SKELTON, RED

U.S. Comedian

It was not until 1986, a full fifteen years after his weekly television show had ended, that "one of America's clowns" received his overdue critical praise. Only then did the critics realize what the public had long known. Regardless of his passion for corny gags and slapstick comedy, Red Skelton was a gifted comedian. He is one of the few performers to succeed in four entertainment genres--vaudeville, radio, film, and television. To honor his lifetime achievements, Red received the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Governor's Emmy Award in 1986 and, with it, the critical praise he deserved.

Born 18 July 1913 as Richard Red Skelton, his youth was characterized by poverty and a fascination for vaudeville. It was the influence of vaudeville great Ed Wynn that led Skelton to perfect his own comedy routines. The basics of Red's vaudeville act consisted of pantomimes, pratfalls, funny voices, crossed eyes, and numerous sight gags that would serve to identify Skelton throughout his entertainment career. It was also during this period that Red began developing various comedy characters.

His radio show, which ran from 1941 to 1953, provided the opportunity to present his comedy to a mass audience. The limitations of the sound medium also made it necessary for him to further develop the characters he would later bring to television--Freddie the Freeloader; Clem Kadiddlehopper, the country bumpkin; Willy Lump Lump, the drunk; Cauliflower McPugg, the boxer; The Mean Widdle Kid; San Fernando Red, the con man.

In conjunction with his radio show, Skelton also enjoyed film success, most notably in Whistling in the Dark (1941), The Fuller Brush Man (1948), A Southern Yankee (1948), and The Yellow Cab Man (1950). Regardless of his vaudeville, radio, and film success, it would be television that would bring him his greatest fame and endear him to his largest audience.

The Red Skelton Show began in 1951 on NBC as a comedy-variety show. Red co-produced this initial show, which was a half-hour program on Sunday evenings. In its first year, the show finished fourth in the ratings and received the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Show. Unlike other radio comedians Skelton's comedy act entailed more than his voice, and television provided the opportunity to fully display the showmanship talents he had begun in vaudeville.

In 1953, the show moved to CBS on Tuesday nights and received a second Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy in 1961, and expanded to an hour long the following year. In 1964, the show made the Nielsen Top Twenty, where it stayed until its end in 1970.

The show consisted of Red's opening monologue, performances by guest stars, and comedy sketches which included his various characters. Perhaps the most unique part of the show (and for all of television) was "The Silent Spot," a mime sketch that often featured his character Freddie the Freeloader. The only regulars on the show were Skelton and the David Rose Orchestra. The Red Skelton Show set the precedent for future comedy-variety shows, such as The Carol Burnett Show.

According to CBS, the show's 1970 cancellation was due to rising production costs and the network's desire to appeal to more upscale advertisers (the show finished seventh in its final season). The following year, Red returned to NBC with a half-hour comedy variety show which included a cast of regulars. The show's premiere featured then Vice-President Spiro Agnew. This time, unfortunately, the uneven comedy failed to match Red's previous success. Its cancellation marked the end of Red Skelton's television career, a run of 21 straight years which also included guest appearances on other television series and involvement with thirteen television specials. The only television performer with a longer stay was Ed Sullivan (24 years as host of The Ed Sullivan Show).

Following his departure from television, Skelton maintained a low profile and performed at resorts, clubs, and casinos. In the early 1980s a series of superb performances at Carnegie Hall received critical praise and briefly thrust him back into the public spotlight. The new found interest resulted in three comedy specials for Home Box Office (HBO).

Since his TV show was seldom rerun and is not syndicated, it is easy to forget his popularity. Based on longevity and audience size, The Red Skelton Show was the second most popular show in TV history (Gunsmoke is first). As Groucho Marx once said, Red Skelton is "the most unacclaimed clown in show business." Marx noted that by using only a soft, battered hat as a prop, Red could entertain with a dozen characters.

-Robert Lemieux

 

RED SKELTON. Born Richard Skelton in Vincennes, Indiana, U.S.A., 18 July 1913. Married: Lothian Toland (third wife). Joined medicine show at age 10; later appeared in show boat stock, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and circuses; began appearing on radio in 1936; starred in long-running The Red Skelton Show on television. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1951, 1956, 1960/61; ATAS Hall of Fame; ATAS Governor's Award, 1986.

TELEVISION SERIES

1951-53; 1953-70; 1970-71 The Red Skelton Show

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

1956 The Big Slide

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1954 The Red Skelton Revue
1959 The Red Skelton Chevy Special
1960 The Red Skelton Timex Special
1966 Clown Alley (host, producer)
1982 Red Skelton's Christmas Dinner
1983 Red Skelton's Funny Faces
1984 Red Skelton: A Royal Performance

FILMS

Having Wonderful Time, 1938; Seein' Red, 1939; Broadway Buckaroo, 1939; Flight Command, 1940; Lady Be Good, 1941; The People vs. Dr. Kildare, 1941; Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day, 1941; Whistling in the Dark, 1941; Whistling in Dixie, 1942; Ship Ahoy, 1942; Maisie Gets Her Man, 1942; Panama Hattie, 1942; DuBarry Was a Lady, 1943; Thousands Cheer, 1943; I Dood It, 1943; Whistling in Brooklyn, 1943; Bathing Beauty, 1944; Ziegfeld Follies, 1944; Radio Bugs (voice only), 1944; The Show-Off, 1946; Merton of the Movies, 1947; The Fuller Brush Man, 1948; Southern Yankee, 1948; Neptune's Daughter, 1949; Yellow Cab Man, 1950; Three Little Words, 1950; The Fuller Brush Girl, 1950; Watch the Birdie, 1951; Duchess of Idaho, 1950; Excuse My Dust, 1951; Texas Carnival, 1951; Lovely to Look At, 1952; The Clown, 1952; Half a Hero, 1953; The Great Diamond Robbery, 1953; Susan Slept Here, 1954; Around the World in 80 Days, 1956; Public Pigeon No. 1, 1957; Ocean's Eleven, 1960; Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, 1965.

RADIO

The Red Skelton Show, 1941-53

PUBLICATION

I Dood It. n.p. (1943)

FURTHER READING

Adir, Karen. The Great Clowns of American Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1988.

Davidson, Bill. "I'm Nuts and I Know It." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 17 June 1967.

Jennings, Dean. "Sad and Lonely Clown." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1962.

Marx, Arthur. Red Skelton. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Rosten, Leo. "How to See RED--SKELTON--That Is." Look (New York), 23 October 1951 and 6 November 1951.

Shearer, Lloyd. "Is He a Big Laugh!" Collier's (New York), 15 April 1950.

 

See also Red Skelton Show; Variety Programs