Classic TV: The Honeymooners, the Great American Sitcom

Let me begin by showing my age. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my friends and I would often watch late-night TV. Two shows in particular, from what is sometimes called the golden age of television, were our favorites: The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone for its quirky science fiction, which, even though it was two decades old, still resonated. And The Honeymooners for its intelligent comedy, excellent acting, and the many lines and gestures that became part of our daily life.

In that time, The Honeymooners was on nearly every night on one New York television station; 30 years later, I do not know if that is the case. (A quick glance at some TV listings suggests that it is shown on one channel only at 5 am.) With only 39 episodes, it was easy to become familiar with all of them, and remember the situations and the classic rejoinders.

Beginning in 1955, The Honeymooners had just one season as a sitcom. (Remember when “seasons” were 39 episodes instead of only 13 or 22?) It had begun as a sketch on the Cavalcade of Stars, then later on The Jackie Gleason Show, before getting that single year on its own. Yet that show was so good, the writing and acting so excellent in those 39 shows, that it became a staple of syndication. For decades, at least in New York – and probably much of the US – you could spot Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, and their wives Alice and Trixie is glorious black-and-white on the tube.

According to this Wikipedia article, one of the reasons that The Honeymooners was able to enjoy such syndication was the quality of the filming. The shows were filmed before a live audience, in two or three acts, with very simple sets, using the Electronicam system, which allowed them to be shot on film. There was little rehearsal for the episodes, and you can tell at times that there are some occasional glitches or improvisations, but the quality of the actors was so high that they could work without a net. This gives a spontaneous feeling to the show, and watching it you can tell that they are not just reciting lines. In many ways, the acting in The Honeymooners seems much more realistic than many of today’s sitcoms, and this in spite of the fact that they were shooting very long takes – 8-10 minutes – instead of lots of short scenes.

In 1984, a major event occurred. The Museum of Television and Radio announced that they had discovered a handful of “lost episodes,” or sketches from The Jackie Gleason show. I recall at the time the wonder that there might be more Honeymooners sketches that I hadn’t seen. It turned out that there were; a total of 107 episodes of varying length were found. The quality of these is not the same as the “classic 39” episodes, and some of the voices were overdubbed with soundalike actors, because of unusable soundtracks.

The Honeymooners has had a strong impact on American culture. Several generations grew up with the characters of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, and some of the great lines from the series remain in the collective memory:

“Bang, zoom!”
“Har har, hardee har har!”
“A mere bag of shells…”
“You’re goin’ to the moon Alice!”
“Pins and needles, needles and pins. It’s a happy man that grins.”
“I brive a dus. I dus a brive.”

In addition, The Honeymooners was the inspiration for the animated series The Flintstones. While the writing is nowhere near as slick, the two couples in the show are copies of the Kramdens and the Nortons, with the main difference being the addition of children and pets.

Some time ago, I bought all of The Honeymooners on VHS. Since I live in France, they never get televised, and that was the only way to see them. I only recently got around to getting the DVDs, which are now available at bargain prices. Currently, the Classic 39 Episodes is only $25, and the Lost Episodes $62 (the former is on 8 DVDs, the latter on 15). The quality is variable, which is normal for a series that is more than 50 years old, but the witty humor and great acting remain. If you want to watch an intelligent, unforgettable sitcom, The Honeymooners is better than just about everything that is currently on TV.