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.)
When people talk about The Honeymooners TV show, generally they’re referring to “The Classic 39,” which were the full half-hour shows in which Ralph and Norton dress as robots, buy TV sets, and find new ways to get rich quick. Prior to the stand-alone show, the characters appeared in short sketches on The Cavalcade of Stars program (I examined the very first of these sketches as one of the first articles on From the Archives.) Then after the last of those original 39 episodes aired in 1956, the cast would reunite (with occasional replacements for Ralph and Norton’s wives, depending on availability) on Jackie Gleason’s various programs and specials, until 1978. Today we look back at the third to last appearance of The Honeymooners, in the form of a 1977 Christmas special.
The special, which aired on November 28, 1977, and was broadcast live from Gleason’s favorite city: Miami, Florida. In it a 61-year-old Ralph Kramden, now completely grey and sporting a pencil thin mustache, is still working as a bus driver in Brooklyn and is counting down the days until his and Alice’s vacation in Miami. In the bus depot’s locker room, he is joined by Norton who is also looking…older. (As I watched this in the Paley Center, one of the employees was watching over my shoulder and remarked, “Art Carney is heavier than Gleason!”) This classic duo is soon joined by Ralph’s boss, Mr. Marshall, played by guest star Gale Gordon, who is best known as a guy who appeared on pretty much every TV show Lucille Ball ever did. (In fact, for all you supernerds out there, we learn that Lucy and The Honeymooners exist in the same universe when Mr. Marshall says of Norton: “I once had a secretary that reminds me of him. Name of Lucy. REAL screwball.”)
In one of the stranger sitcom turns I can think of, Mr. Marshall’s wife runs a charity so that the “kitty cats of the city can have a Merry Christmas” and asks Ralph if he knows of someone who could direct the charity’s production of Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Sensing a way to get into some crazy hijinks, Ralph takes the job, with the intention of getting on the boss’ good side to get a promotion, despite working in the exact same job since 1955.
Later, in the classic Kramden apartment, Alice and Ralph are fighting in the wee hours of the night. By taking the job, Ralph has effectively cancelled their vacation to Miami, and Alice is livid, as is the rest of the apartment building who can’t sleep due to their bickering. After a full seven minutes of an argument that goes around and around in circles, and features some subdued physical humor involving Ralph trying to open the cot so he can sleep in the living room, Alice explains the true reason she’s angry in a surprisingly sincere moment. She tells him that if he had come home and made the decision to direct the play with her, it would have been fine because “your career comes first. But when you came in and told me, I saw that our marriage lacked the substance to hold it together: the understanding, the sensitivity, the trust, and the love. And I want to tell you something, Ralph. It’s very sad to discover that after 25 years.”
This incredibly sincere moment, played beautifully by Audrey Meadows, was so heart-wrenching that for a split-second I forgot I was watching a Christmas special, and assumed that the remainder of the episode would be about the Kramden’s divorce. While, I recognize that’s ridiculous, I certainly wasn’t expecting what actually did happen next. First, Norton breaks the tension by blowing his nose in a clownish fashion (okay, fine) and then Ralph goes right back into “shut up Alice, I did this for us” mode. It was a bit of a bummer to say the least. The scene resolves with Ralph promising Alice the finest vacation she’s ever seen if he can direct this play, and in the next scene we learn that Alice and Norton’s wife Trixie (played here by Jane Keane) are not only on board with the play, they are now starring in it with Ralph and Norton. In this same conversation we learn that Ralph has rewritten A Christmas Carol, and as they rehearse, Ralph reveals that in order to pay for the advertisements he’s included more than a few plugs for local businesses into the dialogue. Nothing else really happens in this scene, but it goes on for ten more minutes.
Finally, it’s time for the play, with Ralph as Bob Cratchit, Alice as Mother Cratchit, Trixie as their teenage daughter, and Norton in the dual role of Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge. For some reason, Ralph’s rewritten version of A Christmas Carol focuses solely on the Cratchit family for the entire play, cuts out all of the ghosts, Scrooge’s change of heart, and the majority of Scrooge’s appearances in the play. Here’s the entire plot of Kramden’s A Christmas Carol: The Cratchit family is poor. They hope Scrooge doesn’t evict them. Once Norton remembers to change his costume, Scrooge shows up and evicts them. The Cratchit family is poor. Once Norton remembers to change his costume again, Tiny Tim and the rest of the family are out on the street. Then, once the stagehands actually hear the cue Ralph is shouting, an insane amount of fake snow is dumped on them. The end. I don’t think that Ralph actually read the script for the play he was to direct, because other than the character names, Dicken’s didn’t really have a hand in this production.
Despite the deviations from the source material, apparently the play is a huge success, and as a reward Mr. Marshall and his wife reward Ralph… with a pet cat. Also she’s going to have kittens soon! A very sheepish Ralph apologizes to Alice, but is interrupted by a returning Marshall who delivers one of the more insane lines in television history: “In the excitement of giving you my wife’s cat, a minor thing slipped my mind: I’m promoting you to traffic manager.”
Okay, so look. This special is really bad. The characters move from shoehorned in catchphrase to catchphrase. They’re all just a little too old to still be playing the same characters in the exact same world. Alice and Ralph still have the exact same refrigerator that was outdated when the had it in the 1950s. And we’re working with twenty minutes worth of plot stretched out to an hour, resulting in some sequences that really drag.
Ralph and Norton are classic characters that delighted audiences for years, but there comes a time when you’ve stopped doing something original and you’re just retreading the same jokes you did 25 years ago. Frequently these later-day color Honeymooners episodes are referred to as “lost” episodes. This particular special does not appear to have ever been released on DVD, so if you ask me, maybe it’s best that this one stays lost.