The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The Paley Center, unfortunately, doesn’t have rafters from which to hang the jerseys of television’s most important stars and shows. But if they did, there’s no question that very prominently displayed, right in the middle, would be a number 39 with “The Honeymooners” printed in all caps above it. The “classic 39” episodes of that show are untouchable, and will probably always be revered as one of the prime achievements in television comedy. Over the years there have been tributes and retrospectives, with DVD release after DVD release. However, one special, aired in November of 1990 to mark the 35th anniversary of the show, was significantly different in that it was hosted by Alice Kramden herself, Audrey Meadows. Additionally, this special also featured two sketches from Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars that had gone unaired since their original broadcast in the 1950s.
As we’ve seen previously in From the Archives, the first Honeymooners sketch had the same one-room apartment seen in every other incarnation of the show, and shared the same DNA, but featured a different actress as Alice Kramden, Pert Kelton, and a much more combative Ralph and Alice. The two Honeymooners sketches that appear in this special mark only the third and fourth times that Audrey Meadows appeared on stage with Jackie Gleason. While the characterizations of the couple do seem to more closely match their prototypes seen earlier, both Ralph and Alice do appear to soften a bit as they start to transform into the characters we know and love.
“The Quiz Show,” which was performed live on October 18, 1952, follows the same format as the later half-hour episodes, crammed into 11 minutes. The sketch opens with Ralph and Alice struggling to bring a number of cereal boxes into the house, each printed with a logo for Crinkley Cracks. Ralph, as usual, is upset at Alice, this time because she gave the wrong answer at the big quiz show. They argue back and forth, with Alice being just as abrasive Ralph. He says that he’ll sprinkle some of their lifetime supply of Crinkley Cracks on the front steps so he can hear when his mother-in-law is coming to visit. (Classic Ralph…) He then states that Alice’s mother and father would’ve been just as bad on the show since she’s been asking him the same question for forty years with no answer: “When are you going to get a job?”
Eventually Ralph lightheartedly threatens to hit her (which is the least lighthearted way to phrase that) and Alice storms off into the bedroom as upstairs neighbor Norton arrives, at the same time that the host of the radio program, a radio engineer, and the president of Crinkley Cracks shows up at the Kramden’s door. It turns out that Alice’s answer to the question was technically right, so that means Ralph has an opportunity to answer the big jackpot question that he wasn’t given the opportunity to answer earlier. Ralph’s face instantly drops when the news is delivered. His expression doesn’t change when the question is finally asked of him: “What did Marconi invent?” He answers “marcaroni (sic)” and just as abruptly as they entered, Norton and the radio crew leave. The orchestra begins to play a melancholy tune and a sheepish Ralph paces the room, apologizes to Alice. “I was just aggrivated because I wanted to win all this for you. It would take me a million years to get you these things…” And with that he tells her she’s the greatest and kisses her passionately as the audience applauds.
If you thought that “lost” episode was saccharine then wait until you hear about “The Lost Baby” performed live on October 11, 1952. In it Ralph finds a baby that was left on his bus and rather than take it to the foundling home he brings it to Alice. She’s skeptical, but agrees that they should feed it and doesn’t think it’s a great idea to give it the hamburger Ralph bought specifically for the child and goes out to buy some formula. Ralph moves to the window and shouts up to Norton who is simultaneously coming in through the door. “Come down here, Norton! You’ll never guess what I found!” “A baby!” “How’d you guess?” “It’s on the table!”
When the baby begins to cry they decide to feed it some milk, but without a rubber nipple for the milk bottle, the pair is flummoxed. Suddenly genius strikes Ralph: he runs to the bureau, removes a rubber glove, and fills it with milk. He holds the open part of the glove, grabs some scissors and cuts the tip off one of the fingers, causing the milk to explode all over Norton and himself. This light moment is interrupted when a detective knocks on the door for the baby. It turns out the mother who “is very poor” thought she was doing what was best for him but now, “after an hour’s separation she’s learned that life wasn’t worth living.” Ralph and Alice sadly return the baby. Left alone they reflect on the child’s absence and again the orchestra strikes up another sad song as Ralph tells Alice “I love kids. I’d like to have 20 of them. Bus drivers used to crowds anyway” Before closing with an optimistic turn on his usually threatening catchphrase: “One of these days, sweetheart. One of these days.”
In addition to these two rarities, this anniversary special also features interviews with the four principal actors on the show and a pair of writers reflecting on what made the show so important and enduring. Audrey Meadows claims that it’s the strength of the characters and the fact that there’s “a little bit of these characters in all of us.” Archival interview footage of Jackie Gleason from 1984 reflects on Ralph specifically, saying that “the poor soul hasn’t a hell of a lot of ability, but he keeps scheming to make he and Alice happy.” Art Carney refers to his character as a combination of Bronx, Brooklyn, and New Yorkese before adding, “Norton was a mental case, let’s face it.” Meadows thinks of Alice as “the first women’s-libber. As much as she loved her husband, she didn’t let him push her around.”
The writers Herbert Finn and Leonard Stern are given the least amount of screen time though they were the ones I was most interested in hearing from. They talk about the fact that Gleason did not want to rehearse the show to give it as spontaneous a feeling as he could. Stern describes the show as one that was filmed like a football game: Jackie was the ball and wherever he went, you stayed on him because one never knew exactly what he was going to do. On this point, Gleason said “It’s absolutely necessary if you’re doing comedy to do it in front of a live audience. Because they tell you your timing. They tell you how to time a joke or a move. Without an audience I haven’t seen anybody do it correctly.”
The Honeymooners Anniversary special is great if you want to see the original makers of the TV show talk about their work and what it meant to them to be a part of such an important television show. However, if you’re looking for incredibly insightful commentary on the process, this isn’t the place. The various Honeymooners sketches from the Cavalcade of Stars program have now been released on DVD and taken out of the archives so beyond serving as a nice highlight reel of moments and a place for chopped up interviews with the cast and crew, unfortunately this special doesn’t offer much. However, for somebody that hasn’t gotten to hang out with the Nortons and the Kramdens in a long time, seeing the cast reminisce about favorite moments from these 39 episodes is a welcome treat.