Synopsis by Bruce Eder
Although he tried very hard to become a movie star as well as create and produce television entertainment that was a lot flashier, like it or not, The Honeymooners ended up being the single creation for which Jackie Gleason was best known. One irony surrounding its recognition over the decades was that, as a series in its own right, it was only on for a single season, 1955-1956, with 39 episodes running 26 minutes each. They were performed in front of a live audience but shot on film to be broadcast later. All of the other Honeymooners shows -- the so-called "Lost Episodes" -- were comedy sketches of varying lengths, performed and broadcast live as part of Gleason's larger variety program The Jackie Gleason Show; they were preserved on kinescopes, films shot of the show off of a studio monitor. The results were crude, but effective, rather like the sketch comedy itself. The sketch performances of The Honeymooners from 1952-1955 may have established the setting, the premise, and the characters, but those 39 filmed episodes showed what could be done with them under ideal circumstances. Set in a working-class section of Brooklyn (actually resembling Bushwick, but referred to as Bensonhurst because the latter sounded more "Brooklyn-like" to people from outside New York), the series told of the daily life of bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) of 328 Chauncey Street, a rundown, walk-up apartment building, and their neighbors and best friends, Ed Norton (Art Carney), a sewer-worker, and his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph). Most of the action took place in the Kramdens' dimly lit, dingy apartment, with its table, chairs, dresser, and ice-box; we occasionally see the Nortons' better-decorated apartment upstairs, and every so often a scene might be set at Ralph's bus company or on a street adjacent to where Norton was working in a man-hole or the local pool room. Rarely there would be a scene in a fancy restaurant or at the home of one of Ralph's bosses or a wealthy acquaintance. Most of the scripts dealt with one of Ralph's "million-dollar ideas" and how they seemed to inevitably end in disaster for Ralph and Norton, usually with Alice (often joined by Trixie) watching sardonically from the sidelines. This often occurred after an argument in which Ralph has gesticulated with his fist in Alice's direction and muttered, "Bang! -- Zoom!" or "Do you want to go to the Moon?" Some of the other scripts dealt with Ralph and Norton's lodge, the Loyal Order of Racoons, or Ralph's stormy relationship with Alice's mother. That The Honeymooners could rival the impact of I Love Lucy, which ran years longer and left behind many hundreds more episodes, is a tribute to its cast and crew, especially the show's writers. The best of The Honeymooners' scripts (and there were a lot that could qualify) were seamless, self-contained wholes unto themselves. The episodes come off as being every bit as beautifully symmetrical as the best one-act plays, often with some surprisingly serious subtexts beneath the surface, and a delightful self-referential quality where its own medium was concerned. The opening episode, "TV or Not TV," in which Ralph and Ed buy a television set jointly, only to discover that they can't get along for even a single night watching the set, is a side-splittingly comic sketch and essay on the seductive power of television on people's lives, presented at a time when it was a new device in homes. "Better Living Through TV" takes us back to the same subject from a slightly different angle and, in the process, manages to mercilessly parody a then-current Chef Boyardee commercial -- as well as poke fun at Gleason's avoidance of complete rehearsals -- while anticipating at least a generation's worth of laughable, late-night commercials to come. "The $99,000 Answer" gives us yet another glimpse of what television meant to (and did to) people in the 1950s. All through the series, there were woven into the scripts little references to television as a pop-culture force, including the episodes "Ralph Kramden Inc.," "Here Comes the Bride," "The Baby-Sitter," etc. Yet Gleason and his writers also managed to leave room -- in the form of what was perhaps a last, fond look back for all of them -- for newspapers and magazines to figure in people's lives in a major way, as in "On Stage," "Head of the House," and "A Matter of Life and Death." What's even more astonishing is that they did it all in an authentically lower-class/working-class New York setting with accurate, outer-borough dialects and phrases, while, in the process, presenting a last look at the ideal of the great American melting pot. Just as important, they successfully sold it as a hit series to the rest of the country. Even as Milton Berle's popularity declined and television audiences grew beyond the confines of major cities and the Northeast to places that were less accepting of his urban, Jewish, burlesque-derived humor, Gleason and company presented the most urban-focused, New York ethnic comedy this side of The Goldbergs and scored a hit with it for one glowing season. And contrary to popular belief, the series didn't die because of low ratings. The ratings were fine and CBS and the sponsors were happy, but Gleason pulled the plug when he realized that his writers could never equal those 39 scripts used in that golden season.