Thursday, November 27, 2014

My Thanksgiving tradition

We all have our own cherished Thanksgiving traditions. Enjoying Grandma’s famous stuffing recipe (which oddly tastes a lot like Stove Top), the game of touch football on the lawn (they still talk about the year Uncle Ed’s stitches came loose), weird cousin Marla’s holiday decorations (festive paper turkeys with hatchets), everyone bringing their favorite dish, renewing the argument over whether cousin Marla should be hospitalized, etc. My fondest tradition was watching THE HOONEYMOONERS marathon on one of the local LA channels. The last few years it’s been discontinued but thanks to DVD’s, I now own all 39 classic episodes and can gleefully watch them again for the nine millionth time.  I assume Netflix or one of them also offers the show for streaming.

Produced in 1955 for one season only, THE HONEYMOONERS remains my favorite all-time sitcom. I don’t think there’s ever been a more inspired cast than Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. And Joyce Randolph was okay too.

I wonder what people in their 20’s would think of the show. Would it seem too retro? Would the black-and-white cause a disconnect? Would the comedy still hold up? I’d like to think it would. I’d like to think any generation would marvel at Art Carney demonstrating a golf swing, or Jackie Gleason learning to mambo.  Happily, my USC class seemed amused. 

If you’ve never seen THE HONEYMOONERS, or haven’t in a long time, I invite you to get the DVD collection or go on Netflix or Hulu and have your own Thanksgiving marathon. But JUST the classic 39 episodes. The collected sketches from Gleason’s variety show or the “lost episodes” don’t hold up. But those 39, for my money, are sitcom perfection. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Some of my favorite episodes are:

The Golfer
Better Living Through TV (the one I show to my USC class)
Oh, my Aching Back
The $99,000 Answer
Young at Heart
Unconventional Behavior
Hello, Mom

I bet as you read this I’m watching one of them right now.



Jim Grey said...

Best to you this turkey day, too!

Joe said...

Happy Thanksgiving Ken!

Scooter Schechtman said...

AntennaTV is showing the Turkey Drop episode of "WKRP" this afternoon. Maybe on Black Friday they'll show the Who concert one.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Supposedly The Flintstones cartoon series was modeled on The Honeymooners. Smart move.

About a dozen years ago, when my mother was turning 80, I sent out requests to scores of celebrities for signed photo I could include in a binder for her. I targeted TV and film stars she either watched or admired. I mailed my letters out on a Monday. Art Carney's photo arrived in my mailbox that Saturday with a personal note. Class act. Still waiting for Johnny Carson's.

Nothing better than football, family and food today. Perfect way to kick off the holiday season.

Gary said...

Hommina hommina hommina...

Jim Kerr said...

I'm watching the Honeymooners marathon right now on WPIX 11 in NYC!

Ben said...

"Who Wrote Suwanee River?"
Best set up and payback in TV history.

John E. Williams said...

Sadly, the Honeymooners are not available on Netflix OR Hulu OR Amazon Instant OR on any legitimate streaming site (though you CAN rent the crapfest modern film version starring Cedric the Entertainer, if self-torture is one of your Thanksgiving traditions.

Ken, maybe someday you can do a blog entry on why consumers are blocked from streaming some TV shows while others are so readily available (DICK VAN DYKE, for instance). Are the corporations so protective of profits that they can't bring themselves to let people enjoy their products without paying through the nose? Is it better to simply keep shows like THE HONEYMOONERS under lock and key, hoping that one day everyone will be happy to pay 100 bucks to watch an episode or something?

Happy Thanksgiving!

John E. Williams said...

P.S. A great deal of HONEYMOONERS is available on YouTube, in unauthorized form. So I understand the situation even less.

Nic said...

I was an adult before I developed an appreciation for THE HONEYMOONERS. I was aware of it when I was young, but knew it mainly as one of those old shows my grandfather watched while railing about how much better television used to be before it became a cesspool of filth and degeneracy. (Grandpa wasn't much of a fan of the Norman Lear era.)

What strikes me, watching the show recently after I got the blu rays, is what a good team Gleason and Carney make. How well they play off of each other. It's amazing to me how two actors can develop that kind of rapport.

Trivia: To the end of his life, Jackie Gleason claimed that the reason there was only a single season of the half-hour filmed HONEYMOONERS shows is because he realized that those 39 episodes were so good--so perfect--that they'd never be able to top them. So rather than try, he chose to end THE HONEYMOONERS as a solo series and return to his old variety format.

The thing is, that isn't true. THE HONEYMOONERS ran a poor second to Perry Como during most of its prime time run, and CBS didn't want a second season of it. They're the ones who insisted that Gleason go back to doing a variety show. But I suppose it was easier on Gleason's ego to tell himself otherwise.

Yeah, Hanna-Barbera patterened THE FLINTSTONES after THE HONEYMOONERS. Similarly, H-B's TOP CAT was patterned on THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and THE JETSONS on the old BLONDIE movies from the '40s.

Anonymous said...

There's a Jack Benny episode with Audrey Meadows as a guest. In it, Benny plays the Gleason role and Dennis Day plays Norton. It's cripplingly funny.

Thomas Mossman said...

I think one big reason the show holds up is that the emotional beats ring true. Ralph's enthusiasm and subsequent disappointment, Alice's sharp retorts and her quiet frustration, Norton's goofiness and his loyalty.

Most actors on most shows can't even fake it that well.

I am thirty, by the way.

Mike Schryver said...

As someone who grew up in the NY area and therefore knows the Classic 39 by heart, I was glad when Gleason released the "lost episode" sketches. I think many of them compare favorably to the filmed shows, though none of them have the polish of the 39.

Your guess about young people being turned off by B&W is supported by what's happened in the MST3K fan community. The episodes that the younger fans drool over are nearly all color movies, and most of the hilarious episodes built around B&W movies aren't acknowledged by the newer fans at all. I'm convinced that B&W is one of the main factors.

gottacook said...

I was first exposed to the Honeymooners through the mid- to late 1960s Gleason variety show, with Sheila MacRae as Alice. I never even knew about the "real" series until I got to college some years later. I must be in a fairly small cohort; today it's hard to imagine someone knowing about the Honeymooners separately from the 1955-56 series.

Anonymous said...

I'm 32 and watched the honeymooners all the time when I was younger, I loved it! I haven't seen it in years but still quote it regularly. Most people don't get the reference and just think I'm crazy.


Matthew said...

What amazes me is 39 episodes in one season! That's almost two seasons worth today. A high standard was maintained, too. Not every episode is out of the park, but overall, they held to a remarkably high average. I honestly don't know how writing staffs did it back then.

The one thing that consistently bugs me about THE HONEYMOONERS is that the set-ups for the fat jokes Alice hurled at Ralph when she was mad at him and was trying to bring him back down to earth tend to be too easy and too obvious. They'll give Ralph a line like, "Alice, I'm gonna be a big man around here." I mean, c'mon, how could Ralph not have anticipated Alice's come-back. Either that, or Ralph just had a masochistic streak.

Overall, though, THE HONEYMOONERS is one of the '50s comedies that still holds up for me today, along with Lucy, Phil Silvers, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and a handful of others.

DrBOP said...

So there are a couple of young women who work in an office below my dwelling. I often have a quick friendly "how 'ya doing today?" conversation with them as I'm leaving the building.
A little while ago, I needed to get going quickly, and I did the "And awaaay we go" Gleason wide-eyed, incredulous "the old dude has FINALLY lost it" looks.

Then I had to tell them who Jackie Gleason was and what the schtick was all about.

Then I had to explain what schtick meant.

Moulting as I type :+)

Wussell Rilson said...

Was never much of a Gleason fan but loved Art Carney and Audrey. Was certainly good of Gleason to give the laughs to Art. Trixie? Ok, can't say that I recall anything about her, tho!

Netflix offers Honeymooners on DVD rental only. For all the hype about streaming, they really don't do a whole lot of that.

Amazon will stream the Honeymooners for 2.99/ea. Nothing on Hulu's search.

Happy T-day to all.

Angelina James said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi, Ken. Have looked in vain for your annual "list of things I'm thankful for" post, which I always enjoy. I'm still thankful for this blog, though. :-) Hope you enjoyed the holiday.

Michael said...

I've read that Gleason got very upset when he heard that Warner Bros. was doing "The Honeymousers." Then he was shown one of them and said, they're great, make as many as you want.

Dixon said...

What did Jackie Gleason call nixtamalized corn?

Hominy, hominy, hominy...

thomas tucker said...

Wow, I had no idea it was only on for one season!

Tim G. said...

I enjoy Ken's writing immensely. It's a testament to him that I was willing to watch an episode of The Honeymooners. I gave "Better Living Through TV" a watch. Art Carney is really wonderful, but I cannot suffer through Jackie Gleason, a completely nonenjoyable performer. The dynamic between his character and Alice is just unpleasant. I get that we're supposed to understand the affection just below the surface but hammy threats of violence do nothing but bore me.
Thanks though for the recommendation. It gave me an appreciation for Art Carney who manages even in the bluster to achieve a kind of subtlety.

Johnny Walker said...

I find that pretty much find that all sitcoms take some time to get used to, especially older ones. Even when I rewatched all of Cheers I found it a struggle at the beginning -- it just seemed so slow. Crazy, I know. Watching them now they don't seem slow at all, but it just takes time to adjust -- and once you're adjusted it seems to stick.

With the Honeymooners I found it a real struggle to begin with. I wasn't ready for how unlikable the lead was going to be (the threats of physical violence were especially shocking to me), or how broad the neighbour was, or how much The Flintstones copied it. I gave it a few episodes and then I gave up.

A few months later I decided to give them another go, and lo, if they didn't suddenly seem funny. It was like my subconscious had been adjusting over that time. The characters seemed a lot more likeable, and I saw the threats of violence as they were intended; silly empty threats from a blowhard. The neighbour was hilarious.

I look forward to working my way through them.

Anonymous said...

Wishing you a Warm Holiday,
Yes I remember watching the comedy show growing up. Enjoyed it, yet, didn't have 9999 chooses like we do today. Thanks for the flash back will have to watch them with my granddaughter.
Becky M.A.

Michael said...

Tim G., I don't THINK this was on one of the 39 episodes, but one time Gleason missed his cue and Carney was alone on stage as Norton, live, with nothing to do. He went to the refrigerator and found an orange and spent three minutes getting ready to peel it. Gleason was off stage, saw what he was doing, and realized it was too great to interrupt.

iconoclast59 said...

I didn't like The Honeymooners at all when I was a kid back in the mid-60s. My parents were prone to loud, drunken arguments and the fights between Ralph and Alice hit a little too close to home -- scared the crap out of me. Now that I'm not so thin-skinned, I can better appreciate the great ensemble work and the genius that was Art Carney.