Friday, April 5, 2019

EMMYS 1956: The Phil Silvers Show (season 1)


For the 1955-56 season, the Emmy for Comedy Series went to the premiere season of The Phil Silvers Show. But that was not the original title. When it debuted, audiences were greeted with the announcement introducing "The Phil Silvers show 'You'll Never Get Rich'!" This is similar to other series of the time. In its initial run, I Love Lucy was always introduced as "The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz show" before the title, as if you had to remind the audience who was in it every week. The original title of the series, You'll Never Get Rich, comes from a line from an old song:
You're in the army now
You're not behind a plow
You'll never get rich
By digging a ditch
You're in the army now!

The song is sung at various times throughout the season. While the title was certainly appropriate, it was eventually dropped and the series stuck with just highlighting its central star, becoming officially The Phil Silvers Show. I was unable to find clear information on when the original title was dropped, but it appears to have been during the first season. You might recognize the show by the name of his character, the name the series was sometimes broadcast in syndication under, Sgt. Bilko.

 Image result for phil silvers sgt bilko

The Phil Silvers Show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, so once again all of the original cigarette ads done by the cast have been cut out of later syndication run, and the original opening replaced with an animated version. Watching all of these shows in sequence, it's no wonder America smoked so much. It seems like the entire television industry was built on the back of big tobacco.

Phil Silvers portrays a somewhat bumbling and scheming bald-headed bespectacled army sergeant named Ernest Bilko who is in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter in Kansas. He's a fast talker, gambler, flirt, and jovial sort always out to make a buck, often at the expense of the other men at the base. He runs betting pools among his men, has frequent card games with other sergeants, and is the thorn in the side of the base's commanding officer. When the series begins, the initial set-up is that Bilko's outfit has been doing these things because he's let things get sloppy since they were so well-trained. To shake things up and keep Bilko busy with real work, they assign him a platoon of new recruits. Bilko then spends most of the first episode trying to swindle the men out of their money so he can pay off a poker debt. The series sticks with the premise for a few episodes before returning his original platoon to him with no explanation in episode four, and maintaining that for the rest of the season.

Bilko also meets his match when Sgt. Hogan, a new female sergeant comes to the fort. She's hip to his schemes and eventually that start an on-again off-again relationship. His platoon is racially integrated; there's a black man in the group. It's nice to see that in the mid-1950s, and there was never any comment about it. He was always just another one of the guys.

It's interesting setting a series in the army during this period. America was now ten years post-World War II and settling into a comfortable civilian life. Other popular series have focused more on this renewed domesticity. But here we have a show looking at the servicemen who are still serving their country. Bilko is a veteran of the war in the Pacific, and old war stories come up every now and then throughout the series, particularly in a hilarious episode with him as a consultant for a WWII movie, and a moving episode about a reunion with his old army buddies. His friends have moved into civilian life, and he's stayed in the service. I suppose it's also worth remembering that the Korean War had only just reached its stalemate a few years ago, and America's military was still poised to fight the red menace of communism. So it's neat to get a comedy set here as a time capsule of sorts. The general tone is similar in some ways to popular wartime comedy like Stalag 17.

The Phil Silvers Show was created and primarily written by Nat Hiken, who would later go on to create Car 54, Where Are You? The writing is sharp. And while a lot of episodes might revolve around similar premises, it doesn't get stale because they shake it up enough. Sometimes Bilko's looking to con his own guys, but in the end he still looks out for them as his men, and there will be other times he coordinates them as a group to pull something on someone who has wronged them. There's enough variety to keep the laughs coming, while allowing for character moments with Bilko or some of his men.

But what elevates it is the full-bodied performance of Phil Silvers. He takes on every action with gusto and quickly becomes a big television character of the best kind, the kind that's immediately recognizable and iconic. He peppers his lines with ad-libs and really hams up the extended bits where he's schmoozing or trying to pull a fast one.

In fact, it's funny looking back on it, but the Bilko character as portrayed by Silvers was a template for later TV characters. Most people are aware that The Flintstones was essentially a parody of The Honeymooners, but I wonder how many realize that Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat was essentially a riff on Sgt. Bilko. Sure, the setting is transposed from the army to a group of cartoon alley cats, but it's essentially the same thing. Top Cat's delivery and mannerisms are in retrospect very clearly modeled after Silvers.

I had been aware of the series for a long time. It ran briefly on Nick-at-Nite when I was a kid. But I had never really sat down and watched it. Having done so, I immediately saw a comparison to one of my cultural touchstones, Saved By the Bell. It is extraordinary how much Zack Morris is really just a '90s teen version of Bilko. I am certain there's a generation who grew up on that show that has no idea the debt it owed to this classic series. If you're a fan of Saved By the Bell, I recommend seeking out some Phil Silvers episodes and seeing for yourself. The entire series has been released on DVD, and there are also a number of episodes on YouTube.

FAVORITE EPISODES: The WAC, The Centennial, The Twitch, The Reunion, Hollywood, Kids in the Trailer, The Court Martial, Bilko's Hair
UP NEXT: The Phil Silvers Show (again!)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

EMMYS 1955: Make Room For Daddy (season 2)


And now we unfortunately come to a bit of a snag in my grand scheme to watch every Emmy-winning season of television comedy. The next series to win the Emmy for Outstanding Situation Comedy was Make Room For Daddy. However, due to the series' complicated history which I will delve into below, only a small smattering of episodes are available to view, and I had to go scouring through YouTube to find them. Of the 30 episodes that originally aired, I was only able to watch six. This means I am unable to get a full sense of this season of the series, but I can discuss the series itself in general terms.

Make Room For Daddy was a seminal family sitcom starring Danny Thomas. What I Love Lucy does for the married couple, this series tries to do for the nuclear family. The series follows Danny, his wife, and his children in typical family sitcom style. Like I Love Lucy, the series' lead is an entertainer, in this case a nightclub comedian and musical performer. And also like the former series, there are often musical numbers peppered throughout to showcase Danny Thomas as a performer. This seemed to be very much the style for comedy in the 1950s, especially as television comedy was also split between the new sitcom format and variety shows.

Initially, the series aired on ABC. It was sponsored by American Tobacco (makers of Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes) and Chrysler. Episodes would alternate primary sponsorship. Even the end credits would be effected; for tobacco-sponsored shows the credits ran over a tobacco leaf, and for Chrysler sponsored ones over Danny and the family hopping into a car.

For the first three seasons, Danny's wife was named Margaret and she was played by Jean Hagen. You might know Hagen as the actress with the silly voice in Singin' in the Rain. Here she gets to play an entirely different role, which she does well with. The children, Terry and Rusty, are played by Rusty Hamer and Sherry Jackson.
 Image result for sherry jackson make room for daddy
It is very strange watching young Sherry Jackson here at 12 years old, as I know her best as the sexy android Andrea from Star Trek.
 Image result for sherry jackson star trek

Jean Hagen was ultimately unhappy doing the series, and at the end of her three-year contract she wanted out. With her gone, the series was retooled and re-titled The Danny Thomas Show. You will find the series referred to under both names for its whole run. To explain the disappearance of Hagen, rather than simply recast the role of Margaret and to avoid the issue of divorce, the series killed her off and Danny was now a widower. I'm not certain, but this may have been the first time this was done on television, setting precedent for other series to follow (most recently, Kevin Can Wait). Ratings declined during season four with single dad Danny, but the season ended with a story arc that introduced Kathy, played by Marjorie Lord, a new love interest for the character, and she and Danny got engaged.

At this point, ABC cancelled the show. But with I Love Lucy reaching its end,  The Danny Thomas Show was picked up by CBS, now with Marjorie Lord as the wife, where it ran for another 7 years. It is these CBS years of The Danny Thomas Show, though often still called Make Room For Daddy, that are in frequent syndication, DVD box sets, and streaming. If you've seen the show in reruns, odds are it was one of the CBS episodes. The Jean Hagen years are all but swept under the rug, which is something of a shame. Sherry Jackson also left when her contract was up, and her role was eventually recast.

Now that we've gotten all of that complicated stuff out of the way, you can see why it was difficult for me to find and watch these episodes. When you think you've found episodes of season 2, they end up actually being season 6. The later years of the series were successful in their own right, with several crossovers with other popular sitcoms, and went on to spin off The Andy Griffith Show. Did you know that was a spin-off? But I want to focus on the shows that I watched, the ones that earned the Emmy.

The series had actually already won an Emmy for its debut season, for Best New Series (a category they seem to have since done away with). So it was not exactly a surprise for this to be the show that would take the crown back from I Love Lucy in its next year. As I had no background with the series, the first episode of season 2 is a little jarring. The story is of Danny in a funk, thinking he's a lousy performer, and taking it out on the family. I have to say, it was weird sitting down to watch this happy family sitcom about a father, and having his first appearance be surly and snapping at his kids! It's a good show ultimately, but not a good start to the season.

The humor is simple and wholesome as you would expect. If you've any watched family sitcoms in the last 50 years, you basically know what you are getting. The kids say cute things and get into trouble, the dad is a larger-than-life personality, the mom struggles to keep it all together with grace. It's a little safe, but it was pioneering the genre. There are episodes and stories in this season that would be constantly reused decade after decade on other shows. In fact, several of these early episodes would be redone in the later CBS seasons. Watching a show like "Rusty Gets a Haircut" I was immediately reminded of an episode of Full House. A daughter's first crush, a tonsillectomy, a two-parter about the promise of a new job, these are all now typical sitcom stories. But let's give a nod to Make Room For Daddy for digging that well.

There are a few supporting players in the cast, such as Danny's agent. The family also has a black housekeeper, though she appears very sporadically. I saw her in one episode, and then never again in the six that I watched.

There is what I assume was a two-part story (though I only got to see the second half) that follows Danny getting the opportunity to go to Hollywood and be in a movie. The family is excited for the opportunity and plans to buy new house, but things change when the producer of the film wants Danny to get a nose job. Ultimately he chooses to be himself rather than undergo surgery just for the fame. Apparently this storyline was based on something that actually happened to Danny Thomas. It was a rather moving episode.

Overall, I liked the cast and found the show relatively amusing. I would have liked to see more, and I am frustrated that these formative years are so difficult to see. But if you are in the mood and are interested, look them up on YouTube. Many are even complete with their original vintage commercials!

UP NEXT: The Phil Silvers Show

Thursday, February 21, 2019

EMMYS 1954: I Love Lucy (season 3)

Yes, the popular sitcom won the Emmy for best situation comedy for the second year in a row.

There's still a lot to love about the show going into its third season. By this point, the Ricardos are America's favorite family and that fame is commented on in a few ways. After Life magazine did a spread on Lucy and Desi, the Ricardos got a similar story done about them. And they used a real issue of Life onscreen, though of course the Ricardo story was a fake inserted by the prop department. Also of note, the back cover of that particular issue was a full-page ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes. The show was forced to do a fake back cover by the sponsor, Phillip Morris. Can't advertise the competition onscreen!

The Ricardos also now have a baby, and the series does a decent job juggling stories that do and don't involve parenthood (they conveniently have a neighbor to watch the baby whenever the plot calls for it). But of course this show was filmed pretty quickly without many reshoots and it's clear the twins playing Little Ricky do not like it! No Olson Twins, here; Little Ricky spends a lot of his screen time crying.

What I do want to single out in this season though is the music. Wilbur Hatch provides an awful lot of great incidental music. Of course, the series has always had good music in the club with Ricky's performances. The musicians in the club are great and Desi's a good performer. But there is a lot of incidental music in the series as well. We forget how much music there was in older television. Modern sitcoms might have a theme song and a guitar riff for scene transitions and that's it. But there is full orchestral score for I Love Lucy episodes. The best example of this is the dream pantomime sequence in "Ricky's New Girlfriend". The music is telling the story there, in a method very similar to what was popular in musical theater around that time.

One of my favorite moments of the season and perhaps the series was Ricky telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Spanglish to Little Ricky. It's hilarious. Worth noting as well if you look closely you'll see that in Little Ricky's crib he has a pillow or blanket with the cartoon images of Lucy and Desi from the opening title sequence.

As with last season, the show keeps seeking new ways to stay fresh. They had a few more celebrity guest stars. This included up-and-coming entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford as Lucy's cousin (not actual relation, but it's complicated). He stays for a multi-episode arc. Is this the first two-parter in sitcoms? It also reminds me of a story arc on Friends which also featured a horrible roommate named Eddie who wouldn't leave. There was also an episode about redecorating the Mertz's apartment, which ultimately led to the Ricardos buying new furniture (again!). It seemed clear to me that this redecorating tactic was starting to wear itself out and they would have to look to other ways of shaking the show up. At the end of the season, we are teased with that possibility: the cast going on vacation and subleasing their apartment in the meantime. Later seasons will take the family on road trips and ultimately they will move out of that apartment for good. For a series that only ran 6 seasons (before morphing into a short-lived spin-off which is often counted as the later seasons of the show), they never stayed in the same set too long. Long-running sitcoms don't always seem to have this much shake-up in the environments today, but there seemed to be a concerted effort here to keep things different.

For all the good in this season, I don't think it is as strong as season 2 was. It's starting to feel its age, and the addition of the baby both helps and hurts it. There are still very good episodes and funny moments, but fewer outright classic ones. There are things that date the show a bit. I particularly noticed how often Lucy responds to Ricky with, "Yes, sir." Can you imagine that flying today without angry protests? But there are also some hilarious moments like the entire "Equal Rights" episode that I think in some ways still hold up. The girls object that women are treated the same as men, so Fred and Ricky agree to treat them the same as men for a lark. The women almost immediately are put off by the things they expect to be done for them (getting their coats, pulling out chairs, letting them order first), the preferential elements of society, are gone. It's a good conversation starter.

Though worth noting, during this season they re-broadcast "Lucy Does a TV Commercial", and not with the flashback structure employed in season 2. That probably makes this the first true re-run.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Ricky's Life Story, Equal Rights, Lucy Tells the Truth,  Too Many Crooks, Ricky Minds the Baby, Sentimental Anniversary, Home Movies, The Black Wig

UP NEXT: Make Room For Daddy

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

EMMYS 1953: I Love Lucy (season 2)

The second Emmy given for a comedy series was in a newly named category: Best Situation Comedy. This new television category could arguably be said to have been birthed by one popular sitcom, I Love Lucy.
Image result for i love lucy title screen season 2

I Love Lucy was the creation of real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Like most early television programming, the series was actually an outgrowth of radio. Ball had a hit radio comedy series, My Favorite Husband, based on a book, which chronicled the adventures of husband and wife Liz and George Cooper, "two people who live together and like it!" When the possibility was floated to transition to television, Lucille Ball instead insisted that she get to do a show with her husband Desi Arnaz. CBS eventually agreed, and with writers from the My Favorite Husband radio show, Lucy and Desi created Desilu Studios and their filmed television comedy went into production. The new creation was I Love Lucy, and it made television history.

I Love Lucy was not broadcast live; it was shot on film and edited for broadcast. But it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, like a play, capturing all of their live reactions. To accommodate the filming while allowing for clear sight lines for the audience, a sophisticated camera and lighting set-up was devised, inventing what we now call the "three-camera sitcom" setup. This same method would be used to make television comedy for over forty years, and is still in use today for some series. Telling the story of the Ricardos, moderately successful Cuban band leader Ricky and his redheaded wife Lucy always scheming to get into the act, along with their friends and landlords the Mertzes, it soon became the number one show on television.

Its second season would also create a number of television firsts, and it's no surprise why it was awarded the Emmy. As filming got underway for this season, Lucille Ball became pregnant with their second child. After shooting a few episodes creatively costuming to hide the growing baby bump, it was decided to write the pregnancy into the show. Though the word "pregnant" was never uttered onscreen, Lucy Ricardo had a pregnancy on TV, leading up to the birth of the Ricardo's son, and future stories about motherhood. It would change the face of television and begin a long history of pregnancy on TV.

The pregnancy also inadvertently created another television milestone. Episodes were not aired strictly in order, and a number of episodes were shot but held over for Lucille Ball's maternity leave. Opening flashback sequences were shot to introduce stories that had been previously shot during her pregnancy and aired after the birth episode. But during those three months before new episodes could air, new sequences were also shot to present rebroadcasts of episodes from the previous season: I Love Lucy had essentially invented the rerun. Not only that, but one could argue the framing device was the godfather of all the clip shows that would come later using the "remember the time when..." device to run previously aired footage.

For all its innovation, it was also just a solidly funny show, generally taking place in either the Ricardo's apartment or at the club where Ricky worked. A number of episodes were reworked radio scripts from My Favorite Husband, allowing more episodes to be made, but also utilizing the television medium uniquely. There are a number of wonderful purely visual comedic moments in the series, even in adapted radio scripts. "The Courtroom" features a wonderful bit of physical comedy with Lucy and Ricky maneuvering a television down the stairs.

Desi never let the show get too stale. The entire set got a remodel in the second season not once but twice! Lucy wins a new furniture set in one episode, refurnishing the entire apartment, and later buys a new living room set. The Ricardos also end up moving apartments at the end of the season. All this variability allowed not only for the show to not become stale, but to reflect real life changes. And there was continuity! As much as episodes were often generally self-contained stories, season two brings a good sense of continuity from episode to episode that lent a reality to the Ricardos' lives and is more important to television than we sometimes realize. Lucy and Desi were doing "multi-episode arcs" in a way 50 years ago!

Speaking of the set, I'd like to comment on the bedroom. I always remember it as one of those classic television shows where a married couple have separate beds. But it's worth pointing out that in the earlier episodes, though they do still have twin beds, they are pushed together. They only get truly separate beds after the mid-season remodel. Then they are briefly together again to accommodate Little Ricky's crib before they move. I just find that interesting.

Also worth pointing out is that the familiar "heart on satin" opening titles known to many of today's viewers was created for syndication reruns and not original. Why was it changed? Because the series was originally proudly sponsered by Phillip Morris cigarettes, and that branding was all over the original title sequence. When you're aware of it, the product placement throughout the show is more obvious too; it isn't just "they smoked back then," they were actively selling cigarettes. So history has tried to expunge that and separate the series from its cancerous sponsorship. Which is a bit of a shame because the original openings were constantly rotating cartoons featuring a little stick figure Lucy and Ricky. The show would announce "Phillip Morris presents the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz show, I Love Lucy!" In later episodes, Desi himself would appear from a curtain to do a quick commercial for Phillip Morris before introducing the show to "tell you why I love Lucy."At one point, there was even a plan to release a theatrical film, stitching together three episodes of the first season, with a new framing device of an audience attending a taping. The film was never released (though it eventually found its way to DVD), but even that film's opening titles featured the then-iconic cartoon characters. In recent years, some of the cartoon bits for commercial breaks were restored to the series for DVD and broadcasts. However, any and all Phillip Morris-branded content has remained excised, though available to view separately.

Image result for i love lucy philip morris

One of my favorite moments is when Ricky attempts to read a book and has trouble with the varying English pronunciations of words that seem to be spelled the same (bough, through, rough). It's a hilarious bit, and this series was so good about presenting ethnic humor but in a good-natured way. Ricky would comment on America, Lucy would gently rib his accent, but none of it was mean-spirited. We may overlook how important the depiction of cross-cultural love and understand was on the show, and what a statement it was that the lovable Lucy had a Cuban husband who would fall into Spanish when exasperated and that they had a good marriage. Of course, it still doesn't hold to some modern standards of cultural sensitivity ("The Indian Show", for example, would never be made today).

The musical element should also not be overlooked. Similar to The Red Skelton Show, I Love Lucy's format allowed for some musical performances. And why not? Ricky was a bandleader, after all. Sometimes the comedy gives way for music. But more often than not, the musical performance also lends itself to Lucy's shenanigans. The second season is notable for featuring the only performance of the lyrics to the "I Love Lucy" theme song. It was even released as the B-side of a record of Desi's song "There's a Brand New Baby at Our House", which on the show was written by Ricky for the Ricardo's son, but actually was written by Desi for the birth of their first child, Lucie.

Apart from the groundbreaking pregnancy storyline, the second season also features one of the most iconic sequences of television comedy, Lucy and Ethel working in a chocolate factory, unable to keep up with the conveyor belt. This moment from the episode "Job Switching" is so iconic now that it has been parodied, ripped off, and recycled in many subsequent series. And that's the case with so much of I Love Lucy. Knowing how far we've come, it's easy to forget that so many of the things done on this show were innovations. Let's remember to give it the credit it deserves. If you've seen a gag a thousand times now, you hadn't back then. Thankfully, and maybe not surprisingly, I Love Lucy has stood the test of time as one of the most beloved comedy series of all time.

FAVORITE EPISODES: Job Switching, The Operetta, Lucy is Enceinte, Lucy Hires an English Tutor, Lucy Goes to the Hospital, Lucy's Last Birthday, Lucy Wants New Furniture

UP NEXT: I Love Lucy (again!)

Friday, January 18, 2019

EMMYS 1952: The Red Skelton Show (season 1)

Last year I got the impulse to visit or revisit all of the series that have won the Emmy for best series. Because it's a little easier, I thought beginning with the comedies would be smart. So when the new year began, I began this new project: to watch ever Emmy-winning season that won for Outstanding Comedy Series.

When the Emmys began, there were fewer categories. And over the years, the categories grew strange, with designated Western and "Mystery" categories, rather complicating things. There was no designated category for comedy until the fourth year. I should also point out, this is specifically going to only cover comedy series, not variety series. While there is often a lot of overlap there, they are distinct categories and will be treated as such. But that brings us to the 1951-1952 season, and the very first Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series: The Red Skelton Show.

Of all the celebrated comedic performers of the 1940s-1970s, there are a handful that most people would immediately recognize: Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Lucille Ball. But somehow history has forgotten Red Skelton, and having now seen a number of his shows, I think that's a shame. Sure, you might have heard the name, but he was a true talent on the same level as the other greats and young people deserve to know who he was. The son of a circus clown, it's no hyperbole when the announcer introduces Skelton as "that clown of clowns." Skelton has certainly got that talent for making people laugh. He worked in vaudeville, radio, television, and films. And what I find really unique about Skelton is his comedy marries so many of the great notions of what comedy is.

The Red Skelton Show debuted on NBC in 1951. Like most television programs of the time, it was an outgrowth of an already popular radio show. But television allowed Skelton to truly put more of his talents on display; he was as much a visual comedian as a verbal one. He was a master of classic clown-style comedy, with broad facial expressions and pantomime. But he could also deliver classic one-liner jokes or sketch concepts. Truly, just in the first 20 episodes of the series, you would be blessed with stand-up monologues, sketch comedy, improv, mime, observational humor, slapstick, physical comedy, broad caricatures, verbal humor, sight gags, running gags, prop comedy. You name it, Skelton dabbled in it. Nearly everything comedic you turn on a television for had a place in Skelton's arsenal. For this reason alone he was truly a master and one of the greats. This was the show's first season, and when you watch it it's no surprise that even with competition from Burns and Allen and I Love Lucy the Academy chose to honor The Red Skelton Show.

Red Skelton also created a number of various character personas. Even as a kid, I knew the name Kadiddlehopper, but had nothing to connect it to, no context for it. Now, I finally do. Clem Kadiddlehopper was Skelton's village idiot character, often used on the series as an incompetent TV pitch man ("I'll give you the number to call later; we don't have time to give it now!"). Then there's Willie Lump Lump, the sad-sack drunk; San Fernando Red, the brash Southern politician; and Cauliflower McPugg, the punch-drunk boxer always hearing birds and bells ("Boy, a flock of 'em flew over that time!"). The series really highlights Skelton's versatility as a performer and some of the best sketches involve him playing multiple characters.

Every episode pretty much follows a standard formula. The series begins with Skelton delivering a monologue of jokes or impressions in front of a curtain, much like many other comedy or variety shows even today. The curtain would then open to a sketch usually featuring one of Skelton's characters. Following that would be a pre-filmed segment from "Skelton's Film Scrapbook." These sketches have the same chaotic energy as the rest of the show, and always turn out to be a clever commercial for their sponsor, Tide. In the early days of broadcasting, shows were brought to us by one sponsor, typically. And often they performers would end up doing a commercial somewhere along the way. But Skelton's very clever commercial segments are always fun and always work as comedy sketches too, and not just someone reading copy. Beyond that, Skelton seems genuinely appreciative of his sponsors and tries to do right by them. After that, there is often a musical performance of some sort by a singing group or dance performance (sometimes comedic, though not always; sometimes Skelton himself messes around with them.) Following the variety portion, we generally get one more sketch from "Skelton's Scrapbook", and then a final address to the audience before Skelton is yanked under the curtain from behind. In one episode, it is revealed the one yanking him is Bob Hope.

Of course, a series doesn't survive solely off of one performer, and The Red Skelton Show has a staple of a few actors and actresses for Skelton to play off of, particularly Lucille Knoch. It's also worth remembering that in the early days of broadcast television all of these shows were performed live every week. This meant anything could happen (and often did). People might flub a line or ad-lib a joke. One episode they actually went on the air when Skelton was just warming up the crowd beforehand and they didn't realize they'd been broadcasting for two minutes. If you're a fan of watching people make each other laugh during sketches, you'll love The Red Skelton Show. Skelton loves to play to the crowd, so sometimes he'll milk a joke, or something unexpected will happen and they'll play into it. Other times someone might drop a line and he'll point it out. Several times flubbed lines ruined a punchline and he just plays it off with a laugh. He really shines as a comedic presence; his costars often can't keep a straight face. In one episode, a gag with a man in a snowman costume fails to get the laugh. So Skelton brings that snowman back for the next several episodes as a running gag. It's a show that rewards frequent viewing as you pick up on Skelton's standby catchphrases ("Another writer just bit the dust!").

Some of the sketches or set-ups are also inspired. There's one very cleverly designed visual gag where Willie's wife as a prank has nailed all the furniture in the room sideways to the wall. The technical aspects of this sketch and the physical comedy are delightful. If you're a fan of Lucy's vitameatavegamin bit, Skelton pioneered a similar concept in vaudeville featureing a pitchman selling Guzzler's Gin.

While the show is appropriate for all ages, and the comedy works for many different age groups, it doesn't shy from a bit of more adult humor. There's a smart satirical sketch in one episode about the perfect marriage in which the husband is cheating on his wife, and then they reverse it to her point of view and she's cheating on him.

What also stands out is how genuine Skelton feels as a personality. As I mentioned, he truly seems to care about his show and his advertisers. He cares about his audience. He's always gracious to thank an article or a favorable mention of his show. What he wants most is to make people laugh. Repeatedly, he will close out his show by apologizing to the audience if he offended them in any way, because it was all in good fun. He speaks of the power of laughter to make you forget your troubles for just a little while. He was a true clown in the greatest sense of the word; not a scary grotesque in greasepaint, but a master of delivery, pantomime, and doing anything for a laugh.

The series might be difficult to find, but if you want to watch it, Shout Factory has them all up available to view on their website, Some episodes and sketches are also on YouTube, and there are probably VHS and DVD collections out there somewhere.

T-I-D-E, Tide presents Red Skelton!

FAVORITE EPISODES: Episode 2, The Skeltons at Home (the Christmas show), Episode 14

UP NEXT: I Love Lucy

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Keeping Your Head Above Water

It's been awhile since we heard from Avril Lavigne. Like most, I was introduced to her through my sister and her friends who couldn't stop singing about Sk8er Bois and why things were so complicated. Her recent song "Head Above Water" is her best output in years. Vocally, she sounds better than I can remember her sounding. At times it has shades of Alanis Morissette, but it's clearly still Avril. Her voice sounds much more trained (unless it's auto-tuned, but I don't think so). If I have any complaint, it's that she starts the song out with power, when I feel like she should have built to there and done the first few lines a bit smaller. That would probably have been difficult given those notes, but I think she could have done it. Still, that's a minor quibble. I am impressed with her vocal overall for the rest of the song, hitting notes with a clarity that I'm not used to from her. This is no emo cheerleader rock; this is a solid (potentially Grammy-winning?) vocal performance.

And on a personal level, it hits a bit close to home mainly because I had a near-drowning scare as a child, so I'm drawn to drowning metaphors. For Avril, it's also a personal statement, as the song came out of her personal struggle with Lyme Disease, and a moment she feared she was going to die. That's why the video points to her foundation other resources about Lyme at the end. But whether as metaphor or literal drowning, it's a good song and I wanted to promote it.

And just for kicks, here's another little song which I relate to about near-drowning.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

YHWH Yireh -- He is able to set a table

"Yes, they spoke against God:
They said, 'Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?
Behold, He struck the rock,
So that waters gushed out,
And the streams overflowed.
Can He give bread also?
Can He provide meat for his people?'

Yet  He had commanded the clouds above,
And opened the doors of heaven,
Had rained down manna on them to eat,
And given them of the bread of heaven.
Men ate angels' food;
He sent them food to the full.

He caused an east wind to blow in the heavens;
And by His power He brought in the south wind.
He also rained meat on them like the dust,
Feathered fowl like the sand of the seas;
And He let fall in the midst of their camp,
All around their dwellings.
So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire."

-Psalm 78:19-20, 23-29