Thursday, July 31, 2014

Classic TV: The Honeymooners (1955)

Often imitated, but not always successfully duplicated (see below), The Honeymooners remains an iconic television classic more than 60 years after it began as a series of skits on DuMont's Cavalcade of Stars. Those sketches would later be rediscovered for a new generation of fans more than 30 years after their initial airings.

However, the beloved series we all know was spun off from the original Jackie Gleason Show after Gleason had left DuMont for CBS, and would remain a part of Gleason's repertoire, if you will, after he went back to the variety show format in the 60's.

Gleason "supervised" the entire series, even though Jack Philbin was credited as executive producer. Gleason based the franchise on his own hardscrabble childhood in Brooklyn, and so Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and his wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), were based in the Bensonhurst section of the borough. Meadows was the 2nd Alice. Pert Kelton originated the role, but could not continue after the franchise moved to CBS due to being on the blacklist. Helping Ralph with his futile get-rich-quick schemes----and raising his blood pressure in the process---was free spirited sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney, ex-The Morey Amsterdam Show), who acted as though he was about as smart as a brick, though that wasn't always the case. Then again, Ralph wasn't exactly a brain surgeon himself.

In 1966, the Honeymooners were reborn in a series of new sketches on the Jackie Gleason Show, which was now based out of Miami. You might remember Gleason employing iconic game show announcer Johnny Olsen as his announcer for the 4 year run (1966-70), with Olsen referring to Miami Beach as the "sun & fun capital of the world". I honestly wish I could find some of those color episodes. Sheila MacRae took over as Alice, with Jane Kean as Trixie. In the course of this nearly 20 year run between DuMont & CBS, Carney took home 5 Emmy awards for his work as Norton. A series of reunion specials would follow during the 70's, heightened by Gleason resuming his movie career (i.e. "Smokey & The Bandit") and Carney adding an Oscar to his resume ("Harry & Tonto").

What you might not know is that Gleason also composed the show's opening instrumental theme, "You're My Greatest Love", and had released a series of albums for Columbia during the 50's & 60's of instrumental easy listening music, proving his worth as a songwriter. Gleason was not credited for any of the music, but musical director Sammy Spear is more closely associated with the variety shows.

The late Elaine Stritch was the original Trixie Norton, but the role was recast after 1 skit in 1951, since Trixie was originally conceived as a burlesque performer, but then was rebooted as an ordinary housewife (Joyce Randolph).

In 1985, Joe Piscopo & Eddie Murphy recorded "Honeymooners Rap", a comic hip-hop homage to the franchise, with the comedians doing dead-on mimics of Gleason & Carney as Kramden & Norton.

Currently, the series lives on through reruns ariing on Me-TV and in syndication. WPIX in New York has had the series for what seems like an eternity, such that they were compelled to put the show back on the schedule due to viewer demand.

Now, from 1956, here's a satire on quiz shows of the period, "The $99,000 Answer", in which Ralph fancies himself to be an expert on music, but is exposed when he makes a critical error.

The 80's also brought the Honeymooners back to comics for a short run. Oh, what fun! However, loyalists might be willing to disown an urban reboot in a 2005 feature film with Cedric The Entertainer (now the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as Ralph........!

Oh, and as for the imitators? Of course you know about The Flintstones, which ran for six seasons in primetime on ABC (1960-6), and was a Saturday morning mainstay for years after. Dom DeLuise tried to emulate Gleason with Lotsa Luck, based on a British comedy, On The Buses, rather than The Honeymooners, and perhaps that would explain why Luck lasted 1 season.

Rating: A.


magicdog said...

Nice to know The Honeymooners are still on WPIX after 11pm after all these years!

Never knew that factoid about Trixie. It seems to explain the name since it sounds like a burlesque name!

Despite some of the silly storylines in The Honeymooners, Ralph and Alice were nothing if not a loving couple. Even when Ralph threatened to send her to the moon, you knew he'd never really do such a thing. I did see one episode which didn't seem to get much airplay in syndication - one in which the Kramdens adopted a baby, but the birth mother wanted her back. You could see the hurt and anger in Gleason's face as he was yelling about how much he already came to love this little girl (despite having originally wanted to adopt a boy and didn't think he could raise a girl) and what sort of person could just think they could take her back like returned merchandise. Gleason did some great work there. If you ever get to see this ep - it's a gem.

The 90s race lifted film does not exist in my world.

My father used to know the bar that Gleason used to frequent in his Brooklyn youth. Gleason was said to drop in from time to time. Dad said he never met him, but was familiar with some of his old haunts.

Back in the early 90s the Jackie Gleason Show ran on a local channel in LV. I had never seen anything else Gleason was in (on TV) so I was fascinated by it. The eps were not in color, but showed some of the familiar characters and sketches. Gleason was a genius and so very talented!!

hobbyfan said...

Yes, there was a best-of package, kind of like what they also did with Laugh-In, Carol Burnett, and Johnny Carson back in those days. Didn't last long. I remember the Miami Beach era, and wished that was part of the 90's package, but no. This was a means of cashing in on the "lost episodes" that were added to the Honeymooners syndicated package.