Watch an episode of The Honeymooners and you will understand why the 1950s is remembered as the “Golden Age of Television.” Nearly five decades after its debut on CBS, viewers are still entertained by the loud but lovable Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), his harried wife Alice (Audrey Meadows), and their best friends and neighbors, Ed (Art Carney, who died 9 November at 85), and Trixie Norton (Joyce Randolph). Even in an age when television is overrun with reruns (thanks to TVLand, Nick-at-Nite, and The Nostalgia Channel), audiences have remained loyal to the series that only lasted one season for a total of 39 episodes.
The Honeymooners first aired as a comedy sketch in 1950 on Calvacade of Stars, a variety show hosted by Gleason on the soon-to-be-defunct Dumont Network. In 1952, Gleason moved over to CBS (where he remained until 1970) to star in his own weekly hour variety series, The Jackie Gleason Show. The first half consisted of music and comedy sketches while the remaining thirty minutes were devoted to The Honeymooners. In the 1955-56 season, The Honeymooners became a weekly half-hour series. Thirty-nine episodes were shot in front of a live audience using DuMont’s Electronicam TV-Film System, which simultaneously captures an image with both a film and a video camera that share the same lens. Although the sitcom lasted only one season due to low ratings (Gleason returned the following year, to a variety show format), The Honeymooners did appear intermittently in sketch format through the 1960s and was resurrected in the late 1970s as a series of hour specials. Over the years, CBS made a small fortune syndicating what fans refer to as the “Classic 39” episodes, all included in this box set.
CBS certainly had other sitcoms in the 1950s that scored higher ratings and enjoyed longer runs–for examples, December Bride, Our Miss Brooks, and Private Secretary — so why are they gathering dust in a network vault, while The Honeymooners lives on in syndication? The show’s lasting appeal can most obviously be attributed to the comedic talents of its writers and four stars. But it also continues to speak to contemporary audiences because it explores an enduring theme: the struggle of the working class to make a better life for themselves. Most of The Honeymooners episodes focus on Ralph’s quest to get ahead, certainly a challenge, as he’s starting at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Before sitcoms reflected the prosperity of the Eisenhower era in the form of wholesome, suburban, middle-class clans like the Cleavers and Father Knows Best‘s Andersons, they offered working class city folks like the Kramdens. The majority of these TV families are immigrants, who are defined by their ethnicities: the Norwegian-American Hansens of Mama (1949-1956), who lived in San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century; The Goldbergs, a Jewish family residing in the Bronx; and Life with Luigi‘s Luigi Basco, a recent Italian immigrant who owns an antique store. Unlike their suburban counterparts, who were living comfortably in their fully furnished split-level homes, these characters were not yet able to participate in the thriving consumer culture of post-war America.
This describes the situation for New York City bus driver Ralph. After 15 years of marriage, he and Alice are still living in a rundown two-room flat in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Determined to get ahead, Ralph repeatedly enlists Ed in a series of schemes to impress his boss, get a promotion, or get rich quick; these schemes always backfire because Ralph’s pride and inflated ego get the best of him. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for us), he never learns his lesson and keeps making the same mistakes week after week.
The series’ first episode (“TV or Not TV”) establishes the dual nature of Ralph’s personality: he is a softie with a big heart deep down, yet he doesn’t think twice about manipulating the ones he loves in order to get his own way. In this provocatively self-reflexive episode, Alice learns Trixie is getting a new TV set and insists that Ralph finally purchase one for their apartment. Realizing how hard his wife works, he decides to give in to her demand. However, he also tries to save money, convincing Ed to split the cost of a new set and tricking him into agreeing to keep it in the Kramdens’ apartment. Ralph is pleased at first, but Ed insists on visiting in the middle of the night, to watch The Late, Late Show.
Ralph has even worse luck with his plans to strike it rich. Repeatedly, his ego prevents him from heeding Alice’s warning about his latest business venture (investing his money on a lot of kitchen gadgets and selling them on TV in “Better Living Through TV”) or hastily spending a suitcase full of money (“Funny Money”) that turns out to be counterfeit and the fortune he thinks a rich passenger left him in her will in “Ralph Kramden, Inc.” (which turns out to be her beloved parrot, named “Fortune”).
Although Ralph is always claiming he’s the “king of [his] castle,” Alice has better business sense and is ultimately in control of the couple’s purse strings. Their dynamic is essentially a reversal of the roles assumed by I Love Lucy‘s Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Like Ricky, Alice is levelheaded, while Ralph and Lucy will go to outrageous lengths to get what they want. Although Ralph isn’t quite as wacky as his female counterpart, nothing will stop him from lying (telling his boss he can play golf in “The Golfer”), jumping to conclusions (thinking Ed considers a co-worker, and not Ralph, his best friend in “Pal O’Mine”), and being jealous (of the dance instructor who lives next door in “Mama Loves Mambo”).
Critics have long acknowledged the feminist implications of Lucy Ricardo and other female rule-breakers of the ’50s, like Gracie Allen, Love That Joan‘s Joan Davis, and My Little Margie‘s mischievous Margie Albright. But little attention has been paid to the ways that Ralph and Alice’s relationship subverts patriarchal authority. Ralph thinks he is in charge and the wiser and more Alice lets him believe it, even though she (and we) know who really rules this roost. In one memorable episode, aptly titled “Head of the Household,” a newspaper reporter asks man-on-the street Ralph, “Who is the boss at home?” When his remarks appear in the newspaper the next day, Alice forgives him, but insists there will never be a boss in their house. Ralph sticks by his statement, but goes too far when he tries to win a bet with a co-worker by calling Alice on the phone and demanding she cook dinner for them tonight. She refuses, and when Ralph and Ed try to prepare dinner, it’s a disaster. Alice steps in at the 11th hour and saves Ralph by taking responsibility for the botched meal. Ralph wins the bet, but, more importantly, he admits he’s wrong, once again telling Alice, “You’re the greatest!”
Neither the dynamics of Ralph and Alice’s relationship nor their living situation changed in the post-series episodes. The couple remained in their Bensonhurst apartment (recreated for an Anniversary Special that’s included as an extra in the DVD set) throughout the 1960s and 1970s. They would even continue to debate “Who’s the boss?” (in a 1967 syndicated episode entitled “King of the Castle”). Gleason understood that the reason why viewers continued to welcome the Kramdens and the Nortons into their homes over the span of 50 years is the fact the characters remained unaffected by the changing times. Ralph never struck it rich, Alice never got new furniture, and the couple never moved to Westport to live next door to the Ricardos. Still, after all those years, they keep us laughing.