By John C. Alsedek:
There are a handful of TV shows that hold a special place in my heart, shows that I grew up watching in the dead of night while staying at my grandparents’ house as a kid. The Twilight Zone was and always will be my #1, with Boris Karloff’s Thriller close behind at #2 because it was on so sporadically that it always felt like a special treat. But after those two was an entire tier of faves, and chief among them was The Honeymooners.
I first discovered The Honeymooners when I was maybe 8 or 9; it aired at (I think) 10:30 p.m. weeknights on WKBS Channel 48, one of the handful of independent stations available in those pre-cable days of the early 1970s. I didn't get to watch it regularly then because my grandmother loved detective shows such as Barnaby Jones and Mannix, many of which ran from 10–11 p.m. It wasn't until we started getting WPIX Channel 11 (New York City) in 1976 that I saw it on a nightly basis; The Honeymooners aired from 12:30–1 a.m., sandwiched between The Odd Couple and The Twilight Zone. And that location was fitting, because it really was the perfect transition. The Odd Couple was (and still is) one of TV's all-time great comedies, but was a pretty conventional show and was contemporary at the time, having only gone off the air and into syndication 2–3 years earlier. The Twilight Zone was its own entire world, a shadow realm of fantastic stories painted in cinematic shades of grey and scored by some of the business's best composers. But The Honeymooners . . .
Like The Odd Couple, it was one of TV's great comedies, and like The Twilight Zone, it was in black-and-white. Yet the jokes on The Honeymooners were pretty familiar to me even as a kid; there was actually a point where I thought The Honeymooners ripped off The Flintstones rather than vice versa, until I learned Roman numerals and sussed out which one was made first. And the grainy, high-contrast B&W, combined with the rudimentary sets and minimal locations, made The Honeymooners feel far more primitive than The Twilight Zone, even though there was only a three-year gap between the end of the former and the start of the latter. But those imperfections only made it more endearing to me—and still do.
A little TV history: The Honeymooners was a thirty-minute comedy series that ran on CBS from 1955 until 1956; it starred Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph. The concept originally came from Gleason's DuMont variety series Cavalcade of Stars, and when Gleason moved to CBS, the concept went with him (although the show aired on CBS, Gleason filmed in front of a live audience of 1,000 at DuMont's Adelphi Theater using DuMont's innovative Electronicam system). Initially a ratings success, The Honeymooners saw its numbers slowly slide, and Gleason himself pulled the plug on the show after 39 episodes (today referred to as the "Classic 39"), feeling that they'd done everything they could with the concept. However, the characters would resurface in occasional skits and one-off television specials until 1978.
The Honeymooners told the story of bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason), his long-suffering wife, Alice (Meadows), Ralph's best friend, Ed Norton (Carney), and Norton's wife, Trixie (Randolph). They lived in a dilapidated tenement apartment building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, and the vast majority of the show's action took place in the Kramden's sparsely furnished living room/dining room/kitchen space. Ralph was gruff, short-tempered, and perpetually unhappy with his meager lot in life; as a result, many of the episodes centered around various get-rich-quick schemes that he would involve Norton in as well. A perfect example is the episode "Better Living Through TV," in which Ralph finds out about an abandoned gross of a kitchen utensil called the "Handy Housewife Helper." He convinces Norton to go in with him to buy them and to co-star in a live TV commercial. But literally everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and the commercial ends with a demolished set and a horrified Ralph. How they get to that point is a master class in physical humor by Gleason and Carney, and if you've never seen The Honeymooners, it's a great place to start.
Today, some of the humor used in The Honeymooners can rub people the wrong way. A primary example is how the temperamental Ralph would frequently—like at least once or twice an episode—threaten Alice with physical violence, usually expressed with an aggravated "To the moon, Alice!" and "Bang! Zoom!" But me? I never took it as anything more than bluster for two very basic reasons: First of all, Ralph, for all his ranting, very clearly loved Alice and would never in a million years actually carry out his threats. But even more than that, it's because of Alice, or more specifically how Audrey Meadows played Alice. Meadows, who had previously done more glamour-girl-type roles, was the perfect foil for Gleason; she avoided playing her as either the "yes dear" type or the shrew. Alice was every bit Ralph's match, and while she loved him as dearly as he loved her, she never once backed down when push came to shove. Great work by Meadows, who would be nominated for an Emmy in 1956 (Gleason also got an Emmy nomination that year, while Carney would eventually win five Emmy Awards for portraying Norton).
Next time, we'll continue our trip down Memory Lane (my memory, that is—yours may vary!) with a look at the station I first discovered The Honeymooners on: WKBS Channel 48 in Philadelphia, part of the short-lived but influential Kaiser Broadcasting System. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.