JAN / FEB 2016: BY VICTORIA WILLIAMS
“What is this?” I wondered, as I heard canned applause and laughter coming from the living room. At least, that’s how I remember the first time I wandered over to join my dad in watching an episode of The Honeymooners. Thus the comedy of Jackie Gleason (as Ralph Kramden), Audrey Meadows (as his wife Alice), Art Carney (as his neighbor, Ed Norton), and Joyce Randolph (as Ed’s wife Trixie) entered my life.
The Honeymooners, which grew out of sketches performed on The Jackie Gleason Show, revolves around the friendship of two neighbors, Ralph and Norton, and their relationships to their wives. (Alice and Trixie are best friends in their own right!) These are blue collar couples: Ralph drives a bus, and Norton is a sewer worker. (“Sub-supervisor in the sub-division of the department of subterranean sanitation, I just keep things moving along,” as he describes himself.) They live in tiny New York City apartments, back when people had iceboxes rather than refrigerators.
Their marriages are not idealized: Ralph and Alice can hardly go a day without fighting loudly—possibly not even more than half an hour. (How would we know?) Yet, it’s a cast of characters that is so successful together that they even outlived their own show: The Flintstones’ Fred and Wilma are modeled on Ralph and Alice! Their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble are based off Norton and Trixie, too.
The series was popular around the same time as the well-known I Love Lucy; Honeymooners ran from 1952 to ‘56. There are lots of parallels between the shows: zany schemes, unreasonable expectations, outrageous slapstick. And what would I Love Lucy be like without Fred and Ethel as next-door neighbors to Desi and Lucy? In the same way, The Honeymooners has Norton and Trixie as the “holler-out-the-window-to-talk-to-them” upstairs neighbors to Ralph and Alice. And where would Lucy be without best friend Ethel for her co-conspirator, madly wrapping candies in a chocolate factory, or trying to spy on movie stars at a famous restaurant? In the same way, Ralph has his buddy Norton at his side: to shoot pool with, solve problems with, and, of course, to give terrible advice to.
Of course, when doing those last two things, you might think Ralph would do better without Norton. The character is a complete simpleton, but extremely loyal. He’s the guy who can’t seem to take a hint, and takes everything too literally. He’s clumsy and goofy, all gangly arms and legs. For me as a child, the whole point of the show was seeing what funny things Norton would do. In one episode, he’s utterly failing to reassure Ralph, who fears he has only six months to live. (Ed: “Doctors don’t know everything. I had a friend whose doctor told him he only had 6 months to live. Boy did he sure make a monkey out of that doctor!” Ralph: “Why… what happened?” Norton: “He lived 8 months!”) In another episode, Norton tries to help Ralph learn golf from a book. (In a small apartment. Using a pincushion for a golf ball.) The book instructs the reader to “address the ball.” Neither of the two men know quite what is meant. (I had no idea, myself, when I first heard it.) But after a moment, Norton has an idea. He borrows the golf club, steps up before the ball, looks down and calls out, “Hello, ball!” (Well – even having no idea, I knew it couldn’t be THAT!) Norton has so many of the memorable laugh lines. He is a sidekick who illustrates the saying, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Of course, a fellow like Ralph may not have the pick of the lot when it comes to friends. He often speaks with great confidence about things that he’s utterly wrong about. Like the time he advised Norton to deal with his wife interrupting their nights out by simply not coming home until later. If challenged, Norton was to inform her, “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re nothin’!” Ralph assures Norton that he did this with Alice, and it worked. Uncertainly, Norton queries, “So you say that to Alice… and then what happens?” Ralph’s response: “Never-mind; we’re talking about you, not me.” In addition to being a consistent provider of bad advice, Ralph is a nervous man with an incredibly short fuse. He’s almost a caricature: constantly roaring at his wife or his friends to get his way. On the plus side, when he knows he’s in the wrong (and when he’s caught) he is instantly sheepish and subdued.
And when is he more sheepish and subdued then when Alice is about to figure out that one of his schemes failed, or that he is guilty of something foolish? (provoking a fight at the Nortons for example with his “king of the castle” suggestion.) Alice prides herself on her competence… she is an expert on Ralph’s moods, how long they last, and how to cajole him. She is no role model, though. With her arms crossed or with her hands on her hips, she stands against him in fight after fight, regularly lashing out with an acerbic comment. “A man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done” was a saying written for her use. Another time, mid-fight, Ralph insists what must happen, and she replies, “Over my dead body!” (Ralph, of course, retorts, “Don’t tempt me.”) This is a TV couple famous for their fights.
The Honeymooners is definitely not a place to turn to for life advice—for marriage, or giving advice to friends, or about how exciting would it be if you thought a get-rich-quick scheme would actually work. But enjoy the comedy as over-the-top slapstick, because human nature is crazy and humans are foolish. Especially enjoy Norton’s zaniness, and make sure to repeat “Hello, ball!” at least a hundred times to the friend or family member you watch that episode with, and make them burst out laughing. (Actually, that last one’s just if you’re like me and my sister.) ♥
Victoria Williams is a Christian woman who loves reading, teaching math, and watching people grow. Her obsessions include the Gospel, loving the weak, peacemaking, cross-cultural ministry, storytelling, nerdy conversations with friends, and coffee. She also blogs.