful thing of all.)

The centerpiece of the episode is a “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale, updated for the space race era of 1960. It all ends with a surprise cameo by Rod Serling, who’s there to deliver a pensive postscript a la The Twilight Zone— except that he’s laughing so hard that he can’t deliver his lines, and the show is running so short of time that it fades out all too soon. It’s wonderful stuff.

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Dallas (6:28, “Ewing Inferno”), May 6, 1983

I’m not articulate enough to sell anybody on the idea that Dallas is something better than a bloated soap opera. But it is.

Scoff if you want to. But when this show is firing on all cylinders, it’s highly compelling television. As usual, it’s telling half a dozen narratives simultaneously throughout Season Six, and that’s not an easy thing to do well. But as the season winds up to its finale, the individual narrative threads suddenly knit together, unexpectedly and beautifully, making it all seem inevitable. Then, all hell breaks loose.

The Sopranos beats Dallas cold in terms of dialogue and intimate character interaction. But not in terms of a story arc. That’s where modern television keeps falling down. Not just the run-of-the-mill shows, but the acclaimed ones the critics yammer on about— Big Love, Lost, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, you name it— they often shine in terms of dialogue, characterizations, concepts or individual scenes, but eventually the narrative makes a crash-landing. On the other hand, the writers and producers of Dallas really knew how to keep it flying— or at least they did for the 131 episodes I’ve seen of it so far.

Dallas is not the greatest show ever, and it has its faults. But I’m constantly in awe of how well it tells its story.

 

 
 

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