The Honeymooners: "Classic 39" Episodes (DVD)
- A Community Grade
The Honeymooners began life as short, recurring live sketches before stretching past the 30-minute mark on a regular basis at the start of the show's second season, in 1953. In 1955, The Honeymooners became a standalone half-hour show, for 39 episodes that have been circulating in syndication ever since. The "Classic 39" have now been cleaned up and made available on DVD, which is sort of like putting a new cover on an old Bible. Few TV sitcoms can manage a wacky-neighbor turn or mistaken-identity plot that The Honeymooners didn't try first, and though the show didn't pioneer many storytelling techniques that weren't already present on radio, nearly 50 years of reruns have codified the show's stripped-down premise: Jackie Gleason as an irascible, luckless working man trying to get ahead with the help of pretty, patient wife Audrey Meadows and best friend Art Carney. The Honeymooners' soul hasn't been as easy to duplicate. Set in a sitcom landscape defined by mild middle-class success, The Honeymooners revolves around failure. Gleason's hardworking bus driver goes bowling, shoots pool, attends a lodge, and takes his wife out to the occasional movie and/or Chinese dinner, but the show never pretends that these small pleasures are enough. Most of the stories have to do with Gleason chasing opportunities to make money, and blowing it because of his own gruff personality. The show often ends with Gleason and Meadows in each other's arms, but in a gray, unadorned apartment front room (at once a kitchen, dining room, living room, and closet), which looks like a place where dreams go to die. The relentless drabness, as well as scheduling opposite the popular Perry Como, may have kept The Honeymooners from becoming a big hit in its initial run, but the show has stayed alive because of the vibrancy of its performances. Though shot on film, the Classic 39 were performed live, with no retakes and practically no rehearsal. The "without a net" nature of The Honeymooners means that its reputation isn't built on memorable lines (though Carney's "can it core a apple?" "string of polo ponies," and "helloooooo, ball!" have endured), but it's built on the moments when Gleason rides the audience, milking laughs with a slow burn followed by an extended, room-filling explosion. When he tears around his boxy set, he shows how social-realist theater can be both pointed and sidesplitting.