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TV History: Red Skelton

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Guzzler's Gin Significance and Context

by Paris Shirley

This sketch is from The Red Skelton Show, a variety show that aired from 1951 to 1971 that trailed only Gunsmoke and The Ed Sullivan Show in ratings for that period. Though its performer, Red Skelton, may be best remembered as an onscreen personality, the former circus clown originally came to the national stage by adapting his vaudeville comedic routine for radio. This was not an uncommon career trajectory for television’s earliest stars; other variety show hosts like Milton Berle and Garry Moore also had backgrounds in theatrical and radio comedy. Importantly, these precursive activities helped develop each performers’ ability to communicate and play to live audiences, but they also served to establish contextually the type of irreverent comedy that would be featured in television’s early days.
As it is one of Skelton’s most frequently performed and popularized act (he developed it in 1928; this TV segment aired in 1952), this sketch (called Guzzler’s Gin) provides a snapshot of the comedic pulse of early-mid 20th century American society. The gist of the joke is simple enough: a traditional set up of situational irony where something routine (like a commercial announcer advertising a product) doesn’t go as planned (announcer gets drunk on said product) and hilarity ensues. What is more compelling, in terms of evaluating the performance’s cultural identifiers, is the sentiments that he’s expressing about the butt of the joke, that is, classical television announcers and their bankrolling advertisers.
As major networks (NBC and CBS, primarily) began dominating radio airwaves in the early part of the 20th century, the national audience inevitably became accustomed to a certain standard of programming and also to the certain way that that programming was presented. Radio announcers, seeking to keep the attention on the product that they were advertising and not on peculiarities in their vocal delivery, collectively settled on a proper, if somewhat staid, “radio voice”. In her essay Radio Comedy and Linguistic Slapstick, historian Susan Douglas goes as far to say that these announcers were “the custodians of the ‘official’ language of America”. And what better way to undermine this decades-long process of radio homogenization than to deconstruct those carefully-laid norms and purposefully speak in a manner that flies in the face of propiety. This deviance was the birth of radio comedy. Shows like Amos N’ Andy and The Burns and Allen Show featured (beloved) characters with unenlightened speech patterns and that was precisely the point. Those characters’ mispronunciations and misunderstandings endeared them to audiences by allowing for humor both at a base level (“Oh, look at this dummy who doesn’t know how to talk.”) and at a deeper, philosophical level (“Oh, this character that is supposed to be the dummy actually makes more sense than his straight-talking counterpart.”)
This linguistic trickery is the comedic tradition that Red Skelton both helped create and sustain through television. As the sketch begins, Skelton is seemingly that straight, no-frills announcer who is here to promptly deliver his pitch. As he has a taste of the product and proceeds to decline in his sobriety, his formerly nuanced speech becomes slurred and stunted (what was formerly a “nice, smooth drink” becomes a “nice, smooooooooth drink). Again, the comedy is not particularly innovative by today’s standards, but that’s not the point. In displaying something that everyone is used to go awry, it ensures that the joke will connect with the maximum number of viewers watching, which was the main goal of variety shows such as this. Even if members of the audience can’t comprehend the subject matter of the sketch, there’s still space for laughs due to Skelton’s vaudevillian brand of physical comedy. Children, completely unaware of the concept of alcohol and its aftereffects, could join their parents in chuckling at this man sloshing liquid all over the place and making Three Stooges-like, pantomiming gestures.
The legacy of this sketch and Red Skelton’s body of work is ironclad. Any critical examination of Guzzler’s Gin would be remiss not to mention its similarity and connection to the famous “Vitameatavegamin” bit made famous by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. Though whether Ball had permission or not to borrow from Skelton is up for debate, at worst it’s an example of art inspiring art. As for Skelton himself, he and his contemporary variety show hosts were the predecessors of the late-night comedy on television today. Anytime Fallon is bouncing across the stage or wittily penning his linguistically-savvy “Thank you” notes, he’s operating on the groundwork that Skelton and Milton Berle laid before him.

Red Skelton Classic Guzzler's Gin Vaudille Routine

This clip features a vaudville routine from comedian Red Skelton, which aired on TV in 1952.

from Red Skelton Classic Guzzler's Gin Vaudille Routine (1952)
Creator: Red Skelton, Guy Della-Cioppa
Distributor: YouTube (User: ycbsiiw)
Posted by Christine Becker