Alice Kramden is on the witness stand explaining to the judge her amazement at the fact that her husband Ralph, the bus driver, is suing his buddy Ed Norton, the sewer worker. She recalls how the two men had been best of pals since the day the Kramdens moved into their Brooklyn tenement apartment. "It's what you might call, your honor, a once-in-a-lifetime friendship," Alice says.
"Jackie Gleason Presents the Honeymooners Reunion," an NBC special at 8 tonight on Channel 4, is what you might call a twice-in-a-lifetime thrill. Having just trotted us through the end of World War II, television, the great wayback machine, now spirits us to the '50s, and to recorded versions of live "Honeymooners" sketches that have gone unseen for three decades. These two communications events are of divergent, but perhaps equal, momentousness.
Tonight's Gleason special is an enthralling, hilarious and sentimental occasion, hosted by Gleason, looking every rich inch the Park Avenue dandy (or "dan-dan-dandy," as he used to say), and featuring Audrey Meadows, who took over the role of Alice from the late Pert Kelton in 1952, when it was still dawn in a new day of American life. "The Honeymooners," which had started as a sketch on Gleason's "Cavalcade of Stars" program, became a regular feature of "The Jackie Gleason Show."
In the 1955-56 season, Gleason and company did "Honeymooners" as a half-hour filmed program. These 39 episodes have been in syndication ever since. But Gleason recently revealed that kinescopes of the live sketches have been in hiding all these years, a revelatory announcement that might be compared to the discovery of a 10th Beethoven symphony or the manuscript to "Son of Hamlet" by Shakespeare.
Tonight is the first broadcast installment of the payoff: an hour of excerpts from sketches that had us not just laughing back then, but roaring with laughter -- quaking with it, in fact. Gleason's genius, or one facet of it, was in combining the realist setting of the miserable Kramden flat with bravura comedy playing so broad that it theoretically never should have worked on television, the "cool" medium. Smaller-than-life met bigger-than-life. The synthesis was and is exhilaratingly bold.
The "Reunion" sketch excerpts are divided along loosely thematic lines: first, Ralph's attempts to lose weight, which were as futile as most of his attempts to do anything, like rise out of poverty. "Let's face it, Alice, you're living off the fat of the land," Ralph brays to his wife. "Let's face it, Ralph," she replies. "You are the fat of the land."
There is a collection of Gleason's famous pain takes; arguments between Ralph and Alice, which Alice always won; a sequence devoted to Art Carney's imperishable portrayal of Norton ("one of the finest actors you'll ever see," Gleason says); a few of Ralph's get-rich-quick schemes; a visit to Ralph's and Ed's perennially bankrupt lodge, the International Order of Loyal Raccoons; and so on. Long before "Bloopers" were manufactured for public consumption, we are reminded in another sequence, Gleason and Carney had to deal with stuck doors, stubborn props and, yes, an open fly, right there on live TV, while a tickled nation watched.
In the course of this there are oddities and surprises that will be hugely gratifying to "Honeymooner" loyalists. One day the door of the apartment opens and there stands Jack Benny, in the role of the Kramdens' Scroogerly landlord. In another clip, Ralph and Ed stage a heated debate on the topic of who is funnier, Jackie Gleason or Art Carney. As a finale, we see again a long-forgotten duet sung by Ralph and Alice: "One of These Days."
Producer-director Andrew Solt, who specializes in raids on the past, did an affectionate and intelligent job of organization. There is a greater emphasis on bombast than one might like, but you have to remember the commercial demands of modern-day breakneck TV. Montages of catch phrases that "The Honeymooners" contributed to the colloquialism of the '50s work especially well: a "pow, right in the kisser" montage, a "baby, you're the greatest" montage, and a beautifully edited opening sequence in which Ralph dances to "Jeepers Creepers" and ineffectually warns his wife, "Don't steam me, Alice; don't steam me. 'Cause I'm already steamed!"
Executives of the CBS Television Network, which each year descends to new lows as a cultural institution, ought to feel humiliated by the fact that this special starring Gleason, so long a CBS property, is appearing on another network (really, maybe Ted Turner wouldn't be such a giant step down for once-proud CBS after all). Do the three networks stand for anything distinctive anymore? All three just stand for "excess profits, no matter what" (NBC put on a 90-minute wrestling show Saturday night). The Gleason clips bring back good old days in more ways than one.
In later video years, Gleason insisted that everything he did be taped in Miami, as were his segments for this special. What comes through on the old "Honeymooners" clips is a wonderfully hectic sense of New York, and of its first and last great television decade (TV production moved to Hollywood, and that was that). When the Golden Age of Television is invoked, people invariably think of drama anthologies, but these Gleason programs were as golden as anything else. The clips are infused with a sense of theater and a sense of event. Brave pioneer clowns like Gleason and Milton Berle (both now being honored with Museum of Broadcasting retrospectives in New York) split the atom in full view of the whole country week after rambunctious week.
Not everything about tonight's special is encouraging. When Meadows recalls with Gleason that for the "Honeymooners" there was no canned laughter, and says, "We got laughs the old-fashioned way; we earned them," the audience response to that line is artificially "sweetened," as telltale as a sign could be. In addition, though the clips are fun, this material will be much more enjoyable when it can be seen in its original length, so that we get not just explosions, but the lighting of fuses. Showtime, the pay-cable network, will begin exhibiting "Honeymooners" in its natural state this summer.
Solt does manage to suggest the tenderness that lurks beneath the bombast in the Ralph-Alice dialectic. Those of us who were children in the '50s may remember having been less amused by "The Honeymooners" than frightened by it, because Ralph and Alice fought with such regularity and intensity (the live sketches are more rough-edged and raucous than the refined filmed episodes). Now perhaps we can see in the portrayal what our parents saw then -- brutal truths about the difficulties of marriage and celebration of the glories inherent in this enduring form of partnership.
If "The Honeymooners" had been only a funny comedy, after all, its place in popular culture would not be so exalted as it is. Nor would tonight's NBC special be quite such a spellbinding journey through time.