Celebrating “The Honeymooners”

Having already done more than one post on Jackie Gleason and a post on Art Carney, we choose the birthday of Audrey Meadows (1922-1996) for this long overdue post on The Honeymooners. And Meadows really doesn’t take a back seat (bus metaphor!) to the other two in terms of the show’s magic, so it’s just as appropriate.

Meadows came to the Gleason universe with a pre-existing classic comedy resume. She had appeared in the Broadway show Top Banana with Phil Silvers from 1951 to 1952, and been on Bob and Ray’s peculiar little TV series over the same period. Her comedy mafia street cred would be burnished even more a couple of years later when her sister Jayne Meadows married Steve Allen.

When Pert Kelton dropped out of playing the role of Alice Kramden during its initial run as part of The Jackie Gleason Show in 1952, Audrey Meadows was one of many who auditioned. But Gleason and his co-creators had reservations. Meadows was beautiful, fine, and well-mannered. Her real last name was Cotter. Her parents had been Episcopal Missionaries in China. They returned to New York shortly before she was born and sent her to a posh boarding school. But Meadows demonstrated that she could also be frumpy and frank. And as an intelligent working class guy himself, Gleason recognized something a lot of casting directors do not: there is such a thing as innately smart, good-looking and well-brought up working class people.

The casting of Meadows added a whole new dimension to the show; it gave Alice an added power over Ralph. Like Kelton, Meadows’ Alice gave as good as she got. But her version also tugged at Ralph’s heartstrings. She wasn’t just a shrew and a drudge who would clobber him with a rolling pin. She was also his Valentine. When the show became a half hour sitcom (1955-56), it would usually end with an expression of Ralph’s undying love for her: “Baby, you’re the greatest”. As a result, I assure you there’s nary a classic comedy geek who doesn’t carry a torch for beautiful, strong, smart, classy Audrey Meadows.

I called it “classic comedy”, and the phrase applies though that’s a label usually reserved for movie comedians (here, anyway). In the ’50s, Groucho called it “the only real classic that’s been on television”. When I was younger and hadn’t really taken it all in I thought this claim excessive. But it’s not, and people at the time saw that. At an obvious level Gleason and Carney are successors to Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, who in turn were successors to Weber and Fields, who in turn were successors to many now forgotten Irish and blackface minstrel teams. In addition to the relationship itself (a strong-willed, dominant one, and a dumber, compliant and accident-prone one), there’s the fat-and-skinny visual, and their instantly recognizable comedy costumes: the bus driver uniform for Gleason, and Carney’s tee shirt, vest, and turned-up porkpie combo. (That hat style was common among nightclub comics of the swing era, not to mention the Bowery Boys’ Leo Gorcey). What’s interesting about this moment though, is that it is also a stride AWAY from vaudeville. They’re not a comedy team per se, but comic actors embroiled in stories. There are ways The Honeymooners borrows just as much from kitchen sink realism, from Clifford Odets. For real. Which leads us back to classic comedy, for Charlie Chaplin employed that kind of realism as well.

Ralph and Alice also have their antecedents. I think especially of radio sitcoms like The Bickersons and Fibber McGee and Molly. But of course the comical quarreling couple goes all the way back to Punch and Judy. Like the latter source material, The Honeymooners has its problematic aspects nowadays. After all, Ralph threatens to do his wife violence in nearly every episode. But it’s also plain he never commits any, and Alice’s dismissive attitude toward his threats comforts us, even if his behavior doesn’t.

Meadows also proved the smartest one in the room in real life. She was the only one of the cast who had an item in her contract guaranteeing residuals for future television showings, thus she was the only to make a pile off syndication. The real life Meadows was a hard headed Republican business woman. Her first husband (1956-58) was real estate tycoon Randolph Rouse. Her second (1961-1986) was Robert Six, President of Continental Airlines. She herself served as an advisory director of the airline. From 1972 through 1983 she served as President of the First National Bank of Denver. For real!

With all that going in, she continued to keep a hand in show business. She appeared on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Red Skelton Hour (11 appearances), Wagon Train, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Love American Style, Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, The Love Boat, Starsky and Hutch, Diff’rent Strokes, Too Close for Comfort (a recurring role), Murder She Wrote, Uncle Buck (a recurring role),  and numerous others. She also appeared in the films That Touch of Mink (1962), Take Her She’s Mine (1963), and Rosie (1967). She got to reprise her role as Alice on Jackie Gleason specials in 1966, 1976, 1977 and 1978. Her last acting parts were on two episodes of Dave’s World with Harry Anderson in 1995. She died of lung cancer early the following year.

The good news is that Joyce Randolph (Trixie) is still with us. 95 as of this writing! Several friends have met her at the Lambs Club and tell me she’s a dynamo!

For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,