By John Larrabee and John V. Brennan
The Cast

JL: Second greatest comedy duo, next to Laurel & Hardy: Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (even though Gleason hated it when the two were referred to as a team). Norton is always the character who makes you laugh out loud the first time you see each episode, but Gleason's Kramden is the one who keeps you coming back. The depth of his Everyman characterization was the soul of The Honeymooners - every bit as effective a common man tragic hero as Willy Loman. Gleason was, of course, hilarious (what a marvelous comic face!), but that ever-present, just-below-the-surface air of desperation contrasted beautifully with Carney's sublime and effortless silliness in the same magical, somehow-better-than-perfect way that John Lennon contrasted with Paul McCartney. And, of course, Gleason and Audrey Meadows were a damn fine team as well.

JB: The line that sums up the friendship for Ralph is "What I say about Norton is one thing. How I feel about him is another." And of course, for Norton, he summed it up when he wrote out Ralph's one good point: "Sweetest guy in the world." Would that we could find such friendships in real life, and when we do, would that we could keep them forever.


JB: There are some roles that can be played by several actors, but nobody should dare attempt Archie Bunker or Ralph Kramden again.


JB: Jackie's life reminded me of Groucho's. He had the same problem Groucho did, which is the old Grock story. If you don't recall it, I'll relate it quickly. A man goes to his doctor, says he is very sad and depressed. His doctor says to go see Grock, the funniest clown in the world. The man replies "I AM Grock."

JL: I sense in the cases of both men a frustration at not being taken seriously during the periods in which they did their most important work. Save for Chaplin, most of the great comics had to wait many years to get the accolades from critics. The astounding fact that Gleason never won an Emmy shows how he was regarded at the time.

Minnesota Fats is a character that projects fun and danger in equal proportion, and Gleason pulls this off beautifully. Yesterday on AMC, I watched one I haven't seen since I was a kid -- GIGOT.  I have to agree with the criticisms in William A. Henry's book The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason: relentless, hardcore pathos in search of a plot, or a point. Gigot is dumb, mute and poor (but, apparently, quite well-fed) and we get to see him abused, humiliated, beat up, and shat on by life in general.  He never overcomes any obstacles, doesn't come out ahead in the end, he's just a sweet soul who don't get no respect.  The film has one saving grace: Gleason's performance. I've never before seen him so immersed in a character that there's not a hint of the standard takes and eyeball-rolling that make you laugh automatically. Just a blank sincerity, maintained throughout. 

Of course, as Henry points out, it must have been his dream role as he didn't have to memorize any lines.


JL: One thing I've noticed about the shows is that you tend to laugh the most at Carney the first time you see them… but it's Gleason who provides the depth and keeps the show fresh after 289 viewings. 

I probably learned more about how to move on a stage by watching Gleason and Carney than I did from any acting class…  I slam a table like Gleason and pick things up from the floor like Carney.  If I slapped dames around, I’d do it like Bogey.

JB: I thought about it and tell me if I have any insight. From Art Carney as Ed Norton on the Honeymooners, an actor can learn:

How to make an entrance
How to make an exit
Where to stand on stage
How to use you body
How to use your voice
How to react
How not to upstage another actor
How to upstage another actor
How to be funny by doing almost nothing at all
How to lose yourself and "be" a character
JL: And you think you don't belong on stage! That's a perfect summary.  Just about any young actor, including myself, goes through a learning stage during which they pick up such basic skills as what to do with your hands, how to hold for a laugh, how to use your body to define the character, that sort of stuff. Nobody looked so at ease, so natural on stage as Art Carney. There's a moment during the hospital scene in "Pal O' Mine" when Carney drops his cigarette on the floor and picks it up with a grand sweep of his arm and a bit of a leg kick in the air. I realized tonight that that's the way I pick up something on the stage. If something falls, don't crouch and fumble for it -- make a moment out of it and stay in character. I learned both the basics and little things like that from watching him. I learned a lot from Gleason as well, but I suppose you could say I learned how to act from Carney, and I learned how to react from Gleason.


JB: I’m always amazed at Audrey Meadows whenever I revisit The Honeymooners. She was working with two of the greatest TV comedians in history, and yet, she could stand there for a full minute while Ralph rants and raves, wait for the perfect moment, and then unleash a single killer line that would just make you realize she was as good as her co-stars. I have a theory that every great TV show has a “heart”, and I think Audrey/Alice was the heart of that show. Alice was the heart because most of Ralph’s schemes, which usually included Norton, revolved around proving to Alice that he was a better man than he was, or they were about improving life for Alice (“Can you imagine what this furniture would look like on Park Avenue?”)
JL: I agree with your point. The most successful sitcoms tend to have a sensible character who lives in the real world. Makes the absurd characters seem all the more absurd when you have a grounded, well-adjusted character as counterpoint. Often, such characters are the leads (Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart), sometimes the second lead (Audrey Meadows, Desi Arnaz), but they’re the characters that ensure everyone else doesn’t spin too far out of control. And because they’re in a position to see how ridiculous everyone else is, they’re the ones best-suited to wisecracks.

She also adds an interesting layer to the Ralph - Alice relationship. Here’s this beautiful, smart woman who could have probably had her pick of men, and she chose Ralph Kramden.

I like to think it was because she realized no one could ever love her so much as Ralph.

JB: Audrey Meadows always let Jackie have his moments of genius without interruption, and then, when he was finished, she would deliver a classic put down in a way that said “Jackie, you may be the funniest man in the world, but I ain’t bad either.”


JB: What an uphill battle Joyce Randolph had. You've got Jackie and Art, two great comic geniuses, and Audrey Meadows, a woman with excellent comic delivery who also got the best lines. Trixie was only occasionally central to the plot ("The Peacemaker", for example), but her usual function was to get Alice out of the apartment so that Ralph and Ed could scheme, or come down and recite some exposition. Her acting style, when compared to the three "Great Ones" she had to work with, is pretty shallow - hand on hip, a turn of the head and that's about it. But, as a part of the classic cast, she deserves our respect, if not our voluminous praise.

JL: I'll say this in as nice a way as I can, but I think one reason Trixie is used mainly as a plot device (about her only function in the Classic 39's) is that they were stuck with Joyce. Her addition to the cast was a random, momentary decision by Gleason after Elaine Stritch had done the role once or twice on the DuMont series. I get the feeling that Trixie was relegated to exposition-provider since they daren't give Joyce real comedy to deal with and when you already have three great comic talents, why bother?

JB: But I must admit a certain fondness for her.

JL: You know I agree, despite my comments. 

JB: I remember when seeing those late Honeymooners Valentine and Christmas specials, I was thrilled to see Audrey Meadows back, but I was pretty disappointed that Jane Kean was playing Trixie. Deep down inside, I wanted Joyce Randolph there, especially since I knew she was alive and available, having hosted a night of uncut episodes on Channel 11 at nearly the same time as one of the Honeymooner's Reunion shows.

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