5 December: The mean widdle man-kid

Red Skelton---discredit where credit was due? (Photo: CBS.)

Red Skelton—discredit where credit was due? (Photo: CBS.)

The Red Skelton Show: People Who Brag (CBS, 1951)

Tonight’s installment could be considered a kind of loaded weapon, considering one way in which the star could be called a shameless braggart, in contrast to his on-air persona as a nice guy with a lot of little boy in him.

Richard Bernard Skelton cannot bear to give anyone else credit for whatever success he’s having as one of radio’s least likely successes. Like Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, Skelton is a predominantly visual comedian. Unlike them, Skelton has a secret weapon, a collection of distinct and goofy voices.

He also has a problem acknowledging who created which for him, a problem in which he’s abetted by his ex-wife, who has remained his chief writer and business manager despite their 1943 divorce.

Part of it seems to be Skelton’s resistance to deviating from his tried and true. “Red was suspicious of anything new,” his gag writer Ben Freedman would remember, “and didn’t always understand the humour of it right away. He might have to mull it over for a couple of weeks or perhaps months. Later, he’d pull it out of the joke file and offer it as something he’d just originated and put it in the script, and then say, ‘Now, why can’t you guys come up with something like that?’ If any of us dared to say we already had, he’d blow his stack.”

Larry Rhine—whose writing credits have included Duffy’s Tavern and The Life of Riley, and would eventually include All in the Family on television—created one of Skelton’s most enduring characters, Clem Kadiddlehopper. Not that Skelton ever gave him the credit for it. “You just stayed out of his way,” Rhine would remember. “He felt they were all his characters and he didn’t want to divide up the honours with the writers.”

Yet Gerald Nachman (in Raised on Radio) would observe Skelton’s radio show wasn’t just written by committee like most radio shows but too often sounded that way:

There was little continuity in the script, which was interrupted every few lines with the sound of Skelton cracking up at his own jokes or at his or someone else’s fluffs . . . Edna Skelton . . . managed Red’s career and hired gagmen, whom she purposely kept apart, requesting that each writer submit a separate script, after which the Skeltons would clip jokes and glue them together as if assembling a ransom note.

Sherwood Schwartz will follow Skelton to television and fume over Skelton’s nasty habit of dissing his writers whenever he was interviewed elsewhere. “Noncredit never bothered me—I’ve given away credit so people could get into the Writer’s Guild,” Schwartz would recall. “It was not just Skelton’s neglect of writers but his attacks on them. On talk shows, he’d always say how useless they were. He never understood the philosophy behind a show.”

Perhaps a clue could be gleaned from Skelton’s second best remembered character, the Mean Widdle Kid. When Schwartz finally decides he’s had enough of Skelton’s cantankerousness, he’ll leave . . . and Skelton will consider the departure such a betrayal that he’ll fire Schwartz’s brother, Al, who told Sherwood he didn’t get it. “I told him, ‘Look, we’re talking about a six year old child’.”

A six year old child who seems to resent that he’s become a man and that others might share responsibility even in part for his success.

Tonight the manchild/childman’s very much on his game, with his designated braggarts including a cowboy named Deadeye who’s never squeezed a shot except in his own tall tale telling (though he will be known now and then for blasting at a fly and destroying everything but), and Cauliflower McPug getting caught shadow boxing in front of a store mirror.

Sure it isn’t exactly the highest browed comedy. He knows it. And even the higher brows have to admit he’s doing something right, since he’ll be tabulated in due course as having gotten a laugh every eleven seconds on average.

But Skelton’s going to have a bigger problem this season than he thinks. Because he’s made six films over the previous two years and because he’s also moved to television concurrent to his radio show, Skelton’s radio popularity nosedives under overexposure.

Cast: Lurene Tuttle, Pat McGeehan. Music: David Rose and His Orchestra, the Smith Twins. Announcer: Rod O’Connor. Director: Keith McLeod. Writers: Edna Skelton, Jack Douglas, possibly Johnny Murray, possibly Ben Freedman.


Additional Feature:

Suspense: The House in Cypress Canyon (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)—A couple (Robert Taylor, Cathy Lewis) terrorised out of their would-be new home unknowingly haunts a realtor who finds their story in a boxed manuscript left at the now-finished home. There would have been those tempted to turn this premise into something between cartoonish horror and sophomoric laughs, but not tied to this show. Additonal cast: Hans Conreid, Jim Backus, Howard Duff, Paul Frees, Wally Maher. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: William Spier. Writer: Robert L. Richards.


Further Channel Surfing:

Romance: Rendezvous at Mayerling (drama; CBS, 1944) Writer: Jean Holloway.
The Fred Allen Show: TV Commercials (comedy; NBC, 1948) Writers: Fred Allen, possibly Robert Schiller, possibly Robert Weiskopf.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Remley Wants to Borrow Phil’s Family (comedy; NBC, 1948) Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Quiet, Please: A Very Unimportant Person (fantasy thriller; ABC, 1948) Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

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