Red Skelton’s entertainment career started when he was a child. He first performed in medicine shows and as a circus clown, and then went into vaudeville and burlesque. Red Skelton’s radio debut occurred when he appeared as a guest star on The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, hosted by Rudy Vallee, on August 12, 1937. Skelton displayed a penchant for wisecracking humor and improvisation that led to two further appearances on the program that same year. In 1938, Skelton made a film appearance in Having Wonderful Time for RKO, where he performed his “donut-dunking” sketch derived from his stage routine. That same year, he hosted the variety/comedy program Avalon Time, replacing country singer Red Foley for about a year when he departed the show in December 1939.
After a few film appearances as comic relief in MGM features, he was given his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program, which debuted on NBC in October 7, 1941. As with the “donut-dunking” routine and Avalon Time, his wife Edna Stillwell served as his chief writer—a relationship that continued after the couple divorced in 1944. The other principal performers were Ozzie Nelson as his bandleader, his wife Harriet as vocalist (and main female characters), and Wonderful Smith, who acted as Skelton’s antagonist. In the show, he performed an array of eccentric characters in a variety of sketches, including the simple-minded country bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper, Junior, “The Mean Widdle Kid,” and Sheriff Dead-Eye, added to the program in early 1942.
With the advent of brash, audacious star characters—such as Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker—in animated short cartoons during the early 1940s, along with Skelton’s tendency to confide in the radio audience (as did these animated characters), the timing of his Raleigh Cigarette Program was perfect. During the first season of the program, which ended in early June 1942, many animated films lifted dialogue from—and based character voices on –Skelton’s characters. The earliest known instance of a cartoon that derived material from the show is Bob Clampett’s Wacky Blackout (released July 11, 1942) when radio mimic Kent Rogers imitated the mischievous “Mean Widdle Kid” as a little woodpecker. The little bird speaks Junior’s signature line, said whenever he sees an opportunity for trouble and ponders before committing to it: “If I do, I get a whippin’…I dood it!”
Skelton implemented a signature response to a simple question nearly every week in his early broadcasts for Junior (and other characters). Whenever they are asked a simple question, it is answered with impudence: “Let’s not get nosy, bub!” Whenever his mother (played by Harriet Hilliard from 1941-44) would strike him for his misbehavior, Junior would cry out that she “bwoke my widdle head,” or wherever he felt she hurt him. As he often encountered strangers besides his mother, they often questioned any ill intent upon them and their surroundings, to which Junior responded: “He don’t know me vewy well, does he?” One particular line of dialogue, “What a performance!” which is said in at least one “Mean Widdle Kid” radio sketch, was used in a few Warner Bros. cartoons, including Case of the Missing Hare (1942), which also uses Junior’s “I dood it” line at the end of the film.
Shortly before the end of the first season of Skelton’s radio show, at least two of Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons became heavily reliant on borrowing material from the program. The murder-mystery spoof Who Killed Who (model sheets presumably drawn in early 1942, released June 1943) lifts select catchphrases from the program, and uses his namesake as a gag when a red skeleton emerges out of a closet. The film also used another insolent response to a simple question, “Oh, wouldn’t you like t’know?” which was used by Clem Kadiddlehopper.
One Ham’s Family (model sheets drawn in June 1942; released August 1943) features a little boy pig patterned after Junior, voiced by Kent Rogers, in a more accurate impersonation than Wacky Blackout. The film also cross-pollinates with another popular radio program, as the Big Bad Wolf’s voice is modeled on The Great Gildersleeve (also voiced by Rogers). Near the end of The Loan Stranger (released October 1942), Woody Woodpecker imitates Junior’s dialogue and routines, in a dopey voice similar to Skelton’s own. Like Avery, Walter Lantz realized the vocal abilities of Kent Rogers, and used him to voice Woody’s version of the “Mean Widdle Kid” and the loan officer wolf, patterned after John Barrymore.
In Clem Kadiddlehopper’s sketches, the orchestra would play a rendition of “Arkansas Traveler” as Clem shuffles his feet along to see his girlfriend, Daisy June. As the music slowed to a stop, Clem would greet the audience with “Well, here I yam!” and hum a song as he continued on his way. After Daisy addresses him with “Howdy, Clem!” he replied to her in a lilting voice, “Well, Da-a-a-a-aisy June!” Several rural characters similar to Clem emerged in animated cartoons, such as Homer Pigeon in Pigeon Patrol (1942) and Swing Your Partner (1943), produced by Walter Lantz. At MGM, Tex Avery based a cartoon around Clem and Daisy June in The Hick Chick (model sheets drawn in September 1944, released June 1946), even spoofing Clem’s signature introduction on the show in the opening scenes. Bob Clampett also used a Clem-type character with Charlie Horse in It’s a Grand Old Nag (1947), voiced by a young Stan Freberg.
Skelton introduced the gruff-voiced Sheriff Dead-Eye on the program on January 13, 1942. As Dead-Eye would ride into town, he would command his horse to stop, but it would continue to gallop. He gives a command, and “Whoa…WHOA! Aw, c’mon, horse…WHOA!” Dead-Eye’s signature entrance was parodied in a prolonged introduction for Red Hot Ryder in Bob Clampett’s Buckaroo Bugs (1944). The film also borrowed catchphrases from Skelton’s other characters, including a line Junior used frequently: “Well, now, that’s mighty neighborly of ya…” In a sense, Dead-Eye’s loud voice served as the basis for Yosemite Sam, as he debuted in Friz Freleng’s Hare Trigger (1945), and in a later film, Sam uses a variation of the routine with a camel in Sahara Hare (1955).
The Raleigh Cigarette Program played a more significant influence during America’s involvement in World War II. After Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle operated an air raid to strike Tokyo in retribution for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on April 18, 1942, many newspapers used the headline, “DOOLITTLE DOOD IT.” (This was later referenced in Avery’s first-released MGM cartoon, Blitz Wolf.) Based on the success of Skelton’s radio program, he starred in an MGM musical comedy entitled I Dood It, released in 1943 and directed by Vincente Minelli. On June 1944, Skelton was drafted into the Army and his radio show was discontinued, while his contributors Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were given their own series. As a private, he was shipped overseas to entertain the troops, but the pressure of his military workload—performing as many as ten to twelve shows per day for the troops—led to a mental collapse and he spent three months under hospital care. Skelton was discharged from the Army in September 1945, and his program resumed in December with new cast members, which included Verna Felton (the matriarch elephant leader in Dumbo and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland for Disney) as Junior’s grandmother.
In 1948, Skelton’s sponsor was changed from Raleigh Cigarettes to Tide detergent, and the following year, he switched network stations from NBC to CBS. In March 1951, he signed a contract with NBC to star on his own comedy/variety television program, which premiered in September. Television viewers watched Skelton perform as Dead-Eye and Clem Kaddidlehopper. His radio program continued on CBS until May 1953, when Skelton chose to devote his full attention to the television show. Around 1953, The Red Skelton Hour switched to CBS where it continued to air until 1970, when it reverted back to NBC until the show’s final episode in 1971. Skelton lent his voice to at least one animated project as Father Time narrating the Rankin/Bass special Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976), where he also voices a baby bear (of the Three Bears), which sounded similar to Junior but without his malicious intentions.
Now for the fun part—here’s a video on how Skelton’s program was influential to animated theatrical cartoons, using both the radio excerpts and the accompanying clips. Reminder: this might not contain every cartoon that references a specific radio catchphrase or character, so excuse any discrepancies.