Three things: sketches on Jackie Gleason's early-50s variety show; it then became a sitcom. It was revived in the late 60s as musical-comedy sketches on Gleason's last series. The tales of the Kramdens (Ralph and Alice) and the Nortons (Ed and Trixie), NYC tenement-dwellers, it was one of the more popular shows in the first decade of US TV. Gleason and Art Carney's Ralph-and-Ed were the template for a series of Warner toons (they were mice), and for Fred and Barney.

Ralph: This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into.
Alice: The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.

One of the funniest and most influential shows in the history of American television. The Honeymooners centers around the blue-collar lives of rotund Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason), his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows), his best pal sewer worker Ed Norton (Art Carney), and Ed’s wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph). Almost every episode concerned Ralph’s attempts to get rich or somehow move up in life, usually with the help of Norton. Inevitably these schemes would fail, most often due to Ralph’s bravado and big mouth. Throughout all of this, Ralph and Alice would engage in epic verbal battles and aguements about him wasting his time on these crazy plans. For all the talk and hand wringing about The Simpsons being television’s first dysfunctional family, The Honeymooners easily had them beat with the Kramdens constant blow-ups.

Although most people only know of the “Classic 39” half-hour episodes that originally aired in 1955, The Honeymooners actually started out as a series of sketches on the Jackie Gleason-hosted Cavalcade of Stars on the now-defunct DuMont network. The characters of Ralph and Alice (who was then played by actress Pert Kelton) first appeared in a sketch on October 5, 1951, where they proceeded to get into a massive fight about the bread that Alice was baking. The sketch proved to be a big success and it became a weekly feature on the show, with much of the black humor centered on the insults that Ralph and Alice hurled at each other. It was also during this time that the Nortons were added into the mix.

In 1952, Jackie Gleason was lured away from the dying DuMont network over to CBS, were The Honeymooners were resurrected as part of the new Jackie Gleason Show. Audrey Meadows now played the role of Alice because Pert Kelton had been blacklisted. The sketches continued to grow in popularity and in length, sometimes even extending to almost 30 minutes. The sketch was doing so well that CBS decided to spin it off into a show of its own, and The Honeymooners debuted on October 1, 1955. The show was filmed live onto videotape once a week at Adelphi Theatre in New York in front of 1,000 spectators. The fact that Gleason didn’t believe in memorizing lines and the show was done live often meant that lots of ad-libbing was sometimes needed. Anytime that you see Ralph patting his stomach, it meant that Gleason had forgotten his lines and the rest of the cast should just play along.

Surprisingly, the show did not do very well in the ratings, and CBS cancelled it after one 39 episode season. Fans refer to these shows as the “Classic 39.” The Honeymooners were relegated back to recurring characters on the Jackie Gleason Show until 1957. In the 1960s the characters were revived again on a different show also entitled the Jackie Gleason Show, but this time the Honeymooners sketches also involved many song-and-dance numbers while Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean now played Alice and Trixie. In the 1970s there were also a series of four television specials centered on the Kramdens and Nortons celebrating various holidays. For these episodes, Audrey Meadows returned to the role of Alice.

The Honeymooners also managed to spawn two cartoon spin-offs. The first was a trio of Warner Brothers cartoons starring “The Honey-Mousers” where the main characters were now mice. Much more famous is The Flintstones, which transplanted the characters back to stone age times. While Fred and Barney were almost exact copies of their live-action counterparts, their two wives were no longer acid-tongued equals, but now stereotypical television housewives. The characters were moved out of the city and into stone age suburbia, and the formerly childless couples now had Pebbles and Bam-Bam.

In 1985, Jackie Gleason revealed that “lost” episodes of The Honeymooners had been “found” and were going to be made available for broadcast and sale. In reality, these were kinescopes of the original Honeymooners sketches that had aired in the early 1950s. Gleason had kept them as part of his personal collection and released them to the world to cash in on fans’ craving for more episodes outside of the classic 39. Although the shows were never really lost, the episodes are still credited as such.

The Honeymooners is easily one of my favorite shows of all-time, and along with I Love Lucy and The Abbot and Costello Show pretty much created the standard sitcom plot structure and cliches as we know them today. When watching any given episode, it’s easy to tell what’s going to happen next because they have been copied so many times since. But the fact still remains the same: Oftentimes The Honeymooners did it the first, and the best. From Ralph as the basis for Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson and countless sitcom fathers, to the tart Alice paving the way for Roseanne, to the loose-limbed Ed Norton as the prototype for Cosmo Kramer.

The key to the show is Ralph. The key to Ralph is that we love him. He is a fat, loud mouthed braggart and all of his screw-ups are his own fault, no matter how much he wants to blame it on Norton or Alice. But if you study Ralph you see a man living a life of not-so-quiet desperation. He’s stuck in a low pay job and living in a crappy, sparsely furnished apartment. Whenever it seems like he has a chance to move up in life, he always manages to blow it with his big mouth. While this may seem rather depressing, at its core, The Honeymooners is a sweet and positive show. For all of the sarcasm and venom that Ralph and Alice hurl at each other, they still remain very much in love. Almost every episode ends with Ralph apologizing for all the mean and stupid things he has done, admitting that the only things that he really wanted was to provide a better life for Alice. Finally, Ralph declares, “Baby, you’re the greatest” as they kiss and the credits roll.

This node was written in its entirety while watching old Honeymooners episodes at 12:30 a.m.

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