Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.
Any artist is lucky if he produces one enduring, immortal work. Jackie Gleason was to produce 39. They were called The Honeymooners.
I was October 1, 1955 and Gleason had been starring in and hosting his very popular variety show called, logically enough, The Jackie Gleason Show. The Jackie Gleason Show was a huge ratings hit, ranking at #2 in popularity of the then-current TV shows. The show, like any variety show, consisted of singing, dancing, jokes, and comedy sketches.
Gleason, an incredibly talented and versatile entertainer, actor, and comedian, had played several different characters on the show, including Reggie van Gleason, Joe the Bartender, Fenwick Babbit, and the Poor Soul. But Gleason's masterpiece of a character was to be an average everyday guy who lived in Brooklyn, a blustery braggart bus driver named Ralph Kramden.
Ralph Kramden was originally seen as the main character in one of the sketches on Cavalcade of Stars (Cavalcade of Stars was a previous variety series Gleason had hosted on the old Dumont network). Original suggestions for the sketch's title were "The Lovers," "The Couple Next Door," and aptly, "The Beast." It was finally decided to call the bit "The Honeymooners."
The very first "Honeymooners" sketch was aired on October 5, 1951. Interestingly, the show was broadcast exactly ten days before that other immortal cultural TV comedy icon of the fifties, I Love Lucy.
The original "Honeymooners" was much different from the show we all know and love. The first-ever "Honeymooners" was just Jackie as Ralph and his wife Alice. The original Alice Kramden was played by Pert Kelton, a fairly grim (in both looks and personality) actress, who had to leave the show after seven episodes. The public reason given was that she had health (heart) problems. It was later revealed that Kelton had been blacklisted because of her then-considered-radical political beliefs.
This first sketch was much darker (and less funny) than the later episodes. It lacked in humor, sentiment, and pathos, all later trademarks of the show. It also lacked a very important ingredient: Art Carney. Carney, a wonderful "second banana," had played a policeman in that original "Honeymooners" sketch, but was later written into the series as Ralph's best pal, sewer worker Ed Norton.
Gleason auditioned several actresses to replace Kelton as Alice, but could find no one who fit his vision of Ralph Kramden's wife. A beautiful, glamorous actress named Audrey Meadows finally tried out for the part and Gleason immediately rejected her as not fitting the character. The clever Meadows then mailed Gleason a photograph of herself dressed in a frumpy house dress and apron, with her hair pulled up with combs stuck in it. When Gleason saw the photo, he immediately said, "That's Alice! Who is she?" Upon being informed that it was Meadows, Gleason roared with laughter and said, "Any dame with a sense of humor like that deserves to get the role. She's our Alice!"
The new version of "The Honeymooners" with Meadows and Carney, plus Joyce Randolph as Norton's wife Trixie, was assembled. TV audiences loved them as a featured sketch on The Jackie Gleason Show.
In 1955, Gleason decided to give "The Honeymooners" their own series. Thirty-nine episodes (later referred to as "the classic 39") would be filmed for the 1955-56 television season. Those 39 episodes were to be some of the most hilarious, heartwarming, unforgettably brilliant shows in the history of television.
Basically, the plots were almost always the same. Ralph Kramden was a lowly bus driver who lived with his wife, Alice, downstairs from their best friends, Ed and Trixie Norton. Ralph was a dreamer, always planning and waiting for his ship to come in -which it never did.
Unlike so many fifties sitcoms which starred middle class families, i.e. I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, Ralph and Alice Kramden inhabited a clearly lower class world. Gleason based the couple's threadbare apartment on the cheap tenement he himself had grown up in (it even had Jackie's childhood address: 328 Chauncey Street). Audrey Meadow said she received hundreds of items, such as curtains, dishes, pot holders, and irons from people who wanted Alice Kramden to have a better life. One fan sent her ten cents to buy a new curtain rod because it was too expensive to mail one.
Frustrated by his constant failures and his low station in life (and often provoked by Alice's constant wisecracks) Ralph would threaten Alice with physical violence ("One of these days -Pop! Right in the kisser!" "Bang! Zoom!", "You're going to the moon, Alice!"). The truth about Ralph, as Gleason was to described it, was that he was "more likely to put his hand through a wall than to lay one finger on the woman he loved." Ralph clearly worshiped Alice, and much of his frustration with life was, according to Gleason, because "He wanted to impress the woman he loved." Gleason continued: Ralph was "just a poor guy who loved his wife and wanted to please her, but he had no money to show indulgences as he wished."
When the show was first discussed, the writers wondered if Ralph and Alice should have children. "No," Gleason interjected, "He (meaning Ralph) is the child." The relationship between Ralph and Alice seemed almost sexless and Alice often seemed more like a mother to a misbehaving child. No matter how badly Ralph screwed up and disappointed Alice, at the show's conclusion, Ralph would grab Alice, plant a big kiss on her and utter his trademark line, "Baby, you're the greatest!"
Gleason and Carney (often compared to Laurel and Hardy) made up, perhaps, the funniest comedy team in the history of television. Carney's running gag where he has to sign a document (and does so with an inordinate flourish) was actually an ad-lib by Carney, who derived it from watching his own father sign his report cards when he was a kid.
Gleason, much like Ralph Kramden, was a well-known credit hog and braggart in real life, but he knew how important his sidekick was, and was later to declare, "I could do The Honeymooners with any Alice Kramden and any Trixie Norton that I picked up off the street, but I couldn't so it without Art Carney." Again being uncharacteristically modest, in an interview in the '70s, Gleason was to say "Seventy-five percent of my success in show business is because of Art Carney."
But as great as Carney and Audrey Meadows both were, it is Jackie Gleason who amazes and amuses us with his comedic genius. In his role as Ralph, Gleason delivers his over-the-top lines, slow burns, double takes, eye-rolling, and apoplectic roars in an incredibly broad, almost Kabuki-like fashion that somehow seems normal. He delivers the comedic take of a window falling on his hand in much the same way he portrays his inner anguish and disappointment as he realizes he has let down his beloved Alice once again. He is "over the top," "hamming it up," and chewing up the scenery -and it worked to perfection.
But as wonderful as he was at putting out the comedy as Ralph, Gleason is also that rare comic who can also deliver incredible humanity and pathos. We, too, are rooting for Ralph, hoping that for once he will make good, but knowing full well that it just isn't going to happen.
During the show's run, Gleason was notorious as a guy who never rehearsed, believing it ruined the show's spontaneity. When they rehearsed themselves, Carney, Meadows, and Randolph would take turns playing Ralph and attune their performances accordingly. All the cast members knew that if they were filming an episode and Jackie patted his stomach, that meant he had forgotten his line and they had better quickly fill in the empty space. The Honeymooners' haunting theme song "You're My Greatest Love" (which actually has lyrics) was composed by the multi-talented Gleason.
Ironically, as wonderful and funny as they were, when The Honeymooners went on as a full-time series in 1955-56, the critics gave it mixed reviews. The New York Times referred to the series as "labored." Incredibly, the public, too, was disappointed, as the ratings for the Gleason show dropped from #2 to #20. It was decided that The Honeymooners, as an individual series, would end its run after just that one season (1955-56). When asked why, Gleason replied, "The excellence of the material could not be maintained and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it."
It was also reported that the show's writers were running out of ideas. And so we are left with these black-and-white comedy masterpieces, all 39 of them, to enjoy. Gleason and Carney were to reprise their roles as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on several later versions of The Honeymooners on television up until 1978.
But much like the episodes before the 1955-56 season, it was just never quite the same. The Honeymooners' "classic 39" remain lightning in a bottle.
In 1999, TV Guide named Ralph Kramden #2 on its list of "Greatest TV Characters of All-Time." The Honeymooners was named #3 on their list of "Greatest TV Shows of All-Time." The influence of Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden can clearly be seen in later comics John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley, just as The Honeymooners' influence is apparent on both The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Toward the end of his life, Jackie Gleason was interviewed on 60 Minutes and was asked why The Honeymooners continued to be so popular with television audiences. Succinctly, Gleason answered, "Because they were funny."