The Kramdens and the Nortons are mere shadows of their former selves, but then, they did cast giant shadows. Jackie Gleason's blue-collar comedy, "The Honeymooners," has survived for nearly a quarter century in reruns because its humor is as fundamental as Shakespeare's or Chaplin's.
But a newly mounted revival, taped recently in Atlantic City for airing as an ABC special Sunday night at 8 on Channel 7, finds the quality of writing drastically lower than in the original and all the actors reduced to imitations of former glories. They bring to mind "The Flintstones" -- Hanna-Bar-Bera's stone-age cartoon version of the show -- more than they do "The Honeymooners."
Still, you have to admire a one-hour prime-time show that uses only one set (basically the same one of 25 years ago) and only five actors, three of them from the original cast. Who but Gleason could find a network not only anxious to carry such a program but willing to schedule it on the heaviest viewing night of the week?
It's too bad the script, by Walter Stone and Robert Hilliard, betrays the reigning good vibrations of the project. As on a previous "Honeymooners" special, the introduction of sex jokes into the lives of the Kramdens and the Nortons seems especially misguided. Gleason looks more like the wealthy dandy that he is than a bus driver, Art Carney is now nearly as bulky as Gleason in the role of once-svelte sewer worker Ed Norton, and Audrey Meadows has lost the mysteriously attractive air of abiding drudge that made her Alice Kramden such a tough and authentic heroine.
In the course of an unspeakably flimsy plot about Ralph buying batches of lottery tickets with everyone else's money, a few jokes from past shows are picked up whole and resurrected. Alice tells Ralph he ought to have his head examined. Ralph says she can fly in doctors from all over the world to examine his head if she wants to, "but you know what they'll find there, Alice? Nothing."
The characters have all lost their credibility, and yet a residual valor hangs over the enterprise; it is a forgivable travesty, and such rituals as Alice's closing lecture to Ralph, Ralph's sheepish apology, and a big smacker after "Baby, you're the greatest," veritably clobber responsive chords that remain ripe for the striking.