When I went to U.C.L.A., I had a dreadful schedule. My major required me to take a certain English class but the only one open
was at the ungodly hour of 8 AM, when no human in his right mind is willingly awake.
That was bad enough. But I also had to take a certain History class that was only available at 3 PM, Tuesdays and
Thursdays. I filled in my other classes at convenient hours but, twice a week, I had to kill five hours between lectures. I'd usually
walk down to Westwood Village, right near campus, and have lunch at Woody's Smorgasburger. Then I'd wander by Bel Air Camera and see if Red was
That's "Red" as in "Red Skelton." The famous comedian. The one who passed away recently.
Bel Air Camera was — and still is, I think — an upscale store catering to the wealthier photography buff. The prices
were steep but the salesfolks knew their craft, so that was one fine reason to shop there. Another was that, at least in 1970, there was at
least a 10% chance that you'd run into Red Skelton, and he'd do an entire monologue, just for you.
One time when I was there and Red wasn't, a salesguy explained to me that Mr. Skelton came in two or three times a week. He'd
either buy some piece of photographic equipment or bring in whatever he'd bought the day before and ask why he couldn't get it to work. If he
found any sort of audience, he would launch into his one-man show.
On three or four occasions, I was happy/honored/bewildered (pick one) to provide that audience — sometimes with others, sometimes
alone. Red would just stand there in Bel Air Camera and tell jokes, mostly dirty, some filthy to the extreme. One time, I think he kept
me there for forty minutes, showing only slight annoyance when I interrupted to ask him some question about his career.
(You'd think he'd be pleased that a college kid — I was 18 or so — was familiar enough with his work to ask him about
specific films and sketches. But really, all he wanted was to tell jokes. I'd ask him about working with Buster Keaton and he'd give me a
quick answer, then launch immediately into the joke about the two nuns and the lisping parrot.)
Here is a joke Red Skelton told me — the cleanest one I can remember, which I have cleaned up further for this telling...
A man goes into the confessional at church and says, "Forgive me, father. I have sinned."
The priest recognizes the man's voice. It is Charlie Smith, one of the most loyal, devoted members of the church. The
priest says, "Charlie, I cannot believe that you, of all people, could possibly have committed a sin."
Charlie says, "Well, father, I am ashamed to admit that I did. My wife and I have been married for 42 years and for the last ten,
we have been unable to have marital relations. And you cannot imagine what that is like, father. It just creates unbearable tension and
causes my dear wife to believe that I do not love her, which is far, far from the truth."
"I understand," says the priest.
Charlie goes on: "Then, last Saturday evening, I looked at my wife and she was bending over a sack of potatoes. There was
something about her at that moment...I suddenly experienced feelings I had not felt for a decade. I was suddenly filled with love and passion
for my wife and I grabbed her and ripped her dress off and we made love, right there on that sack of potatoes. And that is how I have sinned,
The priest is puzzled. "That is not a sin, my son. The two of you are married...it is not a sin to express that love for
There are tears in Charlie's voice as he gasps, "You mean it, father? You really mean it? We won't be thrown out of the
The priest laughs. "Of course not. Why would we throw you out of the church?"
Charlie says, "Well, they threw us out of the Safeway."
Okay: Not the greatest joke in the world and certainly not the newest. I'd actually heard it before he told it to me.
Still, the delivery was impeccable, and the sense of joy, infectious.
Red Skelton loved to tell jokes. I cannot recall ever seeing anyone as happy about anything as Red Skelton was when telling
jokes. If I came up to you right now and handed you twenty-five million dollars in cash, an Academy Award and the secret of eternal life, you
would not be half as delighted as Red Skelton was, telling some hoary gag about Gertrude and Heathcliff, the two seagulls. He laughed and
chortled and giggled and it didn't matter much if the joke wasn't funny. His sheer merriment set you to laughing.
There perhaps has never been another performer who so loved performing. Some time in the late fifties, he was booked to headline
at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He was on the standard contract, which called for his portion of the show, following the opening act, to run
exactly one hour.
Not 65 minutes. Not even 61 minutes. One hour...precisely.
His first night there, Red went out and did two hours and 14 minutes of jokes.
The audience was hot and Skelton was hotter. They cheered everything he did and Red obligingly hauled out every routine he'd ever
performed in his life. Finally, drenched in perspiration, he staggered off-stage to a five minute standing ovation.
The entire management of the Riviera Hotel was standing backstage. They were spectacularly unamused.
"Do you realize how much you cost us?" one of them screamed. Mr. Skelton was reminded that, when the audience was in there
cheering him, they weren't out in the casino gambling and, therefore, losing. Red still had a Midnight show to do later that evening and he was
warned that, if he went one second over an hour, he would never work again in the state of Nevada. (It was hinted that if he went two whole
seconds over, he might lose forever, the use of one or more limbs.)
Red apologized and swore up and down that the Midnight show would come in "under sixty minutes." And it did. Later that
evening, Red went out before a packed house, told jokes for ten minutes and walked off-stage.
Well, you can just imagine how delighted the Riviera was to have to refund nine hundred cover charges. There's nothing they love
more in Vegas than giving back money.
Backstage, Skelton locked himself in his dressing room. He screamed through the door to the Riv guys that he was never playing
their dump again, which was aces with them. How he got out of the building alive, I can't imagine.
The next day, he wound up in the office of Jack Entratter, the legendary showman/entrepreneur who ran the Sands Hotel down the
Strip. Entratter invited Red to play the Sands — with no restrictions on how long his show could be. Red accepted on the spot.
"Wait," said the hotel magnate. "We haven't even talked about how much I'll pay you."
Skelton said he didn't care. "I just want it in writing that I can do as long as I want."
For a decade or so after, Red Skelton routinely packed them in at the Sands. His shows often went past two hours, but audiences
loved him and they seemed to lose enough on the way out that the hotel remained happy. (Red didn't make out so bad in the money department,
either. Once he'd established his worth, he demanded a simple deal: The highest fee they were paying anyone else, plus one dollar. He got
it — partly because he was packing them in, partly because he'd hired Jack Entratter as his business manager.)
I wish I'd gotten to see him in Vegas but, at least, I got to see him work Bel Air Camera, where there was no cover charge.
And of course, there was his TV show, on which he portrayed an array of characters — Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader,
George Appleby, The Mean Widdle Kid, Willie Lump-Lump, San Fernando Red, Deadeye, Cauliflower McPugg, Bolivar Shagnasty and a few others. Most
of these were just Red Skelton in a different hat, but he could be very funny in those different hats.
Red came to TV in the early fifties, following a successful career in both radio and movies. His popularity in the forties is
proven by that most accurate measure of pop culture of the time: Warner Brothers cartoons used and re-used his catch-phrases, most notably "I dood
it." But he was ideally suited for neither form. Radio wasted his skills as a physical comedian, and movies squandered his facility for
interacting with a live audience.
Television was perfect for him but, alas, Red was not perfect for television; not at first. He was undisciplined, unfocused,
disorganized and not as funny as he should have been. His signature routine at the time was a bit called "Guzzler's Gin," a bona fide
classic in which he played an announcer selling (and sampling) an alcoholic beverage, getting blind drunk in the process. There were those
around the network who suggested that Red was spending way too much of his off-camera time living the role.
NBC dumped him but CBS took him on and he clicked, anchoring Tuesday night for them for more than fifteen years. There are
hundreds of stories about those days, none of which make Richard "Red" Skelton seem particularly nice or, in some cases, sane. He was, from all
reports, enormously resentful of the large writing staff that was necessary to produce his series. He employed 8-10 of the best (and best-paid)
comedy scribes in the business but rarely spoke to them if he could avoid it.
His writers ran a pool: Everyone put in a few bucks a day and the first one to whom Red spoke would get all the money. For a
brief time, one of those writers was a kid named Johnny Carson. Years later, Carson's writers would run the same kind of pool regarding their
Skelton not only didn't communicate with his writers, he insisted that they didn't communicate with him. He would inform
interviewers that he pretty much ad-libbed the entire show each week. One time, he told Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, "I don't need
writers. I just get on stage and God tells me what to do."
The next morning, Red received his script for the next taping. It consisted of one hundred blank sheets and a note that said,
"Dear Red — Please have God fill in the pages. (Signed) Your Writers."
Around 1965, when I was but a lad, I got to attend a taping of his show. It turned out to be an hour done completely in
pantomime, with guest star Marcel Marceau.
I have already written in these pages of how I darn near ruined a choice dramatic moment of M. Marceau's performance by laughing out
loud at an inopportune moment. But I don't think I mentioned something else that happened that evening. At the end of the taping, after
we'd sat through an entire hour of wonderful mimed routines by Skelton and his guest, Red came out and did a monologue for us.
Now, understand this: Red did a monologue on his show at the top of the show every week — every week except for this week.
This week, the show was being done completely in pantomime with no verbal humor whatsoever.
This monologue was not being taped for the show. It was just for us, the studio audience. (And it wasn't a warm-up, either;
it was the very last thing Red did before he said, "Good night and may God bless," and we all got up and went home.)
I didn't understand it. Why did Red Skelton, a performer who'd just finished a strenuous hour of taping — doubtlessly
climaxing a full week of intense rehearsal — take the fifteen minutes to do something that wasn't even part of the show? I didn't know
much about television then (as if I do now) but I knew that studio time was far from cheap, and we'd already been sufficiently-entertained.
What was the purpose of that monologue? I wondered about that for months.
A year or so later, a friend of mine named Mike told me he was going to CBS Television City after school. "A guy I know who works
there said he'd sneak me into Red Skelton's dress rehearsal. You wanna come along?" Of course I wanted to come along and, that afternoon,
Mike and I took a hideous sequence of buses to the big, black-and-white building at Fairfax and Beverly. As advertised, Mike's friend, who
labored on the show in some capacity, got us into Studio 33. (The Price is Right and Dennis Miller Live use the place these
days. It does not appear to have been cleaned much since Red used it.)
As I was to learn, Mr. Skelton's dress rehearsals were legendary. In theory, this was to be a final run-through of the material
that would be taped that evening before an audience like the one I'd been in a year earlier. In practice, what Red did with the time had little
to do with that week's script. Around CBS, they called it "The Dirty Hour" (guess why) and everyone would run down to watch it —
executives, secretaries, commissary workers, everyone. The general public was not, for reasons that became obvious, invited.
For an hour or more, we sat there laughing as Red — and his guest that week, Phyllis Diller — ran through the framework of
that week's show, but with dirty jokes ad-libbed in place of the real lines. Mike's friend had slipped us a copy of the script and I followed
along with it, noting how Red would do one line from the show, then three or four lines about flatulence that Lenny Bruce would have rejected as
being in poor taste. Then he'd do another bit from the script, then six or seven jokes about women's breasts. It is doubtful that, just
at that moment, God was telling Red what to do.
Ms. Diller and the other performers made a half-hearted attempt to adhere to the real lines, the lines they'd rehearsed, though for no
visible purpose. Red was having a wonderful time, making a shambles of the sketch, turning every possible speech or action into a Playboy Party
Joke or worse.
The audience of CBS employees howled, and Red himself was laughing more than anyone on the premises. But as I watched the folks
standing around the set — producers and execs, I supposed — I got the feeling they didn't find it as funny as everyone else. Later,
when Mike's friend led us on a tour of the building, he confirmed my feeling.
"They hate it. Everyone who works on the show hates it. But they have to let Red do it. He has all this incredible
nervous energy and that's how he gets rid of it so he can settle down and do the real show tonight."
I asked about the monologue I'd seen at the Marceau taping, and he moaned and shook his head. "That's Red. When the show's
all taped and everyone's tired and wants to go home, Red sometimes doesn't want to. He keeps us all there for an extra half-hour or hour
because he has a live audience and he can't bear to let them go.
"The idea that week was to do the whole show in mime — no talking, no monologue. Well, Red agreed that was a great idea but
then, when we were well into rehearsal, he suddenly realized he wasn't going to get to deliver a monologue to the studio audience, which he loves
doing. Can you believe it? He wanted to call the entire show off, cancel Marcel Marceau and throw out the script! We finally calmed
him down but we had to promise he could do a monologue for the studio audience after the show was taped."
Our guide sighed a long, deep sigh — the kind that signifies great pain has been exhumed. "He can be very nice and he can
be very funny, and this show is the biggest hit I've ever worked on, the steadiest job...
"But I'll tell you honestly. There are times I feel like I became a Kindergarten teacher like my mother wanted..."
In 1970 and '71, a strange fixation gripped CBS and they started canceling hits. Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat
Junction and Mayberry, R.F.D. were all riding high in the ratings but giving the network a "hillbilly" image that made CBS execs
uncomfy. Their audiences were also skewing old, which means that, while the shows had a lot of viewers, they weren't the kind of viewers who
spent freely and made sponsors gleeful.
This age problem allegedly applied to The Red Skelton Show, and to Ed Sullivan's Sunday night program. Both were dropped,
along with all the top-rated-but-rural shows, to great shock throughout the industry.
Red was in the top ten when the ax fell. His agents managed to hustle a half-hour version of his show to NBC, but it was a
half-hearted, unsuccessful effort. The new program was cancelled in a matter of weeks, and the television career of Red Skelton was over.
That was about the time he started frequenting Bel Air Camera.
Financially, of course, he had nothing to worry about. And audiences still wanted him — in Vegas and elsewhere, plus he had
a thriving business in his paintings of clowns. He did hundreds of paintings, almost all of them depicting clowns. He also sold
truckloads of a mawkish but probably sincere record he made explaining the Pledge of Allegiance in terms that made John Wayne sound like a commie
He was even busy enough to turn down a very big role in a very important movie. In 1975, M.G.M., where Red had toiled in the
forties, began casting for two aged vaudevillians to play Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. The parts were so coveted that many comedy
greats agreed to screen test in hopes of being cast. (Jack Benny was one of those who tested. At one point, the director told him,
"You're moving with too much energy, Mr. Benny. Remember, you're playing a 70-year-old comedian," Someone had to remind the director that
Mr. Benny was, at the moment, an 82-year-old comedian.)
Red was among those tested — largely as a courtesy to a legend, since no one thought him a likely contender. That all
changed when they saw the film, and Red Skelton was announced to star as Willie Clark, with Mr. Benny playing the secondary role of Al Lewis.
Two weeks later, Skelton surprised everyone again by withdrawing from the project. Walter Matthau eventually played Clark. Jack Benny
passed away before filming and his friend George Burns took over, going on to earn an Academy Award and a rejuvenated career.
Why did Red Skelton miss out on all that? You won't believe the reason.
He thought the script was too dirty.
Or, at least, that's what he said. Such paradoxical sanctimony is not unprecedented among older comedians. I once watched,
at the Friar's Club in Beverly Hills, as Milton Berle gave an interview to cameras from Entertainment Tonight. "I tell all the new
comics to work clean," Mr. Television explained. "If you have talent, you don't need to work blue." ("Blue" is show biz for "dirty.")
"A real comedian doesn't need four letter words or filth to make people laugh," Berle said. And then they turned off the cameras
and he told the crew a joke about two sailors and a nymphomaniac sheep.
Just about every older comedian I've ever met has done this. They extol the virtues of good, clean, family humor, then they tell
you a story so gross, it could make Larry Flynt upchuck. I have nothing against such humor. I just see it as enormously absurd that folks
who tell naughty jokes try to act like they're above telling naughty jokes and then tell you naughty jokes.
I wish I could print here, one of the real sex-laden stories I heard Red Skelton telling total strangers in the camera shop.
Suffice it to say they were all quite a bit gamier than anything in The Sunshine Boys — a movie so loaded with filth that The Disney
Channel runs it routinely in prime time. Still, when a reporter asked Skelton about his pull-out, he said — and this is a quote...
"Hollywood turns out one piece of filth after another. The language they wanted me to use in that movie was just
unacceptable. I didn't want to say it and I didn't want my fans to come and pay money to hear that kind of thing."
This is The Sunshine Boys we're talking about. Not a Christy Canyon movie. The Sunshine Boys.
Obviously, there was something else at work here...some other reason why Red Skelton declined what could have been the crowning moment
of a glorious career. When he could have been starring in the most important comedy film of the year, he was out playing state fairs and the
Nugget casino in Sparks, Nevada.
It's anyone's guess as to why but mine is as follows. At that stage of his life, he had no interest in money, no interest in
stardom, no interest in getting offers for other movies, no interest even in winning an Oscar. He just wanted that live audience out there, and
the positive energy one can derive from inducing mass laughter. If you've ever made a roomful of people howl, you know it can be a drug for
Red Skelton was certainly an addict. And I hope, wherever he is, they have a live audience, so he can get his fix. I have a
feeling he's doing a lot more than an hour.