Question: When I was a kid, my dad and I would watch Red Skelton on TV and he would tell me that Mr. Skelton ad-libbed much of his act and had no writers. Was that true? I remain a fan either way. Amy J., Appleton, Wis.
Televisionary: Boy, everyone's quick to write off the writers in the entertainment equation, huh? Truth is, Skelton employed a team of writers on his show; he just chose not to speak to them. "I've met them," he said of the writers he was paying $12,000 a week in 1963. "I don't want to be a victim of writers. I want to do what I want to do. I read lines backwards and get laughs. And I never look at the script in advance. If I do, I rip it apart. Why tear my heart out?"
Why indeed? Especially since Skelton, who'd worked as a performer since the age of 15, was so adept at improv and reading a crowd on the spot? After all, aside from the final year the show was on the air, when Skelton added a group of regulars to the guest stars who helped him out each week, he did all the heavy lifting on the show. And he carried that weight from its September 1951 debut on NBC, through its jump to CBS two years later and its jump back to NBC for its final season in September 1970.
And even though the writers were held at arm's length, they still managed to appreciate the work they got to do and the work they dreamed up for the effects men who had to execute their ideas. "You know, it really is ridiculous, head writer Ed Simmons told TV Guide in 1963 of all the work that went into Skelton's wacky skits. "Grown men spending their working days dreaming up ways to send beds hurtling through hospital walls or to explode corn cobs or get beer out of a turkey leg we did that once. What's even more ridiculous is grown writers spending their days thinking them up. But, you know, it keeps the joint alive. Most effects men have nothing more vital to do than to see that Jim Arness's gun is loaded. On this show, nobody ever gets bored."
Least of all Skelton, who was famous for his workaholic ways. He would first see the script for the next show to be taped 35 hours before shooting began. For those 35 hours he'd eat and sleep very little, going over the skits and jokes again and again, eating only crackers and round after round of hot peppers a tough routine for a guy with a famously bad stomach. "They're the hottest obtainable," he said of the fiery friends that kept him going. "Help kill the desire for food. No use to eat. I couldn't keep it down."
If Skelton was nervous, those around him certainly were, too. The man who honed his skills on vaudeville stages and radio before hitting the small screen with characters like Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper and the Mean Widdle Kid expected everyone to work as hard as he did and keep up. And he maintained a frenetic pace while working, changing gags on the fly. "He is not just capable of revising a script, but of systematically tearing it to ribbons," said an unnamed colleague with firsthand experience.
And when Skelton did, the writers were almost never there to see it happen, since except for Simmons, they were banished from the set once rehearsals began. "Red wants to be free to do whatever he wants," Simmons explained. "Our job is to supply a spine of good writing a theme split into acts, with a beginning, a middle and an end which he urgently needs.... You'll find me on the set from time to time, but I make it a policy to leave Red alone as much as I can. We like our star running happy."
Whatever the writers may have thought of Skelton's way of working, the audience loved it. Having grown up in grinding poverty, Skelton did well for himself. By the time his show was heading into its final season, he owned large homes in Palm Springs and Bel-Air. Those homes housed 22,000 first editions, 10 TV sets, five Rolls-Royces, 300 bonsai trees (which were trucked from Palm Springs to Bel Aire when the former's weather got too hot, then transported back when it cooled off) and collections of ivory and porcelain miniatures, Cruikshank prints, toy cannons, hats, music boxes and antique walking sticks. And even after his show was off the air, Skelton reportedly earned $80,000 a pop for paintings he did of clown faces, plus $2.5 million a year from lithographs.
And while his career took its toll on him worry- and stomach-wise, Skelton, who died in 1997 at the age of 84, left a lot of smiles in his wake. "I'm nuts and I know it," he once said. "But as long as I make them laugh, they ain't going to lock me up."