Defines Situation Comedy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Honeymooners expanded the parameters of situation comedy, accelerated the practice of syndication, and became one of the major artistic achievements of television history.

Summary of Event

In 1955, Jackie Gleason, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;comedic programming (CBS), and the Buick Buick automobile company entered into a $14 million deal that would make television history and produce an enduring landmark of American culture. The deal created headline news immediately, not only because of the amount of money involved but also because Buick dumped Milton Berle Berle, Milton , a popular variety-show host known as Mr. Television, rather unceremoniously in order to sponsor the up-and-coming Gleason. Also notable was the nature of the shows that Gleason was to produce for Buick and CBS. Honeymooners, The (television program) Situation comedies Television;comedies Comedies;television [kw]Honeymooners Defines Situation Comedy, The (Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956) [kw]Situation Comedy, The Honeymooners Defines (Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956) [kw]Comedy, The Honeymooners Defines Situation (Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956) Honeymooners, The (television program) Situation comedies Television;comedies Comedies;television [g]North America;Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956: The Honeymooners Defines Situation Comedy[04970] [g]United States;Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956: The Honeymooners Defines Situation Comedy[04970] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 1, 1955-Sept., 1956: The Honeymooners Defines Situation Comedy[04970] Gleason, Jackie Carney, Art Meadows, Audrey

The first half hour of each weekly program would be in the standard variety Television;variety shows Variety shows, television format of the show Gleason had been doing for CBS since 1952 and would feature singing, dancing, and performances by guest stars. The second half hour would be devoted to a situation comedy based on skits Gleason and his staff had developed over the preceding three years. Entitled The Honeymooners, the situation comedy, or sitcom, would feature the trials, tribulations, and misadventures of a Brooklyn bus driver named Ralph Kramden; his wife, Alice; and their best friends and neighbors, the Nortons. This second show would be filmed by means of an innovative technique and with the express purpose of syndication. Though the experiment lasted only one season (thirty-nine shows), it was long enough to make Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton household names for generations to come.

The Honeymooners was largely the brainchild of Gleason himself and reflected many of his personal experiences. During his formative years, Gleason lived in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in an apartment building much like the one inhabited by the Kramdens and the Nortons. Gleason’s family background was not so ordinary as that of his fictional characters, however; when Gleason was nine, his father had simply disappeared. Partly as a result, his mother’s health went into decline, and she died shortly after Gleason turned nineteen. By that time, Gleason had decided on a career in show business.

Starting as a comedic master of ceremonies in local theaters and clubs, he advanced, in time, to a film career, which, however, proved disappointing. His first major break came in 1949, when he took over William Bendix’s Bendix, William radio role as Chester A. Riley in The Life of Riley. Life of Riley, The (radio program) Like Ralph Kramden, Chester Riley was Brooklyn born, minimally educated, and given to conspicuously male sorts of foolishness. Gleason played the role with un-Gleason-like (and un-Kramden-like) restraint, but he was quietly effective. The show, however, was quickly canceled. (Bendix did ultimately become available for the television version of The Life of Riley, which was moderately successful.)

While performing at a club date, Gleason came to the attention of the short-lived DuMont Television Network DuMont Television Network , and in 1950 he was asked to host its Cavalcade of Stars Cavalcade of Stars (television program) program. During the two years that he did the show, he began to invent some of the characters he would play during his glory years on CBS, including, briefly, a precursor to Ralph Kramden. He also worked with Art Carney, who would immortalize Ed Norton, for the first time. In 1952, Gleason got his own show on CBS. It was during this time that The Honeymooners was conceived, developed, and cultivated to a point where, in the eyes of Gleason and his staff, it deserved a life of its own. It also was the period during which Audrey Meadows came on board to portray Alice Kramden.

With the 1955 contract, The Honeymooners became a feature in its own right. Gleason’s goal was to create weekly masterpieces of situation comedy, using the already-established characters of the original skits. A top-notch writing team was brought in to produce fresh scripts, which sometimes built on previous material. On the other hand, Gleason was notoriously hesitant about rehearsing material (he thought it took the spontaneous wit out of his performance) and was apt to improvise at a moment’s notice. His costars knew what to expect and grew confident in their ability to work within this loose environment, largely because the show’s characters were so well developed.

Whether one’s lines were entirely correct was less important than staying in character—and the characters were unforgettable: Ralph, fat, temperamental, sulky, and lovable; Alice, patient but willing to stand toe-to-toe with Ralph anytime; Ed Norton, Ralph’s loyal, skinny friend with an endless appetite and a talent for driving Ralph up the wall; and, to a lesser extent, Trixie Norton (played by Joyce Randolph Randolph, Joyce , who never played the central role or got many of the punch lines, but who nevertheless had her part down pat). Ralph Kramden, in particular, was a rich combination of ego, excess, affection, and, in his own manner, loyalty. To many observers, such a description might seem an accurate reflection of Gleason himself. Unlike Gleason, however, Kramden managed to preserve a stable (if occasionally tumultuous) marriage, rarely drank, and never managed to hatch the scheme that would make him fabulously wealthy.

The ingredients, then, were all there: a creative genius—Gleason—at the helm, good story lines, and actors who had a rapport with one another and a breathtakingly sure sense of their respective characters. The first show was broadcast on October 1, 1955, and, suitably enough, involved a plot in which Alice tries to get Ralph to buy a television set. The show ran through June 2, 1956, before reruns commenced for the summer season. The last three of the original thirty-nine episodes were broadcast in September, 1956, before the Gleason show returned to its original variety format. The shift took place partly because of less-than-spectacular ratings, but mostly because Gleason feared that the quality of the show would inevitably erode if production continued for another season.

Episodes of The Honeymooners continued to be made and broadcast on an occasional basis until 1966, when hour-long episodes of the series became a regular feature of Gleason’s variety show. (Some of these episodes, minus Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, also became available for syndication, but the later versions proved less popular than the originals.) CBS canceled The Jackie Gleason Show after the 1970 season, but episodes of The Honeymooners continued to be produced as specials, including musical versions, in the mid-1970’s. In 1984, a number of early sketches of the show, recorded by the relatively primitive means of the times, were released as “lost” episodes. Though these early sketches evoke nostalgia and are of historical interest, they do not measure up to the thirty-nine episodes of the program’s first feature run. It is these latter shows, filmed before live audiences by means of the innovative “electronicam,” that made The Honeymooners enduringly popular.

Significance

The impact of The Honeymooners can be gauged along a number of lines. For the show’s stars, the program provided the centerpiece of their careers. Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, in particular, are remembered almost exclusively for their work on the show. While Art Carney and Jackie Gleason went on to have notable careers apart from the show, they, too, remain closely identified with each other and with the characters they portrayed so poignantly. For Gleason, in particular, The Honeymooners provided the high note of a dynamic but sometimes disappointing career. It was, moreover, an achievement of lasting power, as the show’s broadcast history and continuing popularity and critical acclaim indicate.

The Honeymooners also had an important effect on subsequent television productions. On the most apparent level, the show has often been imitated and parodied. For example, the families in The Flintstones, an animated comedy originally produced in 1960, are based on the Kramdens and Nortons. Less obvious, perhaps, is the role played by the The Honeymooners in laying the foundation for a particular genre of situation comedy.

While all situation comedies explore personal relationships, they do so in a variety of ways. Some, such as Mork and Mindy, Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and even, in some of its incarnations, The Lucy Show, are predominantly farcical. Some, including Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, My Three Sons, and The Cosby Show, are essentially idealized depictions of family life. The Honeymooners falls into a third category that might be called “tempered realism.” Realism;television The drabness of the Kramdens’ apartment, set on a real street in Brooklyn and filled with real people, illustrates not only some of the quirks of working-class America but also the fact that such a class exists—something the more sanitized situation comedies often failed to reveal.

This realism is tempered, however, by The Honeymooners’ sentimental affirmation of bonds. Ralph always learns his lesson and ends many episodes by telling Alice that she is “the greatest.” Likewise, though Ralph is always threatening to send Alice “to the moon,” he never lays an angry hand on her. Thus, the irony of the show’s title and of its beautifully romantic (even sentimental) theme music—written by Gleason himself—is not a bitter one. The program accepts reality and shows how it can be transformed, tolerated, or perhaps simply survived. This realism opened the way for such shows as All in the Family All in the Family (television program) (which replaced the Gleason variety show and which was written by one of The Honeymooners’ writers) and other topical 1970’s comedies. While the show was not used as a political vehicle, it did present a less upwardly mobile side of American society than did most programs of the time. (On the other hand, both The Honeymooners and All in the Family avoided problems of ethnic identity by making their central characters ethnically unidentifiable.)

The Honeymooners also helped establish the great American pastime of watching reruns. Television;syndication Some shows (for example, Star Trek) would be long forgotten if not for their second lives in syndication. Syndication allows viewers to watch shows they might otherwise have missed and also presents an alternative to current programming. On the performer’s side, residuals—the income generated by syndication income—is often quite lucrative. (Gleason, however, sold the syndication rights to The Honeymooners for a relatively low figure, two million dollars, and the show’s performers did not have generous residual rights in their contracts.)

Through its long run and its even longer life in syndication, The Honeymooners became a cultural landmark. The program influenced the evolution of television programming and gave birth to characters who became American archetypes. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of The Honeymooners, however, is the show itself, which represents American television at its artistic and humorous best. Honeymooners, The (television program) Situation comedies Television;comedies Comedies;television

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bishop, Jim. The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956. A surprisingly frank portrait of Gleason composed during The Honeymooners’ heyday. Used as a primary source by later biographers, this book provides an early indication of Gleason’s depth and complexity, qualities clearly reflected in the program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliot, Marc. American Television: The Official Art of the Artificial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Elliot’s book, a chronological summary of every television series from the early days of television to 1976, helps put The Honeymooners into a larger context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henry, William A., III. The Great One: The Life and Times of Jackie Gleason. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1992. A commentator on popular culture for Time magazine, Henry offers a critical biography of Gleason, focusing equally on his enormous talents and his self-destructive excesses. More detailed and analytic than the Weatherby book listed below.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCrohan, Donna.“The Honeymooners’ ” Companion: The Kramdens and Nortons Revisited. New York: Workman, 1978. A tribute by a longtime fan, this book provides abundant information on the genesis of The Honeymooners; its golden period, when the classic thirty-nine episodes were broadcast; and the show’s subsequent history. Full of interesting anecdotes and pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meadows, Audrey, with Joe Daley. Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner. New York: Crown, 1994. Memoir of the actor who played Alice Kramden, detailing her experiences on the set and revealing behind-the-scenes details about the show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slater, Robert. This . . . Is CBS: A Chronicle of Sixty Years. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1988. Provides insight into the corporate context that helped spawn The Honeymooners. Chapters 6 through 11 are particularly relevant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weatherby, W. J. Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One. New York: Pharos Books, 1992. Less profound than the Henry biography, but highly accessible. A veteran writer of popular biographies, Weatherby eschews fine details and heavy analysis. Instead, he provides numerous quotations, including several from personal interviews with Gleason.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wexman, Virginia Wright. “Returning from the Moon: Jackie Gleason and the Carnivalesque.” In Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader, edited by Joanne Morreale. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2003. Essay analyzing the relationship of the plot structures and themes of The Honeymooners to earlier forms of carnivale and explaining the function of the carnivalesque in popular culture.

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