The Red Skelton Show

The Red Skelton Show

"The Red Skelton Show" was a staple of American television for almost two decades, from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. (It was second to "Gunsmoke" (1955-1975) and third to "The Ed Sullivan Show" (1948–1971) in the ratings during that time.)
Skelton, who had previously been a radio star, had appeared in several motion pictures as well. Although his television series is largely associated with CBS, where it appeared for over 15 years, it actually began and ended on NBC. During its run, the program received three Emmy Awards, for Skelton as best comedian and the program as best comedy show during its initial season, and an award for comedy writing in 1960.

Origins: 1950s

Skelton's network television program began at the start of the 1951 fall season on NBC. After two seasons on Sunday nights, the program was picked up by CBS in the fall of 1953 and moved to Tuesday night, the time slot with which it would become primarily associated during most of its run. After his first CBS season the program was moved to Wednesday night and expanded to an hour for the summer of 1954 only; it was then reduced back to a half hour for a time, later expanded again, returning to Tuesday night, where it would remain for the next sixteen years.

The program was produced at CBS Television City in Hollywood, and for many years, from the 1950s through the early 1960s, was telecast in color. During this period, it was one of the few color programs on the CBS lineup (CBS had developed a different, electromechanical color system to the one developed by RCA which became the basis for NTSC television, and was slow to adopt its rival's system). Skelton was infatuated with his appearance on color television, and he cajoled CBS to colorcast the program (In 1961, Skelton also invested in three rental remote vans which had full live, film, and color videotape capability). Although visionary, the venture in color was premature and when it failed, CBS bought Skelton's facilities as part of renewing Skelton's contract.

Format during the 1960s

In 1963, the program was again expanded to a full hour and remained in this longer format for the balance of its CBS run. The format of the program itself during this period was quite simple.

Opening monologue

Skelton opened with a monologue. The monologue often lapsed into character humor, with two of the recurring bits being "George Appleby", a perennially henpecked husband into whom Red transformed by donning heavy black-rimmed spectacles and a misshapen derby hat, and "Gertrude and Heathcliff, the Two Seagulls", which he performed by crossing his eyes and sticking his thumbs into his armpits for "wings". (Johnny Carson, who was a writer on this program for a period reminisced about writing for this spot.)

Guest star's performance

This was followed by a guest-star performance, often a singer. Musical accompaniment was generally provided by the show's orchestra and led by its well-known bandleader, David Rose. He was also the composer of the show's familiar signature tune, "Holiday for Strings". The guest then appeared with Red in a comedy sketch.

Among the notable guest stars were The Rolling Stones, who in 1965 made their American television debut on this program. That same year, Skelton overpowered Walter Brennan's new sitcom "The Tycoon" on ABC, which lasted for only thirty-two episodes.

Comedy sketches

The sketches were usually built around one of Red's many characters, including "Deadeye", an incredibly inept sheriff in the Old West; "San Fernando Red", a shady real estate agent (named for the San Fernando Valley, which was still a largely rural area well outside Los Angeles at the time that the show began); "Cauliflower McPugg", a punchdrunk boxer, Clem Kadiddlehopper, a hick who was identified in at least one sketch as being from Cornpone County, Tennessee, and "Freddie the Freeloader". Freddie was a bum with a heart of gold, who was played by Skelton (and in one episode in 1961, by Ed Sullivan) in clown makeup reminiscient of Emmett Kelly but somehow not as sad. Freddie could be either a speaking character or totally pantomimed. In fact, in its later years the show generally finished with "The Silent Spot", with Skelton pantomiming Freddie or another silent character. (It was hard for some younger viewers to accept that such an overwhelmingly visual, physical performer had once been a staple of radio.) After "The Silent Spot", the show closed with Red looking into the camera and saying sincerely, "Good night and may God bless."

The show's final years: 1970–1971

CBS ended its association with the program in the spring of 1970. This apparently marked the beginning of one of several attempts by CBS to downplay programming whose primary appeal was to "Middle America", an audience more rural and also somewhat older than that generally desired by network television advertisers. Marketers were moving towards a younger, "hipper", and more urban audience. See other cancellations of programs such as "Green Acres", "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Mayberry R.F.D.", and see the Rural Purge.)

The move to NBC: 1970

At least in part due to Skelton's iconic status, the program was picked up by NBC in the fall of 1970. However, the program that aired was quite different from the one that Skelton's CBS audience was used to seeing. The new set was dark, devoid of the backdrops that viewers had seen on CBS. The show was cut back to its original half-hour length and it was moved from Tuesday to Monday nights.

But perhaps the biggest change was that the show began to incorporate "regulars" for the first time along with Skelton, Rose, and Rose's orchestra. A repertory company of young, comic actors and actresses was added, as were The Burgundy Street Singers (previously seen after an abortive comeback on network television by 1950s folk singing star Jimmie Rodgers on ABC two years earlier.)

The new format never really worked; the audience sensed that there was little chemistry between Skelton and his young colleagues. The program ended in March 1971, although selected programs from this final season were rerun on NBC on Sunday nights during the summer of 1971, so it could be said that Skelton's network television career had ended exactly where it had begun.

kelton's later TV career

Skelton continued to make appearances for many years afterwards, increasingly as a nostalgic figure, but was never again a regular feature of network television programming. He was awarded the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Governors Award, a lifetime achievement award, in 1986.


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