Tuesday, November 02, 2010

24. The Honeymooners

Do you like television? Of course you do, you wouldn't be reading this if you didn't. You owe a bit of thanks to “The Honeymooners”, you know that? Even though the show only had 39 episodes and began airing in 1951*, it’s possible that this show is the blueprint for a majority of the comedies that we watch today.

* First as a recurring sketch on the “Cavalcade of Stars” on the DuMont Network and then on the “Jackie Gleason Show” before it was turned into a full-length 30-minute show for the 1955-56 season.

Certainly, the Flintstones is the biggest copy cat of the show; but pretty much every two-bit situation comedy on CBS owes a large debt to Gleason and his crew. Ralph Kramden (Gleason) and his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) were the original no-way-in-hell-does-this-fat-guy-ever-get-this-hot-woman-to-be-his-wife-in-real-life couple. And while Kramden and his best buddy Ed Norton (Art Carney) were among television’s first fat-and-skinny best buddies, they didn’t invent that coupling either. Even by the fifties, this type of odd couple had been done to death (see Laurel and Hardy).

Another sitcom plum that the Honeymooners were among the first to pick, was that of the blowhard (in this case, Gleason) getting his just desserts, the wife (Meadows) outsmarting the husband (Gleason) or the now classic complete misunderstanding (“But I thought that you said, he said, humanna, humanna, humanna!”) “The Honeymooners” was the first show where the actors had to stop their lines because the studio audience went nuts when a main character entered the scene. Shades of “Seinfeld’s” Kramer or “Happy Days’” Fonzi, whenever Norton or Kramden made their entrance, the audience would applaud and cheer so loudly that oftentimes supporting actors had to repeat their lines.

There are a few things that made this show work, one were the actors. Gleason, Meadows, Carney and Joyce Randolph (who played Carney’s wife, Trixie) were terrific actors.* Not only did they played their parts well, but one could actually imagine them as their characters. I believed that Jackie Gleason was Ralph Kramden. I thought that in real life Gleason talked like Kramden, acted like Kramden and more importantly thought like Kramden. Same thing with the other three players.

Of course they didn’t, but I am shocked that Carney or Gleason escaped any sort of typecasting for the rest of their lives. They were that good. And while the writing is terrific (more on that in a moment) the way that the actors could convey an emotion without saying a word (Gleason’s saucer plate eyes, Carney’s plastic face, Meadows crossing her arms) is nothing short than amazing. And yes, it’s mugging and yes, unless you’re a talented actor, it can come across as hackey, but not with anyone from this troupe.

* Randolph wasn’t that great. I mean she was serviceable, but she tended to screech her lines which was ok, because she wasn’t really integral to any of the plots. She gave birth the to Trixie (later Betty—as in Rubble) Conundrum. There are only a few reasons why Trixie is important: one Ralph’s best buddy needs a wife (so no one wonders why Norton is bachelor), two Ralph’s wife needs a best friend. However, since Ralph is the lead character the show revolves around him. There aren’t too many situations where a man hangs around with his buddy’s wife, without some sort of shenanigans occurring

Also, there needs to be a person that either Ed or Alice can talk to about the latest crazy scheme that Ralph has gotten into. In this case, Trixie is basically a proxy for the audience. Since Alice can’t look into the camera and say, “My husband is such a big oaf, I can’t believe that he got mixed up in this again!” she says it to Trixie. If Alice did do that, the fourth wall wouldn’t just be broken, it would be completely and utterly bombed and the grounds would be salted.

The writing really is a thing of beauty. The plots were usually pretty simplistic—and really, you’ve probably seen all of the situations these people get into, but it’s interesting to see the genesis of a well-known gag like the main character getting a swelled head only to fail completely, getting his comeuppance at the end of the show. (Sorry for the lack of Spoiler Alert on that last sentence.) There’s not a lot of “Arrested Development”-esque back story or “Seinfeld”-ian ironies or “Simpson”-ian rifts on popular culture. What you see is what you got.

And while that simplicity could get stale after awhile, here it’s played straight ahead with a lot of laughs. With the laughs there was a lot of warmth beneath the surface. Many times Ralph kicked Norton out of the house, but the audience knew that he was coming back in two minutes. Often Ralph threatened to punch Alice so hard that he’d send her to the moon*, but you knew that a moment would pass before he’d apologize and tell her that “she was the greatest” and plant a kiss on her.

* There is no way in hell that Ralph’s famous catch phrases to Alice, “Pow! Zoom! Right to the moon!” or “One of these days! One of these days Alice! Pow! RIGHT IN THE KISSER!” complete with Ralph pantomiming punching his wife in the face would ever end up on television. People would have a complete meltdown. And rightly so, but on “The Honeymooners” the audience knew that Ralph was full of crap. If he had ever laid a finger on her, the next scene would be him jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.

It was really that evident that the characters cared for each other, the actors cared for each other and in turn they all cared about the show.

One of my least favorite things about television taped in front of a live audience or when it’s actually live, is when a character breaks. This used to happen all the time on “The Carol Burnett Show” or during Saturday Night Live when Horatio Sanz and Jimmy Fallon (another fat and skinny comedy duo) used to do it every single skit. Every once in awhile Gleason and crew would break (or simply forget lines) but unlike Sanz and Fallon who would turn into 12-year-old girls and just giggle for the sake of giggling, the Honeymooner actors were true professionals who often ad-libbed their lines to minimize damage. Interestingly enough, oftentimes the ad-libbed lines were the funniest lines of the night.

The Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn is where the show took place. Kramden and Norton were both blue collar workers (a bus driver and sewer worker respectively) so their apartments were sparsely furnished. The Nortons actually looked like that they lived better than the Kramdens, despite Ed’s job, and actually had a television, while the Kramdens had a lot of nothing. And the Kramden’s house is where most of the action took place.

The setting wasn’t anything special, it looked like a set. It was sort of cheap, appeared that everything was made from plywood and that the whole thing could come crashing down at any minute but that only added to the atmosphere of the Kramden’s poverty. In the long run, it didn’t matter. In Naomi Odenkirk’s book, “Mr. Show: What Happened?” the stars of Mr. Show, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross talk about the sets of their show and it can be applied to “The Honeymooners”.

Basically they said that compared to Saturday Night Live, Mr. Show’s sets looked like crap. They appeared cheap because they were, they didn’t have half of the budget that SNL had. They really had to make do with what they had*. However, since they didn’t have a great set they had to put their focus on their skits and their writing. They had to make the audience forget that they’re surrounded by plywood ovens or cheap plastic cars and focus on the funny.

* According to Odenkirk, who once worked at SNL, the sets for all the skits are made somewhere in New Jersey and are shipped to the show that Friday. They literally have a whole team of people working on sets all week long, that’s why things look so good. Unfortunately, it would be better if SNL spent more time working on script than sets. ZING!

That’s what “The Honeymooners” did too. When it was a particularly good episode, it didn’t matter that Ralph was not in a real Brooklyn apartment yelling to his buddy one floor above him. I mean, it’s obvious that he was just sticking his head through a fake window and yelling up. But by the time the audience even realized that, the scene had moved on and it didn’t matter much. The plot was moving and things were going on, realism be damned.

Overall, the show is amazing. If you happen to catch it on a late-night, watch it for the historical significance. By the end of the half-hour, I guarantee that you’ll be laughing your ass off.