Red Skelton's radio career started on Rudy Vallee's Royal Gelatin Hour before joining NBC's 1939 variety series Avalon Time. Broadcast from Chicago, Avalon Time featured country singer Red Foley and Red Skelton's wife and gag writer, Edna Stillwell.
Red Skelton was drafted into the Army in March 1944, but returned to NBC in December of 1945, with the same sponsor and timeslot. The Red Skelton Show ran on radio until May 1953. Red Skelton starred in his own television program from 1951 to 1971.
Skelton introduced the first two of his many characters during the show's first season. Clem Kadiddlehopper was based on a Vincennes neighbor named Carl Hopper, who was hard of hearing. Skelton's voice pattern for Clem was very much like that of the later cartoon character, Bullwinkle. They were sufficiently similar to cause Skelton to contemplate filing a lawsuit against Bill Scott, who voiced the cartoon moose. The Mean Widdle Kid, or "Junior", was a young boy full of mischief, who typically did things he was told not to do. "Junior" would say things like, "If I dood it, I gets a whipping.", followed moments later by the statement, "I dood it!" Skelton performed the character at home with Edna giving him the nickname "Junior" long before it was heard by a radio audience. While the phrase was Skelton's, the idea to try using the character on the radio show was Edna's. Skelton starred in a 1942 movie of the same name, but did not play "Junior" in the film. When MGM decided to use the phrase for the movie, they did so without the permission of either Skelton or his Raleigh cigarettes sponsor; Skelton asked for $25,000 from the studio in damages.
The phrase was such a part of national culture at the time, when General Doolittle conducted the bombing of Tokyo in 1942, many newspapers used the phrase, "Doolittle Dood It" as a headline. In 1943, after a talk with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Skelton used his radio show to collect funds for a Douglas A-20 Havoc to be given to the Soviet Army to help fight World War II. Asking children to send in their spare change, Skelton raised enough money for the plane in two weeks. He named the bomber "We Dood It!" In 1993, the pilot of the plane was able to meet Skelton and thank him for the bomber.
Skelton also added a routine he had been performing since 1928. Originally called "Mellow Cigars" by Skelton, the skit entailed an announcer who became ill as he smoked his sponsor's product. Brown and Williamson, the makers of cigarettes, asked Skelton to change some aspects of the skit; Skelton renamed the routine "Guzzler's Gin", where the announcer became inebriated while sampling and touting the imaginary sponsor's wares. While the traditional radio program called for its cast to do an audience warm-up in preparation for the broadcast, Skelton did just the opposite. After the regular radio program had ended, the studio audience was treated to a post-program performance. Skelton would then perform his "Guzzler's Gin" or any of more than 350 routines for those who had come to the radio show. Skelton updated and revised his post-show routines as diligently as those for his radio program. As a result, studio audience tickets for the Skelton radio show were in high demand; there were times where up to 300 people needed to be turned away for lack of seats.
The Skelton divorce in 1943 meant that Red had lost his married man's deferment; he was once again classified as 1-A for service. He was drafted into the Army in early 1944. Both MGM and his radio sponsor tried to obtain a deferment for the comedian, but to no avail. Skelton's last Raleigh
radio show was on June 6, 1944, the day before he was formally inducted. Without its star, the program was discontinued, and the opportunity presented itself for the Nelsons to begin a radio show of their own, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Skelton suffered a nervous breakdown while in the Army and was discharged on September 18, 1945. His sponsor was eager to have him back on the air, and Skelton's program began anew on NBC on December 4, 1945.
Skelton brought with him many new characters that were added to his repertoire: Bolivar Shagnasty, described as a "loudmouthed braggard", Cauliflower McPugg, a boxer who had hit the canvas too often, Deadeye, a cowboy who could not get anything right, Willie Lump-Lump, a fellow who had a few too many drinks, and San Fernando Red, who never met a scam he did not like and also had political aspirations. By 1947, Skelton's musical conductor was David Rose, who would go on to television with him. Skelton had worked with Rose during his time in the Army and wanted Rose to join him on the radio show when it went back on the air in December 1945.
On April 22, 1947, Red was censored by NBC two minutes into his radio show. Red and his announcer Rod O'Connor began to talk about Fred Allen being censored during Allen's NBC show the previous week; they were silenced for 15 seconds. Comedian Bob Hopewas also given the same treatment once he began referring to the censoring of Allen. Skelton forged on with his lines for his studio audience's benefit. The material Skelton insisted on using had been edited from the script by the network before the broadcast. Skelton's words after he was back on the air were, "Well, we have now joined the parade of stars." Skelton had been briefly censored the previous month for the use of the word "diaper". After the April incidents, NBC indicated it would no longer pull the plug for similar reasons.
Skelton changed sponsors in 1948; Brown and Williamson, owners of Raleigh cigarettes, withdrew due to program production costs. Skelton's new sponsor was Procter & Gamble's Tide laundry detergent. He changed networks the next year, going from NBC to CBS. The Paley plan that offered stars significant tax savings if they incorporated, then sold their shows to CBS, covered radio shows only. Skelton's radio show was on CBS until May 1953. After Skelton's network radio contract was over, he signed with Ziv Radio for three years for a syndicated radio program in 1954. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.