Thursday, November 27, 2008

"To the Moon, Alice"

Arguably the best portrayal on television of what life was like in Brooklyn during the fifties can be seen on reruns of Jackie Gleason's old show: "The Honeymooners." Jackie was raised in Brooklyn on Chauncey Street around the corner from the Colonial Theater where as kids we spent our Saturdays (see 10/13/08 post: Saturday at the Movies). He was in my mother's junior high school class at P.S. 73 on MacDougal Street, where I attended summer camp (see 11/7/08 post: Summer in the City). Jackie had a realistic view of life back then, but he also understood that his character, Ralph Kramden, had dreams. Outlandish as they were, these dreams are what kept him striving (and us laughing) as he hatched his schemes for a better life.

Some of the early episodes were so-so, but the show hit its stride around season four, when almost every episode was a gem. The shows are as funny today as when they originally ran, a testament to Gleason and his writers' genius. (For more on this classic series, go to
The Honeymooners.) It's hard to pick favorite episodes, so I picked out favorite punch lines that any real fan of the show will recognize. All of the episodes mentioned below are from that magical fourth season in 1955-56:

Episode 86: Better Living Through TV: Ralph chases another get-rich quick scheme and ropes in poor Norton. They decide to sell a multi-purpose kitchen utensil and, to drum up business, go on TV with a commercial starring Ralph and Ed. While rehearsing the commercial extolling the virtues of the product, Ralph is his usual blustering self, telling Norton how to act and to follow his lead. Naturally, when they go live on-camera, Norton is flawless while Ralph turns into a stuttering zombie. Watching him break out in flop sweat and bumble through the commercial ("It can core a apple") is not only funny, but it strikes a note of recognition for anyone who ever had to deliver that big presentation or speak in public for the first time.

Episode 88: Brother Ralph: Ralph is laid off, and Alice decides to take a job as a secretary, but has to tell her boss that Ralph is her brother since companies usually don't hire married women. House-husband Ralph is not thrilled when Alice's boss turns out to be a handsome hunk named Tony. Ralph insists that any overtime be done at home where he can chaperone. The show is funny enough, but for me the biggest laugh came early in the show when Ralph comes home dejected from work after making a suggestion on the job about improving bus route efficiency. Norton sets up the punch line by saying something like: "Wow, that's great Ralphie boy, I bet they'll be able to cut back on bus drivers now." Ralph glares at him and answers with disgust: "I was the first to go."

Episode 89: Hello Mom: Ralph has an argument with Alice's mother after she gives away the plot to a mystery play they were going to see. He regrets the mean things he said and takes Ed Norton's suggestion to make a tape recorded apology. After starting well enough, Ralph veers off course and starts criticizing his Mother-in-Law for being a busybody and screams into the recorder: "You're a blabbermouth... you heard me, a blaaaaabbermouth." Norton stops him and reminds Ralph that this is supposed to be an apology. Ralph calms down and makes a second tape containing a lovely apology. Problem solved? Of course not; Norton mails the Mother-in-Law the original "blabbermouth" tape by mistake, and Ralph must, once again, dig himself out of trouble.

Episode 97: The $99,000 Answer: Ralph goes on a quiz show with the category of Popular Songs He rents a piano, and with Norton as his pianist, practices all week from a stack of sheet music. Before playing any song for Ralph to guess, Norton first plays 8 bars of "Swanee River" as a warm up exercise, a habit that drives Ralph nuts. Despite Norton's annoying habit, by the end of the week Ralph's knowledge of pop music is encyclopedic, and he truly believes he will make it all the way to the $99,000 answer. Once on the show, the very first song they play for Ralph to guess is...."Swanee River." Ralph freezes up and can't guess the song, but watching his "humuna-humuna" panic stall as he tries to recall the name of the song is Gleason at his best.

Episode 112: Unconventional Behavior: Ralph and Ed are forced to take their wives, Alice and Trixie, to the annual Raccoon convention. The wives get separated from the guys on the train platform and Ralph and Ed wind up traveling together in a sleeping berth. While demonstrating some sure-fire gags to use at the convention, Ed accidentally handcuffs himself to Ralph, Of course Ed can't find the key to the cuffs, and tries the magic word (boompff) that the man who sold him the cuffs used to open them. After a few "boompffs" it's clear they are not going to get them open and will have to sleep as best they can in the upper and lower berths. Ed fusses and fidgets in bed, to Ralph's growing annoyance, and then asks: "Hey Ralph, do you mind if I smoke?" Ralph disdainful answer, dripping with scorn: "I don't care if you burn."

Episode 115: Alice and the Blond: The Kramdens and Nortons visit the Wedemeyers, Ralph's co-worker Bert and his dizzy but very glamorous blond wife, Rita. Ralph and Ed practically trip over each other lighting Rita's cigarettes, sliding out her chair and doing anything else they can for her. Alice and Trixie believe their husbands are neglecting them, and cut the evening short, but not before some great lines got delivered. Rita is telling the group how she and Bert have pet names for each other based on some physical characteristic of theirs, and asks the wives if they do likewise. "Oh sure," Alice says brightly, turning to Ralph, "Isn't that right Tubby."

Lucky for me, a lot of the guys I work with are old Honeymooners fans. Sometimes on a slow day, one of them will shout out a set-up line for a classic zinger from the show, for example: Ralph: "Alice, don't you realize that if I'm elected Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the Raccoon Lodge, you and I get free burial at the Raccoon Cemetery in Bismarck, North Dakota?" Alice: "Gee Ralph, I'm so excited, I don't know whether to live or die."

They tried a remake of the show with Cedric the Entertainer and an all black cast in 2005. It was a mistake, beyond dumb...like remaking "High Noon" with Pee Wee Herman in the Gary Cooper role. Thanks to New Year's Day marathons and Honeymooners DVDs, I can watch the original shows well into my senility.


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2 comments:

The Whiner said...

"I call you killer because you slay me.'
"And I'm callin'Bellevue 'cause you're nuts!"

Thanks for sharing a few good laughs...I'll always love them too.

Jim Pantaleno said...

When you start going through the episodes, it's almost impossible to pick a favorite. There are at least 15-20 I could watch over and over. Glad they made you laugh.