"Television has never seen anything like the turnover of personnel on The Red Buttons Show. The writers, directors, producers and supporting players come and go so fast the star can't learn their names before they head for the exit." - Voice of Broadway, April 8, 1954
"Mel Brooks, signed just a week ago as writer-director of The Red Buttons Show, has resigned." - Variety, September 30, 1954
In the spring of 1952 NBC had a reputation as the domain of sketch comedy. The Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle popularized televised sketch, The Colgate Comedy Hour with Martin & Lewis amplified it, and Your Show of Shows introduced us to the work of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. NBC's sketch comedy programs had something for each demographic, showcasing both lowbrow and highbrow styles, enjoying ratings dominance and critical acclaim. Competitor CBS was desperate to emulate NBC's success and in October 1952 attempted to do so by investing in a comedian named Red Buttons. His moniker fit his burlesque roots where it was common for nouns like Rags or Peanuts to be used as first names, an offshoot of burlesque strippers who also used strange pseudonyms.
The Red Buttons Show had an enormously popular first season on CBS and Buttons was hailed as "the comedy find of the year." But the second season was so disastrous that chroniclers called it the most severe fall from grace in comedy history. The Red Buttons Show was praised after its first several episodes, but press coverage soon changed from one of critical elation to a marveling at the chaos behind the scenes. “The first year Buttons was a major sensation,” wrote Colliers magazine. “The second year he went right down the tubes.”
Success ruined Buttons as he destroyed his own show. His ego and anxiety expanded and his agitation was taken out on his employees. The slightest thing could set him off and his secretary was terrified of him. "Red scares me Monday [broadcast] nights," she said. "He doesn't make sense." He routinely fired employees after only a few weeks on the job. Variety called Red Buttons the only TV star with "more writers than scripts." The employees he retained often quit on their own, unable to handle the volatile, irrational atmosphere. He screamed at future legends like Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, telling them to fuck right off. They did. By 1954 there were few comedy writers left who hadn't had some sort of terrible experience with The Red Buttons Show. Octogenarian comedian Bobby Ramsen says, "He fired all the people who later became the icons of American comedy. Red had different writers every week. 'They're not sending me out naked again! This is the worst crap I have ever seen!' God, he was terrible. Buttons became a monster."