Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Thanksgiving tradition: THE HONEYMOONERS

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.

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.

If you’ve never seen THE HONEYMOONERS, or haven’t in a long time, I invite you to get the DVD collection 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
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.


Mel Ryane said...

"Hellooo, ball!"

Still makes me wet my pants.

Craig Zablo said...

I have the set as well. Maybe I should start a new tradition here... hmmm...

I can tell you that my sons [23 and 20] enjoy The Honeymooners. So does my nephew. Maybe it's because I "trained" 'em early.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Troy said...

Don't mean to be a downer (especially on Thanksgiving), but since you asked...

"THE HONEYMOONERS" already seemed "retro" to me when I saw them in the 60's as a kid.

I've got nothing against B&W. In fact, one of my "favorite all-time sitcoms" was "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW", which, to me, holds up much better.

Maybe it's more a matter of personal taste...

...or maybe - maybe probably - it's more whatever sitcom first impressed you as a kid.

For you, growing up in the 50's, it was "THE HONEYMOONERS".

For me, growing up in the 60's, it was "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW".

For kids growing up in the 2010's... uh...

Hmmm, you know, "THE HONEYMOONERS" is looking better and better.


John said...

The last 15 minutes of "Better Living Through TV" to me is still the funniest 15 minutes in the history of television (made even better by the fact that the 'spear fishing' gag was ad-libbed on the spot when the handy housewife helper broke during the scene). Plus, since it deals with something that's still relevant 54 years down the line -- crappy late-night TV ads for cheap products -- kids today can still relate (even if it's too un-PC to show Charlie Chan movies overnight anymore).

Johnny Hoboken said...

I agree that the Honeymooners is one of the greatest television shows of all times. It ranks up on my list of favorite sitcoms, along with others like Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore, and more recent shows like The Office, Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.

When the "Lost Episodes" were released, I thought they were fantastic! And then I watched them. I realized that they were not nearly as good as the Original 39. I was upset that the nightly episodes shown on TV were adding the Lost Episodes into the rotation. Like you, I was very happy to get the Original 39 on DVD.

As for people in their 20s, well, I would ask them which current shows they prefer. For example, if they think "How I Met Your Mother" is better than The Office and 30 Rock, they are probably a lost cause and will not appreciate the genius of The Honeymooners.

Believe it or not, the verification word that I have to type to send this post is "loolo"... and for some reason, I am reminded of Ed Norton sleepwalking.

Xavier said...

I'm 27 years old and I've been watching The Honeymooners for as long as I could remember. As a kid I used to love watching the marathon every New Year's Day on WPIX(NY).

Side note: The guy playing the executive in the Geico gecko commercials is Art Carney's son.

Anonymous said...

I think most 20somethings would be calling the PC police on Ralph Kramden for the threats he made toward Alice and wonder how a show like that ever got on the air.

And since it's almost Friday, here's a question for you (with unavoidably ponderous phrasing): It seems there's some kind of unwritten law of sitcoms that once the youngest kid of the show's family reaches the age of the oldest kid at the start of the series (give or take a year), it's time to cancel the show...or add another set of twins. Am I imagining this or is it real?

Rick Whelan said...

Whatever happened to your planned movie about the Brill building geniuses (like Ellie Greenwich)who wrote most of the rock 'n roll songs of the early 60s? I'd love to see their story told!

Randy said...

My family was so dysfunctional that I thought "The Honeymooners" was a documentary!

Because of Gleason's 20+ year loyalty to his announcer/warm-up, there's a chapter about their work together in "Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time."

Apparently the original variety show's sketch was spun off as a half-hour, weekly sitcom sponsored by Buick in a contract that totaled
$14 million for a two-year run of 78 episodes. After the first
season, Gleason halted production, telling CBS “the excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it.”

He told biographer James Bacon, “Everybody thought I was nuts turning down $7 million bucks to film that second year of my contract. I know CBS and Buick thought I had gotten a better offer someplace else. They offered me more money and I turned it down. They wouldn’t believe me when I said we couldn’t come
up with the same high quality of scripts that second year. It was that simple.”

Although the show was for CBS, Gleason had creative control, and chose to returned to his former home, DuMont, to utilize their new Electronicam film/video piggyback system. While that gave him film (instead of kinescopes)that could rerun forever, he sold his ownership to MCA in 1957 - just 2 years later - to MCA for a mere $2 million.

The Buick billboards were edited out, and the generic open and close were pasted onto those 39 shows.

From another source: Audrey Meadows was the only performer to receive residuals - her brother negotiated her deal. He saw the film cameras, anticipated subsequent airings, and met no resistance when he added reuse fees to her contract.

Obviously, I love the show! And yes, it was the best. sitcom. ever. Ken, someday I'd love you to explore WHY more fully in your blog.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

Nothing's too juvenile for me to laugh at once (I was a fan of the Ernest movies), but what holds up best for me tends to be either the sort of smart, dialog driven stuff Ken writes, or the comedy that's built around a pathos so painful that you're grateful for every laugh. I never saw anyone do the heart-rending style better than Jackie Gleason (which isn't to slight Laurel & Hardy or others who also did it brilliantly. I hope someday I'll look back and think Ricky Gervais belongs in that group too.)

I may not get as many laughs out of The Honeymooners as I used to, but that doesn't mean I enjoy it any less. And I'm sure I appreciate its genius more the 100th time than I did the first.

If I had to pick one episode, it might be The $99,000 Answer.


WV - "putrole": what you'd find in Amy Winehouse's gas tank.

Anonymous said...

Hi, guys. As much as I love the Honeymooners, and Dick Van Dyke, I hope you'll understand the part of my heart reserved for "Vitameatavegamin".


Larry said...

My favorite moment on the show is when Ralph's waiting to meet an IRS agent. He keeps repeating how he's calm and cool. Then the tax collector comes in from behind and Gleason jumps up and shouts "Hey there!" Knowing it's coming doesn't make it any less funny.

My word verificatoin is "ingiumpo"--an Italian description of what Gleason does in the scene above.

Roger Owen Green said...

I tend to agree with Troy about the honeymooners, and Dick van Dyke, for that matter. Even as a kid in the 1960s, I found Ralph too loud and potentially abusive. Norton, on the other hand, was a hoot.

Guy in his 20s said...

Seems unbelievably slow and archaic. It's not the black and white or the retro aspect. It just doesn't make me laugh. Especially compared to a modern show like "It's Always Sunny." It's like comparing "Laugh In" to "Human Giant." Or Henny Youngman to Louis CK. For me, the old stuff doesn't hold up and is more of a time capsule than actual entertainment.

Guy Nicolucci said...

Please click to see a rare photo of Jackie Gleason with some other guy standing in for Art Carney in a remake of the golf episode.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm with you, Ken. It's the best sitcom ever. Hard to pick a favorite, but the $99,000 Answer (if that's the one where he knows all the pop music songs) was great. And as soon as I say that I think of five more I could name.
Gleason used to have a home in upstate New York close to where I lived. It was called The Round House because supposedly everything in it was circular. I don't know because we couldn't see it from the road.

Unknown said...

I'm 22 and LOVE The Honeymooners. Just because something is old and in black and white doesn't make me shy away from it. I can't speak for my peers, but quite frankly, most of them don't know a good thing when they see it.

Anonymous said...

As to Ralph being "non-PC" because of his "threats" to Alice, only to PC folk with no heart and soul.
The beauty of that show and Gleason was the threat was obviously ALL bluff, he would never hurt a hair on Alice, and furthermore, the Alice character never for a second took it as a threat. It was just bluster, "to the MOON, Alice"...

It's about as silly as calling him a chauvanist for bragging he was "King of the Castle"...he never was and knew it. Alice for those times was practically a feminist. She certainly ran things.

Paul Duca said...

Cap'n Bob...I read about Gleason's house. From an overhead view it looked like a keyhole--presumably
the type that's round at the top and flared at the bottom. It cost $650.000 pre-inflation dollars and had only one bedroom (the round part of the keyhole). When Gleason relocated to Florida, CBS took possession of the residence for several years until a buyer could be found.

Smacklab said...


I'm 33 now but when I was a kid (from like 11) I loved the honeymooners... I think my folks thought it was the threats of abuse were a little old and they tried to steer me away (but I was smart enough to know that they were idle)... but how could I not love it!

Thanks for reminding me of my youth in front of the tube...
I got to go get that box set

LinGin said...

Randy --

Thanks for solving a minor mystery for me. I never understood why my uncle had a picture of himself with Jackie Gleason. He was a fairly big-time Buick dealer and until now I didn't know that Buick had sponsored the show.

Gary W said...

Randy West’s account on why Gleason discontinued “The Honeymooners” isn’t complete. While he did have concern over the quality of the episodes – it had more to do with future syndication. He was impressed that “I Love Lucy” was already being shown on CBS-TV in reruns and he wanted to do the same thing. That was his main reason for doing “The Honeymooners” – as a stand alone for syndication. Yes, he had a two-year deal with Buick (one year renewable).

He only wanted to do the show – live. The Dumont system was the only way Gleason could record the show for syndication. He loved doing it live – because he loved to feed off the audience. The Dumont “Electroncam” system was the only way to produce the show – and maintain the quality of a live show on film.

Second – perspective. Gleason had an hour on Saturday nights That was his deal with CBS. The other 30-minutes was Gleason’s “Stage Show” – a variety show conducted by the Dorsey Brothers. That was a big problem, because his hour was up against Perry Como’s show on NBC. Guess what? “Stage Show” got clobbered in the ratings while “The Honeymooners” held up. All-in-all – the hour lost to Como – and Gleason would have none of that. It was a big factor in his decision-making. He’d rather have an hour variety show that was tops in the ratings (as he had before the 1955 “Honeymooners” season).

There was so much concern for the audience erosion – that midway during the season – CBS flipped the shows – so “The Honeymooners” would begin at 8pm instead of 8:30am. That pissed-off Gleason. Hopefully the ratings would follow through the hour – but they didn’t. Finally - Gleason had enough and decided to go back to the variety hour format. The move could have put “The Honeymooners” in ratings jeopardy – effecting future syndication. He was not happy.

Sometimes – it all gets lost for the easier explanation. Jackie Gleason had a huge ego.

In 1957, Gleason sold all 39 episodes to syndication – for $1.5 million (not $2 million).

All of this came from accounts of the day – and not memory or a latter interview.

Another interesting note: The Dumont “Electroncam” system was doomed almost from the start. Ironically in early 1956 – Ampex demonstrated the first videotape machine at a broadcasters’s show. The rest is pop history… Gary West –

Kirk said...

I know The Honeymooners had some top-notch writers, including one that went on to produce Get Smart, but for me it was the acting that made the show so funny. What Gleason could do just with his eyes was amazing.

Chalmers said...

Larry, the IRS episode is titled "The Worry Wart" and it's my favorite, too.

I never stop laughing at the scene were Ralph's staying up late in the apartment fretting and trying to find the error in his taxes. Meanwhile, Norton is trying to help, in between cadging food. This is one of my favorite exchanges:

Alice: "Don't worry. Lots of people get letters from the IRS."
Norton: "Sure, the jails are full of 'em!"

Dan in Missouri said...

The Classic 39 Honeymooners were great. They ARE great. But several comedy shows from the same era deserve more credit than they generally get from the public. The Jack Benny Program and Burns and Allen were wonderful shows that really stood out in their day and hold up very well now. Both series were on for far more than 39 episodes yet they all were well done.
Gleason's round house, by the way, was in Peekskill, NY. His production company for a while was called Peekskill Productions.

Vurrr said...

I know an 8-year-old girl who loves the show. (Of course, she also loves 'iCarly.'"

Buttermilk Sky said...

I believe James Wolcott called this show "the American kabuki," a perfect description of Gleason's wildly stylized facial expressions and vocalizations. And the fat-guy-with-improbably-hot-wife sitcom is still with us, just not as well done.

There's a cable channel called THIS that shows Charlie Chan movies in the middle of the day.

jonny said...

thought you might like this ... oh pal of mine ...

J\/\/ said...

Dismissed this whole writing when I saw "And Joyce Randolph was ok, too." and that the Lost Episodes "don't hold up."

Go back to playing football with Uncle Ed and stay away from "The Honeymooners."