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Who is the Skelton in Courtney's closet?

Younger legislators didn't understand the Senate president's dated cultural reference.

WIKIPEDIA - Red SkeltonAn "informational" hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday wound up inadvertently exposing something of a cultural divide.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, agreed to hold a public hearing on Senate President Peter Courtney's proposal to lower the legally allowable blood alcohol content for drivers and boaters, although the bill is considered "dead" this session and won't move forward for now.

In explaining his rationale for proposing the change, from a maximum of 0.08% down to 0.05%, Courtney, 76 next month, brought up one of the most prominent entertainers of the mid-20th century.

"We kidded each other about drinking and driving. I, as a lawyer, got people off for drinking and driving," Courtney said. "It was really sort of a cute, funny thing — you know, the Red Skelton, great comedian, the way he'd act like a drunk."

Senators on the committee listened attentively to Courtney's pitch. After he concluded, Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, asked for a clarification.

"What was this red skeleton thing?" asked Gelser, 45, to laughter from some in the audience.

"Red Skelton was one of my favorite comic figures years ago," Courtney said. "Are you familiar, do you know who he was?"

"It's what — Skelton? Not like a Halloween thing?" Gelser responded.

Both Courtney and Gelser looked rather abashed as Courtney described Skelton, who died in 1997, and explained why he mentioned him in his testimony. The culture, Courtney acknowledged, has changed over the past several decades.

"He had a routine where he was clearly drunk, because that's what made it so funny," Courtney said, as a committee staffer showed Gelser a photo of Skelton on his laptop. "We don't think it's funny anymore. It kills people. It isn't funny anymore. Back then, we thought it was hilarious."

Courtney apologized for using a dated reference.

"I didn't mean to be disrespectful," he said.