Stream On: Pioneers of TV comedy, still crazy after all these years

By on July 2, 2020

Ralph and Alice Kramden, a working class couple, struggle comically to stay afloat and realize Ralph’s dreams, in a Brooklyn apartment in the 1950’s. (IMDb.com)

After World War II, work resumed on the wireless motion picture set that had first been envisioned in 1913. The TV became one of the most popular products in the 1950’s. At the start of the decade, there were about 3 million TV owners; by the end of it, there were 55 million, watching shows from 530 stations. The average price of TV sets dropped from about $500 in 1949 to $200 in 1953. In 1954, the Toledo, Ohio water commissioner reported that water consumption surged at certain times because so many people were simultaneously using their toilets during commercial breaks on the most popular shows.

THE HONEYMOONERS (Amazon.com; Prime Video; YouTube) 1951-1956 [TV14]

Comedian, actor, writer, composer and conductor Jackie Gleason included a 10-minute skit on his variety series Cavalcade of Stars and subsequently on The Jackie Gleason Show, another variety program. “The Honeymooners” proved so popular that in 1953, half-hour versions of the skit took over the show and by January 1955, The Jackie Gleason Show was competing with—and sometimes beating—I Love Lucy as the most-watched TV show in the United States. Audience members lined up around the block hours in advance to attend the show’s filmings. From 1955-56, The Honeymooners was a free-standing half-hour TV series.

Ralph Kramden (Gleason) is a hot-headed bus driver in Brooklyn who always comes up a little short. His long-suffering wife Alice (Pert Kelton in the skits, Audrey Meadows in the half-hour show) is the foil in Ralph’s harebrained money-making schemes. In the skits, domestic squabbles were highlighted, with Ralph promising to send Alice “to the moon” but melting in her subsequent forgiveness of his idiocy and poor choices at the curtain, usually calling her “the greatest.”

Plots became more complex in the half-hour shows and included their neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph). Ed is an innocent and goofy sewer worker, bossed around by his wife, who invariably shows up in a t-shirt under a vest and a fedora.

The action mostly takes place in a one-room set depicting a miserable Brooklyn flat with a shoddy kitchen on one end, a bedroom door on the other, and a table before a window looking out onto a fire escape next to the door to the apartment. Contemporary shows all depicted wholesome upper-middle class families; The Honeymooners was a stripped-down outlier that showed America’s beating heart—and its warts. Here’s a trailer from the home video release.

Bandleader Ricky Ricardo tries to reign in his eccentric wife Lucy across the bridge from the Kramdens in Manhattan in the 1950’s. (IMDb.com)

I LOVE LUCY (Amazon.com; Hulu; Prime Video; some other services) 1951-1957 [TVPG]

The yang to The Honeymooners’ yin was its main competitor for the attention of American TV viewers in the 1950’s, I Love Lucy. While the former series showed a lower-middle class wife and her eccentric husband, Lucy showed the home life of a fashionable Manhattan bandleader—and his eccentric wife.

Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz, a musician and actor like Jackie Gleason) is a bandleader in a Manhattan nightclub; the apartment he comes home to is always pristine, and contains his wife Lucy (Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz’s real-life wife, a longtime Hollywood character actor and gifted physical comedian), a ditzy homemaker who is gullible to salesmen and who entertains dreams of joining Ricky’s act, despite being demonstrably devoid of musical talent. Their landlords, who live below them, are Fred Mertz (William Frawley) and his dowdy wife Ethel (Vivian Vance), best friends of the Ricardos.

In this show, as in The Honeymooners, younger viewers will experience some culture shock as we see characters routinely smoking cigarettes, using telephones, and (rarely) watching big vacuum-tube televisions. Neither Lucy nor Ethel work outside the house, like Alice Kramden, although Lucy’s sporadic attempts at getting jobs (usually as a gag or in service of a prank) provides grist for some episodes.

Ricky (like Arnaz) is a Cuban immigrant, whose accent is played up and who explodes in Spanish at Lucy’s nutty antics. His most-uttered phrase might be “Ay-yi-yi-yi!” Lucy, often with Ethel’s help, gets into one hilarious scrape after another, and viewers who might chafe at Ricky’s domestic dominance, which was the norm in 1950 America, would do well to remember that behind the camera it was Lucille Ball who wore the pants. CBS had heard her in a radio show with a similar premise and asked her to develop a TV show. She agreed, but insisted her husband Desi Arnaz be on the show. The CBS executives were concerned that America was not ready for a redheaded American with a Cuban husband. They needn’t have worried.

Ball was the first woman to head a TV production company, Desilu Studios, that she formed with Arnaz. After their divorce in 1960 she bought him out and became a very actively engaged studio head, pioneering several techniques still in use today, such as filming before a live audience with three cameras, also the birth of the rerun. (Ball became pregnant during the second season and was unable to deliver the standard 39 shows, so she and Desi decided to repeat some popular episodes during her confinement.)

Here’s the boxed-set trailer from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Next time, landmark western series—primal dramas on the high plains.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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