Forget I Love Lucy. The best and funniest sitcom of the 1950s, maybe even of all time, is The Honeymooners (1955-56).
Hardcore fans affectionately refer to it simply as "The Classic 39," and not without good reason. Every show really is a classic.
For the uninitiated, The Honeymooners stars Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a lowly driver for the Gotham Bus Company who lives in a run-down apartment in Brooklyn with his long-suffering wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows). Ralph's best friend is Ed Norton (Art Carney), an eccentric sewer worker who lives one floor up with his wife, Trixie (Joyce Randolph).
On the surface, The Honeymooners follows the standard sitcom route, with episodes involving gangsters and game shows, puppies and a predictably unpleasant mother-in-law. Episodes typically revolve around some get-rich-quick scheme of Ralph's, or a comedy of errors that invariably leaves him broke and humiliated. In "A Dog's Life," for instance, Ralph mistakes a bowl of dog food left in the icebox for homemade pate. Thinking it a delicious appetizer, he immediately makes plans to market it nationwide and, looking for an investor, soon has the president of the bus company sampling it.
Funny stuff, but the greatness of The Honeymooners lies not in its stories. What makes The Honeymooners so great is its unique balance of comedy and hardship, to acknowledge and laugh at the setbacks life deals you.
The Kramdens and the Ricardos may both reside in New York, but that's where the similarities end. Ralph's no Ricky Ricardo -- he doesn't live the life of popular bandleader flying out to Hollywood to star in Don Juan for MGM. Alice may be a redhead, but she has no wacky schemes to break into show business. And the Kramdens certainly can't afford a spacious home in Connecticut like the Ricardos, either. The Kramdems are poor, real poor. They don't have a TV, they can't afford a telephone, and they're still making payments on an old icebox. The Honeymooners would be awfully depressing if it weren't so hysterically funny.
Every episode of The Honeymooners ends with Ralph a little poorer and only a little bit wiser. His schemes always end badly, leaving the Kramdens a standard of living even worse than financially strapped neighbors like the Nortons. But Ralph and Alice have each other. Alice knows that despite Ralph's burning desire to become a Big Shot, deep down he's really trying to provide her luxuries she knows she'll never have. And for that she loves him. She knows that for all of Ralph's bellyaching, deep down he's a pussycat, putty in her hands.
Because of this genuine love for one another, The Honeymooners resonates in a way that's rare in sitcom land. Audiences identified and sympathized with the Kramdens. In the aforementioned "A Dog's Life," Alice has adopted a puppy but Ralph, considering their relative poverty and size of their tiny apartment, sneaks off to the pound to return the dog. In what might have been unbearably saccharine in other hands is here at once funny and heartbreaking. If this episode doesn't leave you choked up, then there's something seriously wrong with you.
At the center of all this is, of course, Jackie Gleason. Though Gleason created many famous characters on his variety shows, Ralph Kramden remains his great legacy. A big, fat powerhouse of talent, Gleason literally threw himself into every performance. (At least once too hard: In one pre-The Honeymooners show, Gleason said his trademark, "And away we go!" and promptly broke his leg on live TV.) Like Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello and other comic heavyweights, Gleason was incredibly graceful and light on his feet. Whether taking a spectacular pratfall or reacting with bug-eyed shock, Gleason was a genius of both timing and comic mannerisms.
Meadows's definitive Alice matches Gleason's Ralph retort-for-retort. Others played Alice in "Honeymooners" segments on Gleason's variety show, both before and after The Honeymooners stand-alone show, but none had the marvelous deadpan delivery of Audrey Meadows. The late, irreplaceable Art Carney created an original eccentric in Ed Norton, whose goofy mannerisms have influenced several generations of comedians.
The CBS/Paramount DVD of The Honeymooners is a nicely packaged set of all 39 shows, plus a modest sampling of special features. The packaging is attractive and reasonably informative, offering short plot descriptions and airdates for the shows, which are presented in broadcast order. For those who watched edited-for-time versions of The Honeymooners in syndication, this DVD set offers one unexpected benefit. Because The Honeymooners shows originally ran 26 minutes apiece, they were always cut to fit latter-day 30-minute time slots. Knowing this would be done, Gleason apparently tried to include a disposable scene or two, but seeing what for many are completely new scenes amid very familiar ones is, well, weird.
Video & Audio
The Honeymooners was an early three-camera show, shot in black & white on 35mm film in front of a live audience. A variation of the system devised by Desi Arnaz and Karl Freund for I Love Lucy, the Electronocam T-V Film System (don't you just love that name?) seems, for whatever reasons, to have worked less well. Wanting to keep the show as spontaneous as possible, Gleason rarely rehearsed, and because of this the cameramen occasionally have trouble keeping up with the action, leaving angles slightly out of focus for long stretches. But the transfers themselves are clean and generally quite sharp, with the 39 episodes and special features spread over five single-sided discs. Some viewers have complained about the sound on the first episode, "TV or Not TV," but while the audio is indeed muffled (though not inaudible), the other episodes play just fine. English and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Extras include the show's opening and closing sequences as they originally aired, before the program went into its perennial syndication. Basically, the opening credits and familiar theme music are intact, but with a different announcer and a "Sponsored by Buick" tag. For those weaned on the syndicated version, the loud, unfamiliar and nasally voice of the original announcer is amusingly jarring. The tags have a straight-faced Gleason, out of character, pitching cars the Kramdens themselves could never afford. The end titles roll over an inexplicable stick figure background that looks just like the logo for The Saint. The only other extra is The Honeymooners Anniversary Special, a 22-minute celebration/documentary from 1990 hosted by Audrey Meadows, featuring new and archival interviews with the main cast, several of the writers, and jack-of-all-trades character players Frank Marth and George Petrie.
This reviewer grew up in the Detroit area, and fondly remembers watching reruns of The Honeymooners with You Bet Your Life between 10 and 11 weekday nights. With both titles now out on DVD, it's become a nostalgic, hilarious trip down memory lane. Some DVDs you watch once, you stick on the shelf, and never watch again. Not here. If any DVD has "reply value," this is it. These are shows to be enjoyed over and over, just as audiences have for nearly 50 years. They're as funny the 20th time as they are the first. And with 17 hours of laughs for less than $50, The Honeymooners may just be the DVD bargain of 2003.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.