TV’S FUNNIEST MEN WERE ALIKE IN MANY WAYS, YET UTTERLY DIFFERENT AS HUMAN BEINGS
When things don’t go your way and the challenges of modern life overwhelm you at every turn, take a lesson from The Great One, Jackie Gleason, and do what he and his most beloved character, Ralph Kramden, would do: screw up royally.
With just 39 filmed episodes of the classic fifties television series The Honeymooners preserved for posterity, the comic antics of the Brooklyn-born bus driver long ago entered the mainstream of American cultural life — and endeared himself to millions of sitcom fans through his scatter-brained schemes and spur-of-the-moment solutions to life’s most daunting problems.
The similarities in origin, personality, temperament, and physique between the series’ creator and his creation, however, were more than mere coincidence. In life, Gleason enjoyed fame, fortune and a flamboyant lifestyle few people could ever hope to achieve, but could never completely overcome the dark demons of his poverty-stricken past; whereas Kramden constantly tried and failed yet never gave up hope that one day he, too, would hit that elusive high note of life.
A Hard Knocks Life
Everybody’s favorite funnyman made his first appearance in 1951, and was played by one of television’s most celebrated comedians, Jackie Gleason.
Herbert John “Jackie” Gleason was born in 1916, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. The son of Irish immigrants and a first generation Irish-American, Gleason suffered through grinding poverty, the death of a younger sibling, an alcoholic runaway father, and a sick mother who he lost early in life, all before the age of 19. He dropped out of public school and never went back. The classes he most often attended were located on the street of hard knocks, around the corner from his favorite hangout, the local billiard parlor.
Gleason worked at becoming a decent pool player and a hard liver, a heavy smoker and an even heavier drinker. He held down a variety of odd jobs in his youth (i.e., carnival barker, radio announcer, disc jockey, emcee, daredevil stunt diver) long before he ever got to Hollywood.
After brief stints on Broadway and in several New York nightspots, he caught the eye of studio boss Jack Warner, who immediately signed him to a five-picture deal with Warner Brothers. Despite secondary roles in a number of assembly-line productions, Gleason grew unhappy with his minor status and the studio methodology. He left Hollywood to return to the East Coast, where he started to make his first television appearances around 1949, initially in the show The Life of Riley, and later at the fledgling Dumont Network in the program Cavalcade of Stars.
In 1952, CBS-TV brought him and the show over to their side, thus launching Gleason on a long and fruitful career with the station. He had already developed many of his famous characterizations while still at Dumont, further refining them on the air at CBS. Some of the characters he created were Reginald Van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, Charlie the Loudmouth, the Poor Soul, and, of course, Ralph Kramden. Critics and fans all agreed that these characters were simply extensions of the comedian himself, or perhaps different sides of his own multifaceted persona. Indeed, a case can be made that they were all aspects of the same highly complex individual.
Always a visual comic — and a handsome one, to boot — Gleason exploited his good looks to their fullest: he had a thick mop of dark, wavy hair, a pair of wandering blue eyes, a flashy smile, and gobs of personal charm, which he used often and to good purpose (especially around the ladies). He had a wonderful way with words, was a marvelous raconteur and a hilarious joke teller.
Gleason wore dapper suits, expensive shoes, fancy ties with matching kerchiefs, and colorful carnations in his lapel, quite apart from Kramden’s salt-of-the-earth drabness. He was always sensitive about his appearance; in fact, his obsession would often verge on the narcissistic. He dieted on and off so many times he nearly toppled tenor Mario Lanza from the throne of the temperamental star who had gained and lost the most poundage throughout his TV and movie life. As a result, Gleason had his wardrobe tailored to fit three different sizes (big, bigger and biggest) to cover every conceivable fluctuation in his measurements. In line with that, he frequently berated his scriptwriters for introducing too many fat jokes into the story lines of his show.
He was blessed with a remarkable memory, and consequently had an absolute abhorrence of rehearsals because of it. He would often come to the taping of his shows totally plastered but still able to hit his marks — with the aid of his fellow actors, of course. To initiate a rookie cast member into the ensemble, he would often spout dubious directions, such as “Now in this scene you say BLA, BLA, BLA, BLA, and then I’ll say BLO, BLO, BLO, BLO,” and so forth; this did wonders for the nervous newcomer’s confidence level come airtime. He would frequently flub a line, only to quickly recover with some snappy comeback or a well-placed one-liner, a welcome holdover from his nightclub days. In that respect, Gleason was a thorough professional.
During his almost 30 years on the tube, Gleason became the Orson Welles of television, a regular Renaissance man and general factotum. His talents extended to acting, writing, producing, directing — even composing, conducting and arranging music, although he couldn’t read a note. And, like the corpulent Welles (who was credited with dubbing him with the title of “The Great One”), Gleason peaked early on in his career and never completely stretched himself thereafter, even if he had sufficient cause to coast on his success.
He did try some atypical dramatic roles as a change of pace, but except for a few movie sojourns in the early to mid-sixties, including a critically-acclaimed appearance in The Hustler as Minnesota Fats in 1961 (earning him an Oscar nomination), and several return forays onto the Broadway stage — one of which, the musical Take Me Along, led to a Tony Award — Gleason’s trips away from his comedic home-world were not met with public favor.
Gleason had a problematic personal life as well. He went through two failed marriages that ended in rocky divorce proceedings, and, like his father before him, was an incurable drunk and an absentee parent. His relationship with his children suffered as a result.
He put many of these situations into two of his most underrated film performances: the first, in the wonderful turn-of-the-century comedy Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), in which the main character’s constant tipsiness accurately reflects Gleason’s own state of being; and the second, in the serio-comic Nothing in Common (1986), with the young Tom Hanks.
In both, Gleason plays a man whose family walks out on him, but in Nothing in Common, he was a terminally ill salesman, unfulfilled in his chosen career and sadly lacking in any sort of family life or emotional outlet for his troubles. The only person he confides in is his estranged son, Hanks, who learns to love the bitter, resentful old man and eventually helps him come to terms with his impending death. It seemed the real-life Gleason had somehow morphed into this sad, celluloid wreck, exposing his inner turmoil for all to see. It was a marvelously truthful turn.
In 1987, Jackie Gleason passed away from complications due to cancer of the colon and liver. It’s a shame he never learned the life-lessons taught to his own greatest creation, Ralph Kramden: to love the things you have, accept life as it is, and deal with it on its own terms.
The Common Touch
Ralph is the downtrodden Bensonhurst native, perpetually disappointed with his lowly station in life, always wanting to better himself via frivolous get-rich-quick schemes, yet driven to insane fits of anger when those same schemes backfire, as they invariably did. His lashing out at his plight, moreover, illustrates his continued refusal to accept the card deck that life has handed him. In addition, his personification of the Common Man’s impotence in the face of his squalid surroundings points up the tenacity, the fallibility — and yes, the total humanity — of Gleason’s most famous creation.
Ralph Kramden is a veritable volcano of blustering bellicosity, whose eruptions and physical form take on the shape and rumblings of a benign Kilauea: all smoke and noise, but little substance. His formidable bulk and easy affability remind one of a young Oliver Hardy, harrumphing his way through life, trying ever so valiantly to cope with its myriad complexities while seemingly unable to extricate himself from the many ill-chosen paths of his own making.
His loyal and loving wife, the beautiful and dutiful Alice, tries to steer him back to reality at each turn. She is every bit his vocal match, and no slouch when it comes to defending her own turf. Alice puts up with his verbal abuses only because she knows that beneath his many layers of belligerence there beats the heart of a true romantic — and a sentimental one, at that.
His best friend and upstairs neighbor, sewer worker Ed Norton, is an incompatible combination of Stan Laurel with Lou Costello, who serves as both whimsical punching bag and adulating yes-man to Kramden’s delusions of grandeur. He whole-heartily agrees to every one of Ralph’s ridiculous ideas for enrichment, for the simple reason that he’s his friend, and that’s what friends do to help their buddies in distress.
Norton has everything in his Chauncey Street flat that Ralph and Alice lack — frilly curtains, beautiful fixtures, fine furniture, the latest appliances, and so forth; and he’s in hock up to his ears because of them. But at least he and his wife, former chorus girl Trixie, are content. Ralph, on the other hand, complains about everything he doesn’t have, and is almost never satisfied with the things he does have, even after he struggles so hard to obtain them. “Easy come, easy go,” is his existential philosophy.
Ralph makes many unwise decisions about his life. Take, for example, the time he discovers a suitcase full of money. What would any normal, honest citizen do with such a find? Report it to the police? Not Ralph. He decides to splurge, and pretty much spends the bulk of the funds on a fancy car, a big boat, spiffy outfits, and some new furniture, with just enough hundred-dollar bills left over to hand out to any and all comers. He even goes so far as to call his boss a “bum” on the phone. When he discovers, to his horror, that the money is counterfeit, he confronts his spendthrift ways by ordering Norton to “Fill up the car and point it towards Mex-ee-co,” as if running away from the problem would somehow mollify it.
We remember another time, when Ralph decides to take Alice to a Broadway murder mystery, which just so happens to fall on the same night that her mother stops by for a visit. Within minutes of her arrival, she spills the beans about the surprise ending to the play. This infuriates Ralph, who, when forced to deal with his mother-in-law’s tactless comment, belches forth a formidable tirade, beginning with the words, “You are a blabber mouth. Blab-ber-mouth! Get out! OUT! OUT! OUT!” His bloated vitriol becomes a cathartic primal scream, a cleansing balsam to his wounded pride — even if he almost loses his beloved spouse in the process. Regardless, it’s a hilarious scene, and masterfully delivered in one fell swoop. It also serves to set up the sweetly sentimental husband and wife reunion later on.
Still, Ralph manages to persevere to an admirable extent without regard to the many setbacks he seems to encounter; to blindly go forth, despite the numerous times he has tried to find his proverbial pot of gold. How many contests has he entered, how many box tops has he sent in, and how many prayers has he offered up for his ship to come in? Only to learn that the contest was rigged from the start, that the box-top company went out of business, and that the ship that never came in was in reality the Titanic! You have to give the guy credit for trying, though, even when he finds himself completely out of his element.
For instance, what would you do if you were a contestant on one of those big money quiz shows, and were asked the question: Who was the composer of “Swanee River”? Who would you say wrote it? Ed Norton? WRONG! It was Stephen Foster (original title: “The Old Folks at Home”). Well, anyone can make that mistake, right? Yes, but if you were supposed to be the resident expert on popular songs and your best friend kept playing the first few bars of that same song constantly, day in and day out, for a week or more, don’t you think you would have asked him what he was playing? No, not Ralph. His only question to his pal is, “Why do you always have to play ‘DA da da-DA da-da DA da-DA’ every time you start to play the piano?” To which Norton replies, “A pitcher has to warm up in the bullpen before he pitches.”
Ralph’s mistaken assumption that Norton fostered the piece which forever thwarts his chances of winning the $99,000 prize costs him the sole shot he will ever have at getting out of the rut he thinks he’s been in. In reality, it only serves to humble him before his wife and friends, and to thoroughly humanize him in our eyes as well.
Now take this perplexing problem. Your wife has just purchased an adorable little puppy, but she doesn’t want you to know about it because you don’t want any pets in the house. So she hides it in a neighbor’s apartment instead. You then come home from a hard day on Gotham’s streets to get ready for another “emergency” meeting at the lodge, when your best friend enters and instinctively reaches into the fridge to pull out a tasty snack. He just so happens to stumble upon a plate of what seems like the most appetizing concoction since Velveeta. What do you do? If you’re Ralph, you immediately hatch a plan to get your boss to invest in the tantalizing treat and make a mint with it.
When later Ralph humiliatingly learns that the “delicious mystery appetizer” he’s been peddling turns out to be dog food, he rushes home to strangle his wife, only to find the real culprit is the puppy. He impulsively grabs the beast and takes it back to the pound where it came from. Alice follows Ralph to the pound to rescue her pet, only to see him emerge with three mutts instead of one. You see, the little fellow was going to be destroyed if nobody claimed him, so the softhearted Mr. Kramden — who just minutes before was ready to grind the mongrel into frankfurter meat — eventually finds it in his heart to forgive the poor pooch, accept the outcome as it is, and make the best of an otherwise embarrassing situation by bringing home all three animals.
Sunday School Lessons
The act of forgiveness, then, is at the core of Ralph and Alice’s relationship, and can best be attributed to Gleason’s own personal makeup.
As the son of Irish-Catholics, Gleason would have been familiar with the liturgy of the Church, including the Catechism, the Mass, and its associated rituals. Since he had final approval on all of the scripts for The Honeymooners, it’s quite conceivable that the series would have benefited from his firsthand knowledge of these practices, not to mention the Christian notion of original sin.
He would also have been familiar with the confessional, the act of contrition, and the rite of absolution. Whether or not Gleason was himself a firm believer in organized religion is of little consequence, for the form and substance of a practicing Catholic was subliminally omnipresent in many of the classic 39.
When faced with having to fess up to some feverish endeavor that inevitably fails, Ralph goes into a patented routine that almost resembles an ancient holy rite. His first reaction is to slowly go into a wordless, mealy-mouthed mumble, accompanied by several well-placed tosses of his St. Bernard-like head, a forlorn hangdog expression etched on his brow, all the while stirring in a couple of “homina, homina, hominas” into the pot in a sort of pre-New Age mantra, chanted in sequence to help him through the rough spots.
Finally, as he punctuates the air with a mighty wave of his arm — as if by that gesture he could miraculously make straight whatever dire deed he had done — he resolutely pronounces the final benediction on his predicament with a thoroughly anguished and drawn-out “AAAAAAHHHH,” which segues into his contrite confession that he’s a mope with a BIG MOUTH.
Yet, at each show’s conclusion, Alice would patiently make him see the error of his ways, and very plainly tell him what he most needed to hear: that despite the troubles he has brought upon himself — and he only has himself to blame — she will always be there for him. She will love him as dearly as she does now, and will forever forgive him his many (and obvious) faults.
She would then be greeted by Ralph’s own emphatic declaration of love (“Baby, you’re the greatest!”) and be enveloped in his prodigious embrace — a warm, all-encompassing abrazo, which becomes, for him, a religious act of acknowledgement and acceptance of his sins, rendered not just for his own benefit but for the whole of humanity — to be followed by that endless, passionate buss on the lips, the ultimate seal of approval.
We should not be too hard on Ralph for the extremes that he goes to in order to better his dreary existence, or be exceedingly judgmental of him because of them. For life has a way of naturally balancing things out in the long run and of humbling us before our past misdeeds, even as we strive to overcome our present embarrassment over them. How do we know we can do any better than this poor soul? Certainly Jackie Gleason, the actor who played him on television, never could. Not only were he and Ralph Kramden two utterly different human beings, they were on opposite sides of the same well-worn coin.
Where Gleason was lucky enough to have made it yet somehow squandered his gains on a pathetic personal life, Ralph still kept at the daily grind, always looking for a way out of his crumbling Chauncey Street abode, all the while enjoying the thrill of the chase and bringing his wife and friends along for the ride.
It’s a most welcome thought to know that, after all these years, one can still speculate about Kramden’s future: that one day, he might really have a chance to be elected Raccoon of the Year, that he might be able to toot that horn as he passes Raccoon Point, or that he might open that first clam at the annual Clam Bake; of Gleason, there can be no further speculation, for we know he never made it to the Raccoon Cemetery at Bismarck, North Dakota.
So remember this sane advice, dear reader: whenever life’s problems conspire to get you down, just think about Ralph, Norton, Alice, and Trixie. They’re all still struggling — and very much alive and well — in the pantheon of great television sitcoms in the sky. One can learn a lot from them about avoiding the pitfalls of life, and especially from witnessing the frequent foibles of so fallible yet lovable a character as Ralph Kramden. And if not — BANG, ZOOM — take a trip to the MOON!!! ◙
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
• Columbe, Bob, and Howard Bender, Honeymooners: An Illustrated Trivia Book, Perigee Books, published by Putnam Publishing Group, New York, 1986.
• Crescenti, Peter, and Bob Columbe, The Official Honeymooners Treasury: To The Moon and Back With Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie, Perigee Books, published by Putnam Publishing Group, New York, 1985.
• Henry, William H. III, The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason, Doubleday Books, New York, 1992.
• Margolis, David, “For Fans, the Honeymoon is Really Over,” The New York Times, August 23, 1992.
• Tracey, Grant, “Kissville: A Meditation on The Honeymooners,” Images Journal, http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/features/honey1.htm, no date.
• Tracey, Grant, “3 of 39: Three Classic Episodes of The Honeymooners,” Images Journal, http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/features/3of39.htm, no date.
• Weatherby, W.J., Jackie Gleason: An Intimate Portrait of the Great One, Pharos Books, A Scripps Howard Company, New York, 1992.