Ladies and gentlemen! Mesdames et Messieurs! Señoras y señores: welcome to the inaugural edition of the TVRage.com TELEVISION TIME MACHINE! Join me, your friendly neighbourhood Baddie, as we hop into the Baird Televisor (no, not a phone booth… why is it always a phone booth?) and ride down the cathode rays to a different decade of delight each and every week.
(Think the logo sucks? Well… it does. Think you can do better? Send in a replacement and I’ll use it and credit you!)
So let's twist those dials and fiddle with those antennae (on the TELEVISION, pervert!) and let’s see where we’ll slide to this week…
All the way back to the dulcet black & grey tones of 1955 with THE HONEYMOONERS!
What a fitting way to kick off a regular column, with the television show that launched the sitcom, inaugurated kinescope filmmaking, and directly influenced everything from The Flintstones and Family Guy to Seinfeld and The Simpsons.
For those of you who are culturally-challenged and have never seen an episode of The Honeymooners (and if so: for shame!! Aren’t you lucky TVRage is here to fill in the gaps of your woefully inadequate pop education? Now… look grateful!!): the show was created by comedy legend Jackie Gleason who wanted to create a series to capture the love and tumult of married life in Brooklyn. The idea was to portray a real couple from the real world; up to that point, television had always presented an idyllic setting where there was always enough money and food, jobs were plentiful, friendly, and steady, and no one was ever angry. Gleason decided to head in the exact opposite direction: to Chauncey Street in Brooklyn, where the rooms are cramped, the rent is cheap, and people struggled to get by in the city that never sleeps.
So far, that sounds more like a tragedy than a comedy. Enter Ralph Kramden and his ever-lovin’ wife Alice (played by Gleason and the gorgeous Audrey Meadows) to provide the lulz. Gleason wanted to capture the bickering and argument of a married couple but he insisted that there would be an ever-present current of love and adoration between the pair. The series ran for thirty-nine amazing episodes (now known as the Classic 39) with almost every single outing ending with Ralph’s famous line to his spouse: “Baby? You’re the greatest.” Ralph and Alice tore strips off of each other each and every week, but the fact that the pair was meant to be together was never in dispute.
Sadly, the aspect of The Honeymooners that resonates with many television viewers today is the bad reputation given to the show regarding the in-fighting between the love-birds. Many critics have unfairly lambasted the series as one that glorifies violence against women; I insist that anyone who holds this view has never actually seen a single episode. The fact is, Alice ‘wears the pants,’ so to speak, in the marriage; her authority is never in dispute. The majority of the situations that provide the comedy in this sitcom (get it? Situation-comedy? Sitcom? Stick with me kid, we’ll get you caught up) stemmed from Alice giving excellent advice to Ralph which Ralph would subsequently ignore. Alice was always right and the bumbling Ralph would return to her, tail between his legs, to let her know. His hilarious delivery of “One of these days, Alice…” was about as threatening as Buster standing up to Lucille in Arrested Development—there was no violence to speak of between Ralph and his beautiful blushing bride.
That’s not to say there was no slapstick violence on the show whatsoever: cut to Ed Norton (no, not the diminutive actor who decided he was too good to play The Hulk in The Avengers), Ralph’s best buddy, bowling partner, and fellow tenant of the Chauncey St apartment. Norton, who originated the explode-into-the-room entrance that Kramer became famous for on Seinfeld, was played for goofball laughs by Art Carney. Norton’s slapstick antics commonly earned him a smack from his bigger best buddy Ralph, but the pair remained partners in crime throughout the series. Throw in Norton’s wife Trixie and you have the entire main cast of a series that needed only one set and four characters to keep audiences in stitches week after week.
SO: why was The Honeymooners important to television?
Aside from being the only series brave enough to showcase money troubles, marital strife, and the horrors of the mother in law, The Honeymooners was performed entirely live. Yes, that’s right: I don’t just mean they filmed takes before a live studio audience, I meant THE ENTIRE EPISODE WAS BROADCAST INTO YOUR HOME L-I-V-E. Only one take. No re-do. Like a brand new stage play each and every week, Ralph, Alice, Ed, and Trixie carried the entire episode on their backs, improvised lines when they were forgotten, and (most amazingly) managed to keep a straight face despite the madcap tomfoolery going on around them. The only show that even comes close to this feat today is of course Saturday Night Live, but bear in mind: SNL cast members will complete a sketch and are then given a break as other cast members pick up the slack. Do an entire episode of SNL with only four cast members and then you’ll come close to repeating the incredible weekly feat of Gleason’s pride & joy.
Live television was not without its dangers, of course. Often, things would go wrong or actors would forget lines… but the talented cast Gleason had assembled was more than up to the task of filling in the blanks when necessary. In the most famous live blooper in the show’s history, Alice was delivering a freshly-cooked steak to her waiting husband at the dinner table. The steak in question was actually a block of wood, painted to resemble meat on the black & white screen. As Alice pivoted to dutifully provide for her man, the wooden steak slid right off of her serving tray, landing and bouncing with an audible clatter on the stage floor.
Alice froze. Ralph froze. Audrey (who played Alice) desperately held in her laughter. Jackie (who played Ralph) had to think on his feet…
“….YOUR COOKING, ALICE!!”
Gleason roared out the line, Meadows burst out laughing, and the entire live audience gave the pair a standing ovation.
That moment is precisely indicative of what The Honeymooners meant to America: Ralph and Alice were relatable characters, breaking up a streak of television families that were all too good to be true. Viewers at home could root for the couple, as they were struggling with the same economic and emotional issues as The Honeymooners themselves. The show offered America an opportunity to look at themselves in the mirror and laugh at the absurdity of their situation rather than dwell on the misfortunes of the age. And when Alice’s steak went clattering to the floor, the audience of The Honeymooners wasted no time in showing their favourite couple that they were there for them, just as Ralph and Alice were every single week.
Happily, the Classic 39 episodes of The Honeymooners are available on DVD, so we can all keep enjoying the antics that have been imitated so often throughout history.
That wraps up this first edition of Television Time Machine!! Next week we flash forward to the swingin' 1960s... who knows what we may find?
Thanks for reading. Got a suggestion for a future slide through time? Comment below!