Becomes a Landmark on Network Television Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A top-rated show for much of its twenty-year run, The Red Skelton Show was the most enduring comedy-variety show in television history.

Summary of Event

When The Red Skelton Show premiered on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) on Sunday evening, September 30, 1951, the audience, and Skelton himself, had been prepared for several years. As early as 1940, Skelton’s film contract included an unusual clause ensuring his availability for a regular television show. An overwhelming success on radio, Skelton had been lionized by critics who lamented that his talent for mime and physical comedy was wasted on the sightless medium of radio, and many fans yearned for his appearance on the small screen. Skelton had appeared in films for more than a decade; his film debut had been made in Having a Wonderful Time (1938), and his 1940 screen test for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) became an underground success in its own right. Nevertheless, what his film appearances lacked was what made Skelton a star: the spontaneity that came with working before an audience, a condition that live television offered. [kw]Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network Television, The (Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971) [kw]Landmark on Network Television, The Red Skelton Show Becomes a (Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971) [kw]Network Television, The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on (Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971) [kw]Television, The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network (Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971) Television;variety shows Variety shows, television Red Skelton Show, The (television program) Television;variety shows Variety shows, television Red Skelton Show, The (television program) [g]North America;Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971: The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network Television[03600] [g]United States;Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971: The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network Television[03600] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 30, 1951-Aug. 29, 1971: The Red Skelton Show Becomes a Landmark on Network Television[03600] Skelton, Red

The intense anticipation of Red Skelton’s television debut did not completely work in his favor. As fellow comedian and television pioneer Steve Allen Allen, Steve pointed out thirty years later, the idealized imaginary picture of the splash Skelton would make was built up so much by anticipation that no one could live up to it. In 1982, Allen wrote that “Red was so good on the radio, so funny in films . . . that most of us could hardly wait to see him on TV. When we finally did we had oversold ourselves.”

Several elements conspired to overcome the liability of a premature buildup and give Skelton one of the most successful first seasons in television history. The first two factors working in his favor were technical and utterly coincidental: the development of coaxial cable Coaxial cable Television;coaxial cable for carrying television signals and NBC’s success in convincing Skelton to perform the show live. In the first few years of network television, shows were carried live only on the East Coast, because regular telephone lines could not carry the complex television signal on a coast-to-coast hookup. Kinescopes (films taken from a television screen in the days before videotape) were made of these live shows, which were then broadcast a night later west of the Mississippi River. The advent of coaxial cable, which could carry the complex signal television required, meant that shows could be beamed live coast to coast—and this cable became available just when Skelton was ready to begin his show.

Another factor in the overwhelming success of Skelton’s first season was his almost thirty years of experience in vaudeville and stand-up comedy. Much of the visually oriented material he had been performing and perfecting before live audiences since his youth had no place on radio or film. As a result, Skelton had a cache of rich material that had already been tested by the same type of audience he would face on television but that would still be new to the national audience he had established through those other mass media. This asset had a hitch, however: In television, a performer has much the same audience every week. Television performers cannot reuse old material, as is possible in a nightclub, where each night brings a new audience. “In my first year on TV,” Skelton later recalled, “I used up a hundred and sixty-five routines. Some of it was stuff I’d spent years putting together.”

The opening show was an even mix of new and old material. It began with an animated graphic combining Skelton’s head and a box of Tide laundry detergent, the show’s sponsor. As a female chorus sang “Tide presents Red Skelton!” the picture cut to Skelton entering before a curtain, wearing a tuxedo for his debut. (His tailored gray three-piece suits, which became standard for the next twenty years, first appeared the following week.)

The opening monologue was necessarily new material, as it consisted of topical comments on the day’s news stories. One new bit of physical comedy that shocked and delighted Skelton’s first television audience became standard in the next few weeks: At the end of the monologue, without warning, a pair of hands reached out from under the curtain, grabbed Skelton’s legs, and pulled him offstage. The routine was highly effective, but it had to be abandoned after Skelton sustained serious internal injuries in such falls. Another new bit featured Skelton’s country-bumpkin character, Clem Kadiddlehopper Clem Kadiddlehopper (fictional character) , as an Irish tenor singing a fully orchestrated classical piece with the Dave Rose Orchestra. The anomaly of hearing such a beautiful voice emerge from such a comic face created a delightful conflict for the audience, which anticipated something similar to Frank Fontaine’s “Crazy Guggenheim” sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show.

If the first show opened with new material, it closed with some of Skelton’s oldest—his serious, even sentimental disclaimer. Though it endeared Skelton to his audience, many critics felt the disclaimer took the edge off his comedy, that too much sweetness spoiled the pathos of such characters as his clown-tramp Freddy the Freeloader or his drunk Willie Lump-Lump. At the end of the show, Skelton’s smile would turn somber and, as Steve Allen once noted, his voice would modulate to “something almost like baby talk.” Skelton would say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you for putting up with my nonsense. I sincerely hope I haven’t said or done anything to offend anyone. If I have, I didn’t mean it.”

If anyone was offended, it did not affect the show, which was an immediate popular and critical success. The program shot to the top of the ratings—unusual, even in 1951, for a new show—and finished its first season in the number-four spot. At the Emmy Awards Emmy Awards ceremony on February 18, 1952, The Red Skelton Show won the Emmy for best comedy show of 1951, and Skelton won another Emmy as the year’s best television comedian.

Despite the awards, the show’s cancellation was a threat from the beginning, as is the nature of network television. After the unusual critical and ratings triumph of The Red Skelton Show’s rookie year, its ratings plummeted, and the critical accolades stopped. Skelton had seen the same phenomenon in Milton Berle’s Berle, Milton television career. The first great comedian in the new medium, Berle became so associated with it that he became known as Mister Television.

When Skelton won the Emmy as best comedian of 1951, he ended a streak of Emmies for Berle, who in 1948 had won the first ever given. Only three years later, Berle was not even nominated. Toppling the top comic was uncomfortably like regicide: It sent the message that all leaders, including the conquerors, can themselves be conquered. Skelton may not have been thinking in such terms, but the press did; the Hollywood Reporter review of his opening show proclaimed, “Move over Mr. Berle—Mr. Skelton has arrived.”

Weathering three seasons of relatively bad ratings, however, Skelton emerged in 1955 at number fourteen, breaking in and out of the top ten for the next fifteen years. Skelton’s show had its highest ranking in the mid-1960’s, just before network executives began demanding youth-oriented shows. Even in the show’s best season ranking, however, when it was the number-two program on television, it garnered only a little more than one-quarter of the audience share. It is audience share, and not position, that wins sponsors.

Part of the reason for The Red Skelton Show’s demise after twenty years may in fact have been generational. The incredible success of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The (television program) (1967-1969) on the Columbia Broadcasting System(CBS) and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (television program)[Rowan and Martins Laugh In] (1967-1973) on NBC made network executives insist on a youth appeal that those shows had and that the aging Skelton could not offer. The contrast became readily apparent in 1970, when CBS, which had taken over production of the show from NBC in 1953, dropped Skelton as part of an image makeover. NBC picked up his show for the following season; back on NBC, the Skelton show, pared to a half-hour, became a lead-in for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In at 7:30 on Monday nights. Skelton’s polished schtick looked dated next to the frenetic, rapid-fire pace of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with its youthful ensemble of fresh new comedians. No single comedian, not even one of Skelton’s stature, could compete.

Significance

The sheer longevity of The Red Skelton Show assured it a lasting influence on the history of television, for by airing for more than two decades, the program was seen by the first two generations of television audiences. Later generations, however, were not exposed to it: Unlike situation comedies and adventure shows, comedy-variety shows rarely work in syndication, so Red Skelton reruns were not syndicated.

One of the greatest legacies of the show is a collection of some of television’s most enduring characters, some of which have become part of the show-business lexicon: the “Mean Widdle Kid,” the country bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper, the tramp Freddy the Freeloader, the drunk Willie Lump-Lump, the boxer Cauliflower McPugg, the cowboy Sheriff Deadeye, the corrupt politician San Fernando Red, and Professor J. Newton Numbskull. In fact, two of Skelton’s most popular characters, the two seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe, appeared only in his monologue. A book (illustrated by Skelton, an accomplished painter in oils) called Red Skelton’s Gertrude and Heathcliffe appeared in 1971. The show’s cancellation that year did not harm sales, and the book was reprinted in 1974.

Steve Allen wrote in 1982 that, despite Skelton’s seminal place in the history of television comedy, discussions of the genre rarely brought up his name any longer, yet that same year, Michigan newspaper reporter Mary Achterhoff put the question directly to Skelton: A decade after his show’s cancellation, did people still recognize him? Skelton drew himself up in dignity and responded, “Honey, do you have a mall around here?” When Achterhoff said yes, he replied, “Take me there!” The story Achterhoff printed the next day described the instant recognition and adulation Red Skelton received by mall shoppers young and old, demonstrating his lasting place in American popular culture. Television;variety shows Variety shows, television Red Skelton Show, The (television program)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Steve. The Funny Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956. Written when Skelton’s television show was still relatively new, this book is a good picture of the world of comedy at the time the show began. The section on Skelton is penetrating and eloquent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. More Funny People. New York: Stein & Day, 1982. The section on Skelton in this book is more than just an update of the one in Allen’s previous book; it is a fresh and analytical look at the nature of Skelton’s comedy. Deals with the television show only peripherally in a general study of Skelton’s style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Bill. “I’m Nuts and I Know It.” The Saturday Evening Post 240 (June 17, 1967): 66-76. A personality sketch written at the height of the television show’s popularity, this article implies but does not explore too deeply the manic undercurrent in Skelton’s comedy. A good source of contemporary comments on the show, with twelve color photos (including the cover).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyatt, Wesley. A Critical History of Television’s “The Red Skelton Show,” 1951-1971. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Follows the ups and downs of the show in depth, exploring its development over the 1950’s and 1960’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. A compartmentalized study of prime-time television. Begins with a chapter on “Performer Authorship” in the early days of television that offers several pages of analysis on the rise and fall of Skelton’s show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marx, Arthur. Red Skelton: An Unauthorized Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979. The most complete study of Skelton available, this book is also one of the most balanced. Because Marx’s book is “unauthorized,” it can cover some of the more controversial areas of Skelton’s life and works, yet it does so with sensitivity and without sensationalism. A comedy writer himself, Marx (son of comedian Groucho Marx) has added insight into his subject.

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