Younger generations of fans of the The Honeymooners really don’t want to know what Ralph and Alice made of the shift of the American zeitgeist that began in the late ‘50s. The Kramdens belong so undeniably to what’s considered a more innocent time – what they helped frame as a more innocent time – that their lifestyle seems almost anathema to the popularization of the pill, the Summer of Love, the Fall of Saigon, and Watergate.
Yet, between 1976 and 1978, ABC got Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney, and Jane Kean back together for a reprisal. Two of the ABC four specials are available now on DVD, and The Honeymooners Second Honeymoon and The Honeymooners Valentine’s Special are not as nightmarishly odd cultural artifacts as they sound. For the most part, they work and are pretty funny, because, for the most part, the show’s producers treat the specials the same way they treated normal episodes of the program two decades earlier.
The comedy is best, as it was in the original show, when it comes from Gleason’s terrific timing, Meadows’ dry sarcasm, or Carney’s off-the-wall zaniness. The specials were shot in Miami, presumably because Gleason refused to travel, and each one is preceded by an off-the-coast shot of South Florida’s skyline. Viewers can be forgiven for hoping the core characters have retired to Boca Raton and this is where the specials will pick up. Alas, the Kramdens and the Nortons still live in the same Bensonhurst apartment, and the colors of the walls – previously only seen in black-and-white – are not so far off from what fans might have imagined. The slick tan of Gleason’s skin in Second Honeymoon, on the other hand, is evidence of more than a bus driver’s weekend in Coney Island.
Second Honeymoon revolves around Ralph and Alice’s silver anniversary. The Raccoons present the Kramdens with a trip to the lodge’s cemetery in Bismark, N.D., and Ralph, through some confusion beginning with a note found in the table, believes Alice to be pregnant. Gleason and Carney still have the same fantastic chemistry, and the biggest laughs come from two scenes with Jackie’s Ralph and Art’s Ed speculating about the future with the child. In one scene, Norton refuses Ralph’s request for Norton to become the baby’s godfather. (Queue Norton humming the waltz from The Godfather and playing an imaginary accordion). Ralph lists off the joys of fatherhood, from the kid’s first steps to his (and of course Ralph assumes it’s a male child) first Little League game. When he finishes, Norton is almost near tears. With much gusto, he rises off his chair and says, “Ralph, I want that kid!”
The reference to the blockbuster mob movie is one of a few pop culture allusions that make fans of the original series cringe. Awareness of the times is not something we’re seeking from these characters anymore. While their observations about which families in the building can afford televisions were always good fun in the ‘50s, references to Jaws or overt ribald lines seem out of place coming from Ralph. Worst of all, though, is one line that reflects an evolution that is perfectly natural coming out of Ralph’s mouth. “I drive a foreign bus! Nobody speaks English on it!” he shouts.
Of course Ralph is pig-headed and probably even racist. When he’s in the ‘50s, it’s easy to laugh him off (“Oh, you big ignorant dolt.”) When he’s probably one of the few remaining white people in his apartment building in the ‘70s, though, and the Civil Rights movement has fully blossomed, these attitudes villainize him. He becomes less of a joke and more of a threat. In the meantime, other attitudes have changed. In neither of these specials does Ralph raise his fist into the air and shout, “One of these days, Alice! … Bam! Straight to the moon.”
The Honeymooners Valentine Special is much better, much funnier, than the other recently released DVD. Not only is it less focused on the jokiness of a reunion special (it was the final of the four specials) than Second Honeymoon but the absence of that kind of discomforting wink-wink bits free up time and energy for more appropriate and well executed gags. Valentine Special also relies on the note-found-in-the-table, this time to convince Ralph that Alice is having an affair with another man and plotting the murder of her husband. Ralph’s paranoia, encouraged by Norton, rages into a hilarious fever pitch. Alice comes home one evening and, not seeing the lug in the kitchen, calls into the bedroom, “Ralph, are you sleeping?” His voice tremoring with fear and anger, he yells, “I’m wide awake!”
Ralph’s skintone is back to normal, too, and the special cruises along, feeling like a decent episode of the original show, until it puts Norton and Ralph in drag to try to ferret a confession out of the man they suspect of cuckolding Ralph. The Honeymooners never shied away from being over the top, and it often worked. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there’s an original episode that features Ralph and Norton in drag. Here, though, it’s too much in a special that faces an uphill battle in the first place. Even later in the episode, when the producers release a pyrotechnic display (yes, pyrotechnics, in The Honeymooners), the female impersonation bit feels too stupid. It should be noted that the pyrotechnics are part of a gag that provides a very fitting conclusion to the Kramdens’ lives on screen.
The Honeymooners Second Honeymoon contains a parody from The Hollywood Palace, shot in 1967, with Meadows reprising her role and Ray Bolger subbing in for Gleason. It’s not very good, though Meadows is as winning as ever. The Honeymooners Valentine Special includes a spoof from The Kopykats Kopy T.V., which is well done but unspectacular. Both discs include the color promo ABC used to advertise the specials.
The Honeymooners Second Honeymoon
The Honeymooners Valentine Special