My dad was never really big on comedians. It wasn’t that he lacked a sense of humor – he loved to laugh at funny stories and real life situations, but comedians, especially television comedians and comedy programs, generally left him cold. There was, however, one gargantuan exception, and that was Jackie Gleason.
I can recall being a boy and watching the Jackie Gleason variety show on Saturday nights with my dad – he with a beer and I with a Dad’s Root Beer. As much as I would enjoy watching Jackie portray the “Poor Soul”, “Reginald Van Gleason III” “Joe the Bartender” and “Charlie Bratton, the Loudmouth,” I got the most pleasure out of watching my dad howl with laughter. All these characters, in one way or another, spoke to him.
The variety show began doing a regular sketch about a working-class bus driver who lived in a cold-water flat in Brooklyn with this wife and their goofy upstairs neighbor. Of course, this was the Honeymooners, which ultimately became a regular network program and ultimately a syndicated series that still airs today. If standing the test of time is a critical ingredient to greatness, the Honeymooners more than qualifies.
I don’t think that there ever has been a time when the Honeymooners has not been on TV somewhere. In the New York metropolitan area, local stations run Marathon Honeymooners Weekends, which repeat, back to back, episodes that we all have seen so often that we know the classic scenes and lines by heart.It doesn’t seem to matter, though, for they are still just plain funny. One needs only sit in a tavern and strike up a Honeymooners discussion, and in no time people will quote their favorite lines or describe their favorite scenes. Here’s one of my favorites:
In a train on their way to a convention of the Loyal Order of Raccoons, in full Raccoon Lodge Regalia, Ralph and Ed Norton find themselves handcuffed together in their sleeper car because Norton was unable to open the trick handcuffs he demonstrated for Ralph. Ralph decides that they should try to get some sleep, even though they remain joined at the wrists. They spend the next few hilarious minutes each trying to climb into his berth. Once they finally managed to get into their berths, there is a moment of silence when Norton breaks the silence:
Norton (from the top berth) “Ralph?”
Ralph: (from the lower birth) “WHAT?”
Norton: “Mind if I smoke?”
Ralph: “I don’t care if you BURN.”
Gleason and TV, with its close ups, were perfect together because, among his other comedic talents, Gleason could convey a wide variety of emotions with his facial expressions alone. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it better. A raised eyebrow as he was approaching critical mass at Norton’s antics would start the laughter that would crescendo and ultimately erupt when Ralph finally would explode at the hapless Norton. By contrast, we would watch his pained face and false starts at an explanation as he stood behind Alice after pulling a stunt that angered her, but more importantly, disappointed her. His expressions were funny, but at the same time we felt sorry for Alice and even more sorry for Ralph, who let her down, yet again. However, we always knew that everything would turn out OK in the end, and Ralph would tell Alice that she was “the greatest.”
Jackie Gleason is gone now and so is my dad. I wonder if Jackie would be happy knowing that a few years ago, during the final days of my dad’s terminal illness, we would sit together and watch the same Honeymooners re-runs that we had watched together more than thirty-five years earlier, and as sick as he was, my dad still howled with laughter, and I howled right along with him. For those 22 minutes, The Great One took us both back to a better time.
Jackie Gleason was a big man who lived large. Somehow I was not surprised to learn that his epitaph reads, “And Away We Go.”