Only two great, fictional shows survived television’s first few decades. One is, “The Honeymooners.” It suffers from some of the formulaic stories that make a show like “I Love Lucy” unwatchable to a sentient being in the present day. But you can kind of forgive this because the show is so stagy. The primary set actually looks like the stage for a medium budget play. Virtually every minute is set in the Kramden (crammed-in, if you never noticed) kitchen/living room/dinning room. You can really feel that the show is live and working with a limited format.
As is usually required in the theater, the actors carry the play. This is as good a cast as has ever been on TV. I believe that 90% of success in a field like acting is luck. There’s a Jennifer Aniston working at every mall in the country, and if the pilot for “Friends” had been botched, you probably wouldn’t know her name. That’s why Hollywood careers come and go, come back, and then go again. Were Patrick Dempsy, Rob Lowe, Michael J. Fox, and the hundreds of others on the list, good actors who suddenly became shitty actors for 20 year periods, then regained their talent due to acts of wizardry? Maybe even they believe this. It’s not surprising that you’ll find no greater consumers of naked charlatanism than entertainers, be it Scientology, Tibetan Buddhist cultism or Kabbalah No, it’s just that there are a lot of interchangeably, talented, charismatic and (often) hardworking people who have varying success in branding themselves and landing the right roles.
But once in a while, there is a Jackie Gleason. After seeing him for two minutes, you’d pay to watch him light up and pick his ass during a cigarette break. He’s a 900 pound man, and yet you want to be him (Gleason, not Ralph) almost as you want to be Magnum PI (Thomas, not Selleck.) Gleason outshines the rest of the cast but you can put it as either amazing that Gleason outshines such wonderful actors, or that they are such wonderful actors that Gleason doesn’t eclipse them.
The writing is sharp and much smarter than most sitcom writing to come after it. 180 years after it was written, the show can still make most of us laugh out loud. I’ll go out on a limb and say that nobody who does not live in a home for the mentally retarded will be laughing at “8 Simple Rules” or “According to Jim” after we are all dead. But “The Honeymooners” will probably still be showing in some format. It might be even a greater part of our culture if it had run more than 39 episodes. That’s just not enough for a full year of syndication anymore. On the other hand, the show never had a chance to grow stale.
As per usual, the brilliance and, more importantly, the profitability of “The Honeymooners” formula inspired decades of imitation and devolution. The wacky neighbors became special ed freakshows. The head of the household as portrayed by Gleason, frustrated with his powerlessness and struggling for a shred of domestic authority, became the benevolent, omniscient father or the goofy but ultimately lovable dad. Now sitcom characters with jobs paying far less than “bus driver” resided in sprawling Manhattan apartments and five bedroom suburban homes. Oddly enough, as successful as “The Honeymooners” formula has been, the only obtainable show to really follow the spirit of its example is “Luckie Louie,” a show that came out on HBO 50 years after “The Honeymooners” and was even more shortly lived than its ancestor.
I don’t want to get too carried away. “The Honeymooners” was largely about Gleason and Art Carney mugging for the cameras and delivering well written, but not especially sophisticated jokes. The main reason the show is so good is that this is executed brilliantly. But the realism of the show is important too. Work, money and dissatisfaction with the lot one has drawn are important to the framework of the show. A blue collar job means a cramped apartment and not having nice things. Get rich quick schemes are a means to escaping a claustrophobic, starkly limited existence. In most sitcoms since, the protagonist might be a successful doctor or he might be a plummer, but there will be no discernable difference in the day to day lives of the characters. The realism of “The Honeymooners” makes everything else work so much better. Failing in a get rich quick scheme, then falling back into your five beds, 3 baths, 2 cars, and loving family because, hey, family is great! That’s one story. The same failure in “The Honeymooners” is falling back onto almost nothing and finding that your partner is the only positive thing you can cling to. I mean, it’s not The Bicycle Thief, but the realism makes the show ring true, and without the authenticity, it wouldn’t be so funny, endearing and memorable.