Red Skelton is 70 and sitting in a suite at the Madison: hair semiwild, tie with a diamond stickpin in it, a gag coming every 11 seconds. An unlit stogie, big enough to make Freddie the Freeloader drool, is a baton in the morning air. There is one constant here: the laughing. It is mostly Skelton's. He gets off a line, and then his ruddy face opens up like a melon smashed on a walk. His stuff kills him. He can't stand it. His whole body goes into a shake.
Do you live in Hollywood, Mr. Skelton?
"Nah, I live beyond my means."
The laugh is like this: Eeeeeeeeeeee. Or maybe Eee-Eee-Eee-Eee. It destroys his face, but in a minute it's back together. The famous Skelton voice is what it always was: full of oatmeal and gargle. It's like listening to a record through mayonnaise. This is a genuinely contented man.
How long can you go on?
"Hell, I don't know, I'm just hanging around to see who gets Brooke Shields."
He has on rich tortoise-shell glasses. His cuff links are opal, or maybe turquoise. On his right pinky is a huge gold ring. Everything about him seems younger and healthier than his years, except his ankles. They are mildly swollen. Yours might be, too, if you were 70 and still did 125 dates a year, two hours a night on the boards. Come tonight, he'll be at the Kennedy Center. One performance only, with a full orchestra. Once or twice he has collapsed after performances. He says it's nothing for him to drop four pounds before he gets offstage.
Is it true you're going to the White House?
"Yes, and by the way, I know the president well. When he was in the hospital, recuperating from that assassination attempt, I sent him a telegram: DEAR RON. WELL, NOW THE DEMOCRATS CAN'T SAY, 'WHEN ARE YOU GONNA GET THE LEAD OUT?' "
This morning, Thursday, he was up before dawn, as he nearly always is, writing a short story (or an idea for one), writing poems to his wife, Lothian. (She's in the other room at the moment.) Every day he writes a letter to his wife. He did the same thing for his late second wife. Here's what he wrote to his wife this morning: "With each new day I seek and find/ The world is heavy, but she's all mine/ It's not a burden, it's not a task/ With you, with me, all dreams will last." He reads this aloud and then says, "Little things like that. We try to make each breath an adventure." But this isn't a joke.
He is a painter (36 galleries, including 11 in Hawaii, show Skeltons), a composer of music (he has written more than 60 symphonies), a fiction writer. It says right here on a Kennedy Center press release that seven presidents and three popes have received him. He is an international card.
"I don't travel with a press agent. You can blow your own horn and sound taps at the same time."
Here's a funny line, he says, even though you really haven't asked for one. "I asked my little 12-year-old granddaughter if she believed in Santa Claus. 'Oh, sure,' she said. 'You stop believing in Santy Claus, you start getting socks and underwear.' That's pretty funny for a kid 12 years old, don't you think?"
Didn't like that one? Okay, okay, how about this one? "Every day I wake up, and if I don't see candles and smell flowers, I get out of bed."
But wait, it isn't over.
"Then I thumb my way through Playboy to get my heart moving."
A lot of people would say Red Skelton's humor isn't in anymore; in fact, hasn't been in for a long time. Richard Pryor is in. David Letterman is in. These are hip social satirists. Red Skelton is to satire what a woodpecker is to carpentry. You think of Red Skelton, you picture a man being jerked under a curtain, feet first, a drunk running headlong into a breakaway door. (Once the balsa door didn't break away and he ended up with a concussion.)
What you see is pretty much what you get. It's comedy of the fall-down, of the broad stroke, although he is a skilled pantomimist, and that's not an obvious art. He's been doing his routines since he was 10, in a medicine show. The show sold Hot Spring System tonic.
"A medicine show is a stage in a field where they give a free performance and then sell a product. Today they call it television."
(Actually, that's satire.)
Who cares what's in? On the seventh floor of the Madison Hotel, a man is making you laugh, making your pencil stutter off the page. Sometimes.
Once, a critic wrote: "It was all right--if you like Skelton--and it had some pretty stuff in it, but it was nothing you'd remember two minutes after it went off."
Television canned him, after two decades, at the end of the '69 season, and that hurt. On the other hand, there are those who still send letters to his home every Christmas, asking after dear old Clem Kadiddlehopper and Freddie the Freeloader. Why, this past Christmas Freddie got three letters with money in them.
"Oh, they remember those characters, yes they do. TV becomes such a reality. What was that doctor show on five or six years ago? Wellsby, Welby? Anyway, some lady in Ohio stood naked in front of her TV for three years waiting for an examination."
It has not been all yuks, by any means. There was the death of his son Richard, from prolonged leukemia, when the boy was 9. Maybe that was the biggest blow. There have been others, and also the kind of constant low-grade anxiety known to men who stand up in lights in front of other men and try to get them to guffaw.
"When you're in front of the public, you're on a throne of wax. And you say, 'My God, what do I do if it melts away?' " He isn't joking this time, either.
But here's a gag. "I just put some funny lines about my wife into the routine. It's about her cooking. Like, 'I'll tell you one thing, folks. She broke that damn dog from begging at the table.' "
This could go on all day. He's got a tour of the Hill, the afternoon meeting with the president. Better wind it up. There is a bit of awkwardness in the last moment. The visitor puts his notebook away, and his hand, too.
"Good to see a newspaper man with his hand in his own pocket," Red Skelton says.