(pictures borrowed from; http://www.whenmoviesweremovies.com/RedSkeltonimages.html, http://godcelebs.com/22413-red-skelton.html, http://vint-rad.blogspot.com/2013_03_01_archive.html)
How do you spell comedy? R-E-D-S-K-E-L-T-O-N! For real, that’s how I spelled it during a third grade spelling bee in 1965. Pretty dang dumb, wasn’t I? But it got a laugh from the prettiest girl in class. I truly couldn’t get enough of Red Skelton on Wednesday nights. It was on past my bedtime, but Dad always let me watch, because… well, I think it was his favorite show too. George Appleby always trying to get something past his wife who would always catch him and punish him soundly for something that truthfully wasn’t his fault. That con man tricked him into drinking that stuff that made him act like an insane lady’s man. San Fernando Red pulling a gag on the man with the silver six-gun and hoofing it out of town before the townsfolk caught on to him with the tar and feathers. He never truly got what he had coming, or what he wanted, either. Someone else got it instead. Freddy the Freeloader making even poverty and homelessness funny. He never passed up a cigar butt in the street and found a dime on every sidewalk.
I always thought that if it was going to be funny, it had to be done Red’s way. Let’s face it, there were two kinds of humor back then and only one my parents truly approved of. They were Eisenhower Republicans living in Iowa, the heart of the Midwest. Red’s gentle humor, with its hidden ribald parts, could profoundly make you laugh, and once in a while bring a tear into your eye. It was never mean-spirited or cruel. It never made a political or religious point. It always assumed that all people were good deep down, and even the bad guys could be reformed with the right joke or prank to make them see the error of their ways. That was comedy.
The other kind, the scary kind was Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. They would say bad words, even though you couldn’t say Carlin’s famous seven words on TV back then. They made jokes about dark and desperate things. Democratic political conventions in Chicago, the Viet Nam War, racial tension, the Black Panthers, these were all fair game for satire and black humor. Their jokes assumed that all people were basically bad and greedy and ignorant… full of malice towards all. Not even the comedian himself was assumed to be the exception to the rule.
And seriously un-funny things were happening. Kennedy was shot in 1963. Another Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were both killed in 1968. Patty Hearst was first kidnapped by and then somehow forced to be a part of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Chaos took the world we knew and turned it upside down. You had to learn to laugh at dark things, because laughing was somehow better than crying and hurting inside. The pictures of the My Lai Massacre in Life Magazine made me sick to my stomach for weeks. I did everything I could in class to make that pretty girl laugh, and when I couldn’t… I had to shut up for a while. I had to think.
I decided early on that I needed humor to live. I had to have the funny parts in my life in order to ward off the darkness. I whistled walking home from choir practice at the Methodist church on dark November nights. I told jokes to the rustling leaves and invisible hoot owls. I got by.
So, what is the lesson learned? If you read this far without gagging, then you know I mix a little funny with a little sad… and try to make a serious point in my writing. Maybe I’m a fool to do it, but I truly believe that Red had it right. People are basically good. You can reform a bad guy with a good joke. You can get by in the dark times.
If dark times are truly here again, then maybe that is why I have to tell my stories, make a few jokes, and make people think. I know I may be killing you with boredom by now, but that’s what I do. I’m a professional English teacher. I bore people to death. And if you read this far, and you’re still alive, maybe I can make you a little bit smarter too.