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Wednesday, November 15, 2017


I remember loving "The Red Skelton Hour" when I was a kid, but over the years I sort of lost touch with my former TV comedy pal.  With Time-Life's 22-disc DVD collection THE RED SKELTON HOUR IN COLOR: DELUXE EDITION, I've discovered a treasure trove of prime comedy gold that brings the reasons I loved Red in the first place rushing back in waves of laughter.

One of the most endearing and uninhibited laugh-getters in TV comedy history, Red took an obvious delight in performing which was highly infectious to any audience he happened to be in front of.  One-liners, silly stories, wacky characters and voices, and a master's skill at pantomime were all parts of the comedy arsenal he wielded so exquisitely in his endless quest to entertain.

In these priceless segments, Red is an ad-lib machine who clearly has a ball churning out jokes and one-liners off the cuff while keeping the audience, and often his co-stars, howling with laughter.  This gives the impression that we're watching the dress rehearsal, the preliminary run-through of the show in which everything's loose and improvisational (in his later taped shows, this may in fact be true!)

Red doesn't just break the "fourth wall"; he acts as though it doesn't exist, and never did.  The audience is always in on every joke from start to finish, and his adlibs are almost always directed at them.  This gives the whole thing a delightful audience-participation vibe that heightens our enjoyment of the show.

This is especially true in the early live shows (recorded onto 16mm film as kinescopes) with exciting live-audience performances that capture Red at his most energetic and uninhibited.  Eight discs in this set make up the four-volume "The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years (1951-1955)" which is prime early Red at the beginning of his 20-year network run on NBC and CBS.

These are brisk half-hour shows in black-and-white which are solid comedy save for the occasional musical guest.  Red performs some of his greatest characters including country hick Clem Kadiddlehopper, quickwitted tramp Freddy the Freeloader, washed-up boxer Cauliflower McPugg, tippler Willie Lump-Lump, Sheriff Deadeye, Lord Beaverhead, George Appleby, seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliff, and several others.

Familiar guest performers include Billy Barty, Sheree North, Charles "Buchinski" Bronson, Ann Southern, June Foray, Mike Mazurki, Gil Perkins, Benny Rubin, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and John Wayne, as well as Red's wife Georgia ("Little Red") and kids Valentina and Richard. Red also works the plugs for that night's sponsor, such as Tide or Geritol, into the skits in humorous ways. 

The 10-disc set "The Red Skelton Hour In Color" continues the fun and hilarity onward into Red's later shows with 31 hour-long color episodes from the 60s.  These keep the fun going full-tilt with twice the amount of jokes and pantomime (the latter represented by the regular feature "The Silent Spot").

Among Red's guests are John Wayne (spoofing his "Rooster Cogburn" character), Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller, Mickey Rooney, Nipsey Russell, George Gobel, Robert Goulet, Merv Griffin, Mike Connors, Liberace, Carol Wayne, and more.  (Look for ubiquitous extra Bess Flowers in one of the "Silent Spot" segments.)  Musical guests include Simon and Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension, the Association, and Lou Rawls. 

A special treat for horror fans is the episode featuring guests Boris Karloff and Vincent Price as father-and-son mad scientists who try to turn Clem Kadiddlehopper into a robot.  (Boris and Vincent even sing!)  The set also features a bonus Skelton biography, "America's Clown", and interviews with Vicki Lawrence and Bobby Rydell.

"The Best of Red Skelton: The Complete 20th Season" encompasses Red's final hours of network series TV in 23 episodes on three discs.  These shows get a lot of mileage poking fun at the hippies and other aspects of the era, featuring several then-current stars as well as some old favorites.  Among these are Raymond Burr, Jerry Lewis, Barbara Anderson, Robert Wagner, Jill St. John, Walter Brennan, Gene Barry, Dan Blocker, Eva Gabor, Wally Cox, Tony Randall, Telly Savalas, Godfrey Cambridge, and Michael Landon.

Finally, "Red Skelton: The Farewell Specials" contains four hour-long shows that Red did for HBO years after he'd gone off the air but was still going strong.  "Red Skelton's Christmas Dinner" is a Yuletide Freddy the Freeloader adventure with Vincent Price and Imogene Coca playing fellow vagrants who understand the true meaning of the season.  (Look for Cec Linder, who played Felix Leiter in GOLDFINGER.) 

"More Funny Faces", "Funny Faces III", and "A Royal Command Performance" capture Red's enduring brilliance as a live stage performer as he mesmerizes crowds in Canada and England, including members of the royal family. 

Red Skelton was one of the best stand-up comics of all time and a master of pantomime, endlessly energetic and inventive, appealing to all ages, versatile, and bursting with fun and goodwill.  Even his tendency toward maudlin sentiment can be forgiven (and, if need be, fast-forwarded through) in light of the wealth of comic brilliance one can enjoy watching his priceless recorded performances.  For fans of Red and of comedy in general, THE RED SKELTON HOUR IN COLOR: DELUXE EDITION is a treasure chest of comedy gold.

Order it from Time-Life


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