Case Study 4 The Unsuspecting Honeymooners Characters

For the 2005 film, see The Honeymooners (film). For the television episode, see The Honeymooners (King of the Hill).

The Honeymooners
GenreSitcom
Created byJackie Gleason
Written byMarvin Marx
Walter Stone
A.J. Russell
Herbert Finn
Leonard Stern
Sydney Zelinka
Directed byFrank Satenstein
StarringJackie Gleason
Audrey Meadows
Art Carney
Joyce Randolph
Theme music composerJackie Gleason
Bill Templeton
Opening theme"You're My Greatest Love"
Ending theme"You're My Greatest Love" (Extended Version)
Composer(s)Sammy Spear
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes39 (list of episodes)
Production
Executive producer(s)Jack Philbin
Stanley Poss
Producer(s)Jack Hurdle
Location(s)Adelphi Theatre, New York, New York
CinematographyDaniel Cavelli
Doug Downs
Jack Etra
Camera setupMulti-camera
Running time26–27 minutes
Production company(s)Jackie Gleason Enterprises
DistributorCBS Television Distribution
Release
Original networkCBS
Picture formatBlack-and-white
Audio formatMonaural
Original releaseOctober 1, 1955 (1955-10-01) – September 22, 1956 (1956-09-22)
Chronology
Followed byThe Honeymooners (film)

The Honeymooners is an American television sitcom created by and starring Jackie Gleason, based on a recurring comedy sketch of the same name that had been part of his variety show.

The sketches originally aired on the DuMont network's variety series Cavalcade of Stars, which Gleason hosted, and subsequently on the CBS network's The Jackie Gleason Show,[1] which was broadcast live in front of a theater audience. The popularity of the sketches led Gleason to rework The Honeymooners as a filmed half-hour series, which debuted October 1, 1955, on CBS, in place of the variety series. It was initially a ratings success as the #2 show in the United States during its first season, facing stiff competition from The Perry Como Show on NBC.[2][3] The show eventually dropped to #19,[3][4] ending its production after only 39 episodes (now referred to as the "Classic 39"). The final episode of The Honeymooners aired on September 22, 1956, although Gleason revived the characters sporadically until 1978.

The Honeymooners was one of the first U.S. television shows to portray working-class married couples in a gritty, non-idyllic manner (the show is set mostly in the Kramdens' kitchen, in a neglected Brooklyn apartment building).[5] The program also is popular internationally, particularly in Canada, Poland, Norway and Sweden.[citation needed]

Cast and characters[edit]

The majority of The Honeymooners episodes focused on its four principal characters, and generally used fixed sets within their Brooklyn apartment building. Although various secondary characters made multiple appearances and occasional exterior shots were incorporated during editing, virtually all action and dialogue was "on stage" inside the normal backdrop.

Ralph Kramden[edit]

Played by Jackie Gleason—a bus driver for the fictional Gotham Bus Company based in New York City. He never is seen driving a bus (except in publicity photos), but sometimes is shown at the bus depot. Ralph is frustrated by his lack of success, and often develops get-rich-quick schemes. He is very short tempered, frequently resorting to bellowing, insults, and making hollow threats. Well hidden beneath the many layers of bluster, however, is a soft-hearted man who loves his wife and is devoted to his best pal, Ed Norton. Ralph enjoys—and is proficient at—bowling and playing pool, and is an enthusiastic member of the fictitious Loyal Order of Raccoons (although in several episodes a blackboard at the lodge lists his dues as being in arrears). The Ralph character was given honorary membership in the union for real New York City bus drivers (Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union) during the run of the show, and a Brooklyn bus depot was named in Gleason's honor after his death.[6][7] Ralph Kramden is the inspiration for the animated character Fred Flintstone.[8]

Alice Kramden [edit]

Alice (née Alice Gibson), played in the first nine skits, starting in 1951, and ending in January 1952[9] by Pert Kelton, and by Audrey Meadows for all remaining episodes, is Ralph's patient but sharp-tongued wife of roughly 12 years. She often finds herself bearing the brunt of Ralph's insults, which she returns with biting sarcasm. She is levelheaded, in contrast to Ralph's pattern of inventing various schemes to enhance his wealth or his pride. In each case, she sees the current one's un-workability, but he becomes angry and ignores her advice (and by the end of the episode, her misgivings almost always are proven to have been well-founded). She has grown accustomed to his empty threats—such as "One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!", "BANG, ZOOM!" or "You're going to the moon!"—to which she usually replies, "Ahhh, shaddap!" Alice studied to be a secretary before her marriage and works briefly in that capacity when Ralph is laid off. Wilma Flintstone is based on Alice Kramden.[8]

Another foil for Ralph is Alice's mother, who is even sharper-tongued than her daughter. She despises Ralph as a bad provider. Alice's father is occasionally mentioned but never seen. Alice's sister, Agnes, appeared in one episode (Ralph jeopardizes his newlywed sister-in-law's marriage after giving some bad advice to the groom, but it all works out in the end). Ralph and Alice lived with her mother for six years after getting married before they got their own apartment. Ralph's mother rarely is mentioned, although she does appear in one episode. Ralph's father is only mentioned in one episode ("Young Man with a Horn") as having given Ralph a cornet he learned to play as a boy, and insists on keeping when Alice suggests it be thrown away. In a 1967 revival, Ralph refers to Alice (played by Sheila MacRae 1966–70 and once more in 1973) as being one of 12 children with her father never working.

The Honeymooners originally appeared as a sketch on the DuMont Network's Cavalcade of Stars, with the role of Alice played by Pert Kelton (1907–1968). When his contract with DuMont expired, Gleason moved to the CBS network where he had The Jackie Gleason Show, and the Alice role went to Audrey Meadows because Kelton had been blacklisted during the infamous McCarthy hearings investigating alleged Communist activities in the entertainment world.

Edward Lillywhite "Ed" Norton[edit]

Played by Art Carney; a New York City municipal sewer worker and Ralph's best friend (and upstairs neighbor). He is considerably more good-natured than Ralph, but nonetheless trades insults with him on a regular basis. Ed (typically called "Norton" by Ralph and sometimes by his own wife, Trixie) often gets mixed up in Ralph's schemes. His carefree and rather dimwitted nature usually results in raising Ralph's ire, while Ralph often showers him with verbal abuse and throws him out of the apartment when Ed irritates him. In most episodes, Ed is shown to be better-read, better-liked, more worldly and more even-tempered than Ralph, despite his unassuming manner and the fact that he usually lets Ralph take the lead in their escapades. Ed and Ralph both are members of the fictional Raccoon Lodge. ("An Emergency Meeting is an emergency meeting—never a poker game. An Executive Meeting, that's a poker game.") According to Entertainment Weekly, Norton is one of the "greatest sidekicks."[10] Ed worked for the New York City sewer department and described his job as a "Sub-supervisor in the sub-division of the department of subterranean sanitation, I just keep things moving along." He served in the U. S. Navy, and used his G.I. Bill money to pay for typing school, but felt he was unable to work in an office because he hated working in confined spaces. The relatively few scenes set in the Norton apartment showed it to have the same layout as the Kramdens' but more nicely furnished. Though Norton makes the same weekly $62 salary as Ralph (about $555 in 2016 dollars), their higher standard of living might be explained by Norton's freer use of credit; at one point he admits to having 19 charge accounts. Like Ralph, Ed enjoys and is good at bowling and playing pool. Ed is the inspiration for Barney Rubble in The Flintstones.[8] He is also the inspiration behind Yogi Bear (in terms of design, clothing, and mannerisms).

In 1999, TV Guide ranked him 20th on its list of the "50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time."[11]

Thelma "Trixie" Norton[edit]

Played most famously by Joyce Randolph; Ed's wife and Alice's best friend. She did not appear in every episode and had a less developed character, though she is shown to be somewhat bossy toward her husband. In one episode, she surprisingly is depicted as a pool hustler. On another episode, Ralph insults Trixie by making a reference to Minsky's (a famous New York City burlesque theater; the original Trixie character was an ex-burlesque dancer). There are a few references to Trixie's burlesque background in the lost episodes (e.g., Norton: "Every night I'd meet her backstage and hand her a rose ... . It was her costume!"). Randolph played Trixie as an ordinary, rather prudish, housewife, complaining to her husband on one occasion when a "fresh" young store clerk called her "sweetie pie." In a 1967 special, Trixie (played by Jane Kean from 1966–1970 and 1976–1978) resentfully denied Ralph's implications that she "worked in burlesque" to which he replied "If the shoe fits, take it off." Trixie is the inspiration for Betty Rubble in The Flintstones.

Elaine Stritch was the first and original Trixie Norton in a Honeymooners sketch with Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Pert Kelton. The ex-dancer character was rewritten and recast after just one episode with the more wholesome looking Randolph playing the character as a housewife.[12]

Others[edit]

Some of the actors who appeared multiple times on the show include George O. Petrie and Frank Marth as various characters, Ethel Waite Owen as Alice's mother, Zamah Cunningham as apartment building neighbor Mrs. Manicotti, and Cliff Hall as the Raccoon Lodge president.

Ronnie Burns, son of George Burns and Gracie Allen, made a guest appearance as "Wallace" on one episode. On another episode, Ed Norton makes a reference to a co-worker "Nat Birnbaum" (as in "'nat," a three-letter word for bug," says crossword puzzle aficionado Norton). George Burns's real name was Nathan Birnbaum.

The apartment house[edit]

The Kramdens and Nortons lived in an apartment house at 328 Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York, a nod to the fact that Jackie Gleason lived there after his family moved from his birthplace at 364 Chauncey Street.[13] In the 1955 episode "A Woman's Work is Never Done," the address is referred to as 728 Chauncey Street. The landlord of the apartment house is Mr. Johnson. In the Honeymooners episodes taped from 1967 to 1970, the address of the apartment house changed to 358 Chauncey Street, and the number of the Kramden apartment is 3B. The actual 328 Chauncey Street is located in the Bushwick section of the borough, approximately eight miles northeast of the show's fictional location.

[edit]

  • Mr. and Mrs. Manicotti: An older couple of Italian descent.
  • Tommy Manicotti: He played stickball and contracted the measles. He also left his water pistol in the Kramdens' apartment.
  • McGarrity: A vocal upstairs neighbor with whom Ralph was frequently feuding. He fought with Ralph for disturbing the neighbors with practicing for The $99,000 Answer quiz show. But showing some humour in other episodes, he accused Ralph of renting the tuxedo for his sister-in-law's wedding from an undertaker, and loved Ralph's joke about "sending a knight out on a dog like this."
  • McGarrity Boy: He played stickball and contracted the measles.
  • Mrs. Bennett: Needed her radiator fixed when Ralph was the janitor.
  • Johnny Bennett: He played stickball, earned an apple for a home-run -- and contracted the measles like the other boys.
  • Mrs. Doyle: Mother of Tommy Doyle.
  • Tommy Doyle: He was arrested for spending a $100 counterfeit bill that Ralph gave him to take his suits to the cleaners.
  • Mrs. Stevens: She gave Alice a box for hairpins that was made of matchsticks for Christmas which was the same exact gift Ralph was about to give her but he vastly overpaid for it and thought he had a great gift rather than an insignificant trinket for Alice. Alice gave Mrs. Stevens a kitchen thermometer.
  • Mrs. Olsen: She said that Ralph broke her Venetian blinds instead of repairing them when Ralph temporarily was the building janitor.
  • Mrs. Hannah: Needed her bathtub fixed when Ralph was the janitor.
  • Mrs. Fogerty: Accused Ralph of taking food out of her ice box when Ralph was the janitor.
  • Mrs. Schwartz: The apartment house blabbermouth who reported that the Kramdens had set the all-time lowest gas bill for the building. She also was curious to know if the house phone was able to connect to Jersey when Ralph was the janitor.
  • Mr. Riley: Had a full garbage can that needed to be emptied when Ralph was the janitor.
  • Judy Connors: A teenager who did not want her father to meet a boy named Wallace, her date.
  • Tommy Mullins: A U.S. Navy service member who was home on leave for Christmas.
  • Carlos Sanchez: A mambo dancer who works at night.
  • Mr. and Mrs. August Gunther: Former residents of the building. August hit it big with his doughnut business.

History[edit]

See also: List of The Honeymooners sketches

Origins[edit]

In July 1950, Jackie Gleason took over as the host of Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show that aired on the struggling DuMont Television Network. After the first year, he and his writers Harry Crane and Joe Bigelow[14][15] developed a sketch that drew upon familiar domestic situations for its material. Based on the popular radio show The Bickersons, Gleason wanted a realistic portrayal of life for a poor husband and wife living in Brooklyn, his home borough. The couple would continually argue, but ultimately show their love for each other. After rejecting titles such as "The Beast," "The Lovers," and "The Couple Next Door," Gleason and his staff settled on "The Honeymooners." Gleason took the role of Ralph Kramden, a blustery bus driver, and he chose veteran comedy movie actress Pert Kelton for the role of Alice Kramden, Ralph's acerbic and long-suffering wife.[16]

"The Honeymooners" made its debut on October 5, 1951, as a six-minute sketch.[17] Ensemble cast member Art Carney made a brief appearance as a police officer who gets hit with flour Ralph had thrown out the window. The tone of these early sketches was much darker than the later series, with Ralph exhibiting extreme bitterness and frustration with his marriage to an equally bitter and argumentative middle-aged woman (Kelton was nine years older than Gleason). The Kramdens' financial struggles mirrored those of Gleason's early life in Brooklyn, and he took great pains to duplicate on set the interior of the apartment where he grew up (right down to his boyhood address of 328 Chauncey Street).[17] The Kramdens—and later the Nortons when those characters were added—are childless, an issue only occasionally explored, but a condition on which Gleason insisted. Ralph and Alice did legally adopt a baby girl whom they named Ralphina (because he actually wanted a baby boy he could name after himself but fell in love with the baby girl the agency had placed with them). However, the biological mother requested to have her baby returned, and the agency asked whether the Kramdens would be willing to do so even though they were the legal parents. Ralph agreed and stated that they would visit her and she would have a real-life Santa Claus every Christmas. A few later skits had Ralph mistakenly believe for a while that Alice was pregnant.

Early cast additions in later sketches were upstairs neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton. Ed (Carney) was a sewer worker and Ralph's best friend, although his innocent and guileless nature was the source of many arguments between the two. Trixie (maiden name never mentioned), Ed's wife, originally portrayed by Elaine Stritch as a burlesque dancer but was replaced after just one appearance by the more wholesome looking Joyce Randolph. Trixie is a foil to Ed, just as Alice is for Ralph, but derivatively, and almost always off-screen.[17][18]

Due in part to the colorful array of characters Gleason invented (including the cast of The Honeymooners), Cavalcade of Stars became a huge success for DuMont. It increased its audience share from nine to 25 percent. Gleason's contract with DuMont expired in the summer of 1952, and the financially struggling network (which suffered through ten layoffs from July through October 1953) was unable to re-sign him so he moved on to CBS.

Move to CBS[edit]

CBS president William S. Paley in July 1952 made sure the cast of the former DuMont ensemble that was becoming The Jackie Gleason Show embarked on a highly successful five-week promotional tour across the United States, performing a variety of musical numbers and sketches (including the popular "Honeymooners"). However, actress Pert Kelton who played Alice Kramden and other roles, was blacklisted at the time and was replaced on the tour by Beulah actress Ginger Jones, who subsequently also was blacklisted (having earlier been named on the Red Channels blacklist) by CBS. All this political maneuvering meant yet another new Alice was needed.[18][19]

Jones's replacement was Audrey Meadows, known for her work in the 1951 Broadway musical Top Banana and on the Bob and Ray television show. However, before being cast for CBS, Meadows had to overcome Gleason's reservations about her being too attractive to make a credible Alice. To accomplish this, she hired a photographer to come to her apartment early in the morning and take pictures of her wearing no make-up, clad in a torn housecoat, and with her hair undone.[19][20] When the pictures were delivered to Gleason, he looked at them and said, "That's our Alice." When it was explained who it was, Gleason reportedly said, "Any dame who has a sense of humor like that deserves the job."[19] With the addition of Meadows the now-iconic "Honeymooners" lineup of Gleason, Carney, Meadows, and Randolph was in place.

The rising popularity of The Honeymooners was reflected in its increasing prominence of the sketches as part of The Jackie Gleason Show variety lineup. During the first season, it appeared on a regular basis (although not weekly) as a series of short sketches ranging in length from seven to thirteen minutes. For the 1953–54 season, the shorter sketches were outnumbered by ones that ran for a half-hour or longer. Playing off its growing popularity, during the 1954–55 season most episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show consisted entirely of The Honeymooners. Fan response became overwhelming. Meadows received hundreds of curtains and aprons in the mail from fans who wanted to help Alice lead a fancier life. By January 1955, The Jackie Gleason Show was competing with—and sometimes beating—I Love Lucy as the most-watched TV show in the United States. Audience members lined up around the block hours in advance to attend the show.[16]

The "Classic 39" episodes[edit]

The "Classic 39" episodes of The Honeymooners are the ones that originally aired as a weekly half-hour sitcom on CBS from October 1955 to September 1956.

Before Gleason's initial three-year contract with CBS expired, he was offered a much larger one by CBS and General Motors' Buick division (the carmaker having dropped their sponsorship of Milton Berle's Buick-Berle Show after two seasons on NBC). The three-year contract, reportedly valued at $11 million, was at the time one of the largest in show business history. It called for Gleason to produce 78 filmed episodes of The Honeymooners over two seasons, with an option for a third season of 39 more. He was scheduled to receive $65,000 for each episode ($70,000 per episode in the second season), but had to pay all production costs out of that amount. Art Carney received $3,500 per week, Audrey Meadows $2,000, and Joyce Randolph (who did not appear in every episode) $500 per week. Production for The Honeymooners was handled by Jackie Gleason Enterprises Inc., which also produced the show's lead-in, Stage Show, which starred The Dorsey Brothers.[16][17] Reportedly, only Audrey Meadows, who later became a banker, received residuals when the "Classic 39" episodes were rebroadcast in syndicated reruns. Her brother Edward, a lawyer, had inserted language to that effect into her contract.[21] However, Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie Norton, did receive royalty payments when the "lost" Honeymooners episodes from the variety shows were released.[22]

The first episode of the new half-hour series aired on Saturday, October 1, 1955, at 8.30 pm Eastern Time (during prime time), opposite Ozark Jubilee on ABC and The Perry Como Show on NBC. Because it was sponsored by Buick, the opening credits originally ended with a sponsor identification by announcer Jack Lescoulie ("Brought to you by ... your Buick dealer. And, away we go!"), and the show concluded with a brief Gleason sales pitch for the company, all common practices at the time. However, all references to the carmaker were removed when the show entered syndication in 1957,[20] although "And, away we go!" was a phrase Gleason frequently used in various shows and is inscribed at his gravesite as his memorial catchphrase.

The initial critical reaction to the half-hour sitcom Honeymooners was mixed. The New York Times and Broadcasting & Telecasting Magazine wrote that it was "labored" and lacked the spontaneity of the live sketches. But TV Guide praised it as "rollicking," "slapsticky" and "fast-paced."[16] In February 1956, the show was moved to the 8 p.m. (EST) timeslot, but already had begun losing viewers to the hugely popular Perry Como Show.[2][3] Gleason's writers also had begun to feel confined by the restrictive half-hour format—in previous seasons, Honeymooners sketches typically ran 35 minutes or more—and Gleason felt they were beginning to run out of original ideas. So, after just one season, Gleason and CBS agreed to cancel The Honeymooners, which aired its 39th and last original episode on September 22, 1956. In explaining his decision to end the show with $7 million remaining on his contract Gleason said, "The excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it..[16] Gleason subsequently sold the films of the "Classic 39" episodes of the show to CBS for $1.5 million.[17]

Revivals[edit]

On September 29, 1956, one week after The Honeymooners ended, The Jackie Gleason Show returned. The "Honeymooners" sketches soon were brought back as part of the revived variety show. In 1959, TV Guide magazine mentioned Gleason's interest in producing new Honeymooners shows. This did not happen for several years but he did team up with Art Carney to revive an old Honeymooners scene for an October 1960 CBS TV Special called "The Big Sell", poking fun at US sales people.

After the spectacular failure of Gleason's 1961 game show You're in the Picture, and the relative success of the eight-episode talk show that Gleason used to fill its time slot, Gleason's variety show returned in 1962 under the title Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine. The "Honeymooners" sketches returned as part of that show whenever Carney was available. However, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph were replaced as Alice and Trixie by Sue Ane Langdon and Patricia Wilson, respectively, for two sketches.[17][18]

In January 1966, Meadows again returned as Alice for a musical special, The Honeymooners: The Adoption, a re-enactment of a 1955 sketch of the same name. When The Jackie Gleason Show (by then based in Miami Beach, FL, where Gleason lived) returned in 1966, the "Honeymooners" sketches, in color for the first time, incredibly returned as a series of elaborate musicals that, in effect, were the equivalent of a new Broadway musical each time. The sketches, which covered 10 of the first season's thirty-two shows, followed a story arc that had the Kramdens and Nortons traveling across Europe after Ralph won a contest (an updated version of a 1957 story arc, with musical numbers added). "The Color Honeymooners," as it has since become known, featured Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean in, respectively, the roles of Alice and Trixie, because Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph declined to relocate to Miami. Gleason raised no objections to that recasting, but was adamant that the Ed Norton role never be played by anyone other than Art Carney. One notable 1967 segment featured the return of Pert Kelton (in one of her last performances before her death in 1968 of heart disease at the age of 61), but this time she played Alice's mother, Mrs. Gibson.[17][18]

The Honeymooners ended again when The Jackie Gleason Show was canceled in 1970, the result of a disagreement in direction between Gleason and the network. Gleason wanted to continue interspersing "The Honeymooners" within the confines of his regular variety show, while CBS wanted a full-hour "Honeymooners" every week. (CBS's ongoing effort to move its product toward younger audiences and away from established variety show stars was another potential factor in the show's demise.) On October 11, 1973, Gleason, Carney, MacRae and Kean reunited for a "Honeymooners" skit called "Women's Lib" as part of a Gleason special on CBS. In a major move as far as affiliations go, the Kramdens and Nortons were brought back for four final one-hour specials on ABC, which aired from 1976–1978. Alongside Gleason and Carney, Audrey Meadows returned as Alice. Meanwhile Jane Kean continued to play Trixie. (Joyce Randolph, the actress most identified as Trixie, never played the part again after the 1950s.) These four specials came at a time when Gleason and Carney each achieved new-found expanded fame, with Gleason's prominent role in the box office smash Smokey and the Bandit and Carney winning an Academy Award for his leading role in Harry and Tonto, which actually brought some more attention to these series of specials. These were the final original "Honeymooners" productions.[18]

Production[edit]

In 1955, many television shows (including The Jackie Gleason Show) were performed live and recorded using kinescope technology, though sitcoms already largely were recorded on film, e.g., The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, My Little Margie, and I Married Joan. I Love Lucy, which was recorded directly onto 35mm film, had influenced television production companies to produce directly on film. For The Honeymooners, Gleason utilized the Electronicam TV-film system, developed by DuMont in the early 1950s, which allowed for a live performance to be directly captured on film. As a result of the superior picture and sound quality afforded by the system, episodes of The Honeymooners were much more suitable for rebroadcast than were most other "live" shows of the era.[17][18]

All 39 episodes of The Honeymooners were filmed at the DuMont Television Network's Adelphi Theatre at 152 West 54th Street in Manhattan, in front of an audience of 1,000. Episodes never were fully rehearsed because Gleason felt rehearsals would rob the show of its spontaneity. A result was that, while the cast was able to bring a fresh approach to the material, mistakes often were made. Lines either were recited incorrectly or altogether forgotten, and actors did not always follow the scripted action directions. To compensate, the cast developed visual cues for each other. For example, Gleason patted his stomach when he forgot a line, while Meadows would glance at the icebox when someone else was supposed to retrieve something from it.[20][23]

In contrast to other popular comedies of the era (such as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), which depicted their characters in comfortable, middle class suburban environments, the set design for The Honeymooners reflected the blue collar existence of its characters. The Kramdens lived in a small, painfully sparsely furnished two-room apartment (the main set) in a tenement building at least four stories high (the Kramdens were on the third floor and the Nortons' were one floor above them), badly aired and with insufficient lighting. They used the single main room as the kitchen, dining and living room. It consisted of a functional table and chairs, a plain chest of drawers, a curtainless window with a view of a fire escape, a noisy sink, and an outdated icebox. The Kramdens' bedroom never was seen, although in the episode about Ed Norton's sleepwalking the Nortons' bedroom is.[17][18][19] One of the few other sitcoms about a blue collar family was The Life of Riley, whose first season (1949–50) had featured Jackie Gleason in the lead role, although veteran movie actor William Bendix, who had originated the role of Chester A. Riley on the radio show, thereafter took over the role on television.

The instrumental theme song for The Honeymooners, called "You're My Greatest Love," was composed by Gleason and performed by an orchestra led by Ray Bloch -- who previously had been the orchestra leader on Gleason's variety show, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show. Although lyrics were composed, they were never sung. Sammy Spear, who later became Gleason's musical director, provided the arrangement.[24] The music heard in the episodes was not performed during the show, so to enhance the feeling of a live performance for the studio audience an orchestra performed before filming and during breaks.[16] The show's original announcer was Jack Lescoulie, who also was a spokesman for the sponsor, Buick. For the non-sponsored syndicated version, the introduction was voiced by CBS staff announcer Gaylord Avery.

Awards[edit]

Art Carney won five Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Ed Norton—two for the original Jackie Gleason Show, one for The Honeymooners, and two for the final version of The Jackie Gleason Show. He was nominated for another two (in 1957 and 1966) but lost. Gleason and Meadows both were nominated in 1956 for their work on The Honeymooners. Gleason was nominated for Best Actor–Continuing Performance, but lost to Phil Silvers, while Meadows was nominated for Best Actress-Supporting Role but lost to Nanette Fabray. Meadows also was nominated for Emmys for her portrayal of Alice Kramden in 1954 and 1957.[25][26]

The following table summarizes award wins by cast members, both for The Honeymooners and The Jackie Gleason Show.

ActorAwards wonShow
Art CarneyEmmy, Best Series Supporting Actor (1954)The Jackie Gleason Show
Emmy, Best Supporting Actor in a Regular Series (1955)The Jackie Gleason Show
Emmy, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (1956)The Honeymooners
Emmy, Special Classifications of Individual Achievement (1967)The Jackie Gleason Show
Emmy, Special Classification of Individual Achievements (1968)The Jackie Gleason Show
Audrey MeadowsEmmy, Best Supporting Actress in a Regular Series (1955)The Jackie Gleason Show

Plot[edit]

Most of The Honeymooners takes place in Ralph and Alice Kramden's small, sparsely furnished two-room apartment. Other settings used in the show included the Gotham Bus Company depot, the Raccoon Lodge, a neighborhood pool parlor, a park bench where Ralph and Ed occasionally meet for lunch, and on occasion the Nortons' apartment (always noticeably better-furnished than the Kramdens'). Many episodes begin with a shot of Alice in the apartment awaiting Ralph's arrival from work. Most episodes focus on Ralph's and Ed's characters, although Alice played a substantial role. Ed's wife, Trixie, played a smaller role in the series, and did not appear in every episode as did the other three. Each episode presented a self-contained story, which rarely carried over into a subsequent one. The show employed a number of standard sitcom clichés and plots, particularly those of jealousy, get-rich-quick schemes, and comic misunderstanding.

As to the occasional plot continuations, there were two such sequences—one concerning Ralph being sent to a psychiatrist because of "impatient" behavior during work that resulted in several passengers lodging complaints about his professional demeanor, and one that continued for two sequential shows in which Aunt Ethel visited and Ralph hatched a scheme to marry her off to the neighborhood butcher.

The series presents Ralph as an everyman and an underdog who struggles to make a better life for himself and his wife, but who ultimately fails due to his own shortcomings. He, often along with Ed, devises a number of get-rich-quick schemes, none of which succeed. Ralph would be quick to blame others for his misfortune until it was pointed out to him where he had fallen short. Ralph's anger then would be replaced by short-lived remorse, and he would apologize for his actions. Many of these apologies to Alice ended with Ralph saying in a heartfelt manner, "Baby, you're the greatest," followed by a hug and kiss.[16][18][19]

In most episodes, Ralph's short temper got the best of him, leading him to yell at others and to threaten comical physical violence, usually against Alice. Ralph's favorite threats to her were "One of these days ... One of these days ... Pow! right in the kisser!" or to knock her "to the Moon, Alice!" (Sometimes this last threat was simply abbreviated: as "Bang, zoom!") On other occasions, Ralph simply told Alice, "Oh, are you gonna get yours." All of this led to criticism, more than 40 years later, that the show displayed an acceptance of domestic violence.[27][28] But, Ralph never carried out his threats, and others have pointed out that Alice knew he never would because of their deep love for each other[18][19] In retaliation, the targets of Ralph's verbal abuse often responded by simply joking about his weight, a common theme throughout the series.[18][19] Incidentally, Alice never was seen to back down during any of Ralph's tirades.

For the "Classic 39" episodes of The Honeymooners, there was no continuing story arc. Each episode is self-contained. For example, in the series premiere episode "TV Or Not TV," Ralph and Norton buy a television set with the intent to share it. By the next week's show, the set is gone although in later episodes a set is shown in the Nortons' apartment. In the installment "The Baby Sitter," the Kramdens get a telephone, but in the next episode it is gone. And, in the episode, "A Dog's Life," Alice gets a dog from the pound which Ralph tries to return. But, in the end, Ralph finds himself growing to love the dog and decides to keep it along with a few other dogs. However, in the next episode, the dogs are nowhere to be seen and are never referred to again.

Occasionally, references to earlier episodes were made, including to Ralph's various "crazy harebrained schemes" from the lost episodes. Norton's sleepwalking in "The Sleepwalker" was referenced in "Oh My Aching Back." But, it was not until the 1967 "Trip To Europe" shows that a Honeymooners story arc is finally used.

Broadcast history[edit]

Day & TimePreceded by
Saturdays at 8:30 pm (October 1, 1955 – February 18, 1956)
Saturdays at 8:00 pm (February 25 – September 22, 1956)
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show at 8:00 pm (January 7 – February 18, 1956)
Stage Show at 8:30 pm (April 14 – June 2, 1956/September 22, 1956)
Two for the Money at 8:30 pm (September 8–15, 1956)

Episodes[edit]

The show's cast in 1955 as it premiered on CBS.
Actor Art Carney won numerous awards for his portrayal of Ed Norton
The real 328 Chauncey Street
Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) with Ed Norton (Art Carney), and Alice Kramden (Audrey Meadows) in a Honeymooners scene.

"Honeymooners" devotees like me and, I suspect, Mr. Henry have grown accustomed to defending Ralph Kramden. To those who consider him nothing but a loudmouthed moax with a potentially violent streak -- threatening to send his wife "to the moon" or to pow her right in the kisser sounds far different in 1992 than in 1952 -- we say that beneath all the bluster he was really sweet, gentle, loyal, pitiable. Since the Kramden character is so clearly taken from his creator's own life, one might think that beneath his many kinds of baggage Gleason had similar redeeming qualities. Instead, he is virtually indefensible. I enjoyed Mr. Henry's book, but I shared his drift: much as he loved Jackie Gleason, he simply cannot, on many occasions, contain his revulsion. Reading it, I felt embarrassed caring about someone so contemptuous of everyone else. And angry that such a genius was such a jerk.

Had Gleason been a nicer guy, though, he probably would not have created Kramden. Gleason was not one of those complacent rich comedians, like Jack Benny or George Burns, who played complacent rich comedians in their unimaginative sitcoms. Instead, Gleason fashioned Kramden out of his often painful past, and was forever refining him beyond the primitive, frenetic version who appears in the mediocre early episodes. Kramden's appeal is his believability. He dines at the Hong Kong Gardens, knows his way around a pool room and a bowling alley, can't pronounce "hors d'oeuvres" and, offered some demitasse, asks for a small cup of black coffee instead. Whether he is freezing on camera during a quiz show, trying to master golf in a single afternoon or masquerading as president of the Gotham Bus Company to impress one of Alice's old beaus, he resonates with anyone who has ever dreamed of bettering his lot.

To Gleason, Kramden was part autobiography and part idealization, part grim memory and part wishful thinking. Through him, Gleason poked fun at himself, depicted what he had been, might have been, would like to have been, was to become. Kramden's faults were forgivable, even lovable, because he always got his comeuppance. Gleason's faults were not, because he not only got away with them but reveled in them. In Gleason, we see the obnoxious boor who, for dramatic purposes, he could never allow Kramden to become.

Reading Mr. Henry's study, one sees just how much Gleason and Kramden had in common. Both were fat, boisterous Brooklynites obsessed with "class" and "style." Both called everyone "pal." Both were familiar with a grim flat at 328 Chauncey Street, furnished with little more than a round table, an icebox and a chest of drawers. Both were great boasters and embellishers (depending on the interview, for instance, Gleason's first, epiphanic exposure to show business came at the age of 3, 9 or somewhere in between). Both loved flaunting their wealth and pounced on any restaurant check in sight, whether or not they had the cash to cover it. When Kramden, who earned $62 a week, finds a suitcase stuffed with money, he quickly orders a new car, a mink-lined bowling bag and a motorboat with three propellers.

Gleason, too, tossed money around, and his wasn't counterfeit. He purchased custom-made pool cues, commissioned limousines two inches longer than anybody else's, built an ugly flying-saucerlike house in Peekskill, N.Y., and hired flunkies to hand him pre-lit cigarettes, seven packs of them a day.

Both men had gargantuan appetites. Kramden loved pizza; Gleason, porterhouse steaks. As a result, each was, as Trixie Norton once remarked, "the biggest thing on television." Gleason lost at least a thousand pounds during his lifetime; he maintained three wardrobes (large, extra-large and elephantine) to cover all his incarnations.

But if anything, the differences between character and creator were more profound than the similarities. Kramden apparently had a happy childhood; his loving mother appeared once on the show. Gleason was the product of a particularly brutal broken home. His alcoholic father abandoned his family when Jackie was 9 years old (or 8 or 7, again depending on the interview), taking care to destroy every family photograph in which he appeared beforehand. Gleason's mother, also an alcoholic, died when her only surviving son was 19 (or 13).

For all their tempestuousness, the Kramdens were by and large a loving, loyal couple. Indeed, judging from the earlier and more primitive 70 or so "lost" episodes of "The Honeymooners," which were released in 1985, the marriage actually improved over the years. All of Kramden's get-rich-quick schemes -- the "chef of the future" kitchen utensil, for instance, or "KranMar's delicious mystery appetizer," the dog food he unwittingly feeds his boss -- are designed with one goal: to get Alice off Chauncey Street and onto Park Avenue. But one cannot imagine Gleason ever saying "Baby, you're the greatest!" to Genevieve Halford, the woman to whom he was married for four miserable decades, years he filled with affairs and assignations.

Save for a short-lived adoption in an early episode, the Kramdens were childless. The Gleasons were not, but Gleason clearly saw far more of Toots Shor, his buddy, banker and personal bartender, than he did of his own two daughters. While Kramden had little tolerance for alcohol, getting drunk on grape juice and suffering a two-day hangover after eating some rum cake, Gleason drank continuously, prodigiously, disgustingly and destructively.

Though it was often hard to see why, Norton often described Kramden as "the sweetest guy in the world." Gleason, by contrast, was an equal-opportunity abuser. He tortured network executives and he abused his writers, inspiring Neil Simon to abandon television writing for plays. "I did not want to get to be a middle-aged man waiting for the phone to ring so I could go to work writing gags for some unappreciative [ expletive deleted ] like Jackie Gleason," the new book quotes him as saying. Gene Wolsk, general manager of the touring production of "Sly Fox," in which Gleason starred in 1978, once called him "the worst person I ever worked with in my entire life, and it's not even close."

And apart from Audrey Meadows, who defends Gleason now as fervently as Alice Kramden once defended Ralph, he abused his co-stars. While Kramden and Norton were inseparable, Gleason and Mr. Carney were not, largely because of the Great One's cold competitiveness. Gleason worked overtime to retard Mr. Carney's career, at least when it couldn't enhance Gleason's own Nielsen ratings. While Kramden can often be found in the Nortons' upstairs apartment, Gleason never had a single meal in the Carneys' home. "I never asked him, because I knew he'd turn me down," Mr. Carney once explained.

Two years before his death, Gleason teamed with Mr. Carney once more, in the movie "Izzy and Moe." "He seemed generally miserable," Mr. Carney told Mr. Henry. "He took no pleasure in what he had achieved or amassed. My heart just went out to him." While Kramden and Gleason had their differences, Norton and Mr. Carney did not; both were forever forgiving their outlandish colleague.

And, ultimately, Gleason abused himself. As Mr. Carney put it, success made Gleason "one of the laziest men on earth." For years Gleason coasted like Kramden's Madison Avenue bus, doing little more than present a tired caricature of himself. Saturday night after Saturday night in the 1960's, lapping up applause from adoring and uncritical audiences in "the sun-and-fun capital of the world," he went through his shtik, bellowing "How sweet it is!" and "And away we go!," sipping his 200-proof coffee, ogling leggy women, listening to Frank Fontaine play a poor man's Ed Norton known as Crazy Guggenheim. Kramden's mantra, uttered whenever he was frightened or embarrassed or ashamed, is "humenahumenahumena." Gleason, no longer capable of being any of these things, simply said, "Just wing it, pal."

Finally, Gleason tired of playing even himself. His appearances dwindled, his golf game became more important, his mood grew ever more sour. Like many entertainers of his era who lost their irony and detachment, he became chummy with Republican Presidents. He seemed positively bored as fan clubs like R.A.L.P.H., the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of "The Honeymooners," sprang up in the 1980's. Even the release of the "lost" episodes, which he had been sitting on for decades, did not excite him. He gave interviews only when some sufficiently sycophantic big shot, like Morley Safer of "60 Minutes," was doing the questioning.

As long as there are television sets, be they DuMonts or Toshibas, people will watch the "The Honeymooners." And they will keep on watching knowing full well that Ralph Kramden will blow the "$99,000 Answer," lose out to Norton for Raccoon of the Year, never make traffic manager of the Gotham Bus Company. But as they share his heartbreak, they might ponder the fate of Kramden's creator and the words of Oscar Wilde. "In this world," Wilde wrote, "there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

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