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"Kissville": A Meditation on The Honeymooners
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Perhaps my father seeks to deny his own screen presence. Similar to my father, alter-ego Ralph Kramden represents an urban type: the frustrated worker attempting to assert authority on the world and over his wife. At a time when baby boomers were moving to the suburbs and everyone seemed to be buying cars, appliances and a second television, Gleason's Honeymooners was a cautionary tale, a throwback to the Great Depression.

Ralph and his fellow honeymooners move around a spartan set--table, two or three chairs, dresser, sink and an ancient icebox--that reflects a kind of emptiness, a standing at the edge of a void. Ralph tries to dominate that space, asking Norton to get out of his way, as he circles the table with a scheme, or frets back and forth while the stoic Alice sits and listens to a tirade or an apology, but no matter how many times he sends Norton "Out!--" the problems of the outside world invade his home (finances, relatives, unemployment). The table was always Ralph's anchor, the place where he confessed his transgressions and failed dreams, but the table also signified a closing in, a crowdedness, somewhat like the streets of New York that Ralph drives his bus up and down. There are no open spaces on the set, no sense of future opportunities. The set is a signifier of Kramden poverty.

The Honeymooners set recreated Gleason's own tenement life at 328 Chauncey Street in Bushwick during the 1920s and '30s and reconfigures it into a 1955-56 context, a time of economic plenty. Gleason's show, a television product, benefits from the sale of televisions, but in its depiction of Italian and Irish immigrants trying to make it in America, it throws us out of our optimism and makes us confront the lack of social mobility. Ralph never gets promoted, his get-rich schemes always fail, and he and Alice have no children. My father, too, suffered set-backs: at a time when his friends were making it big, Dad, a milkman, never got promoted, failed to own a home, and had marital discord. His investment in his own after-hours lawncare business turned sour when he wrenched his back.

But it's not despair, the looking into the void and into my own childhood, that makes me love The Honeymooners, but hope. Ralph may not get ahead, but he represents a wish-fulfillment for the imaginative child. As I looked to Ralph to discover my father, I saw several similarities: a boyish irresponsibility, a blow-hard, quick to forgive himself and others, and a man of impractical imagination, always scheming. His transgressions are forever forgiven by Alice or Norton and he can start anew, each episode. There's no sense of continuity between episodes or lingering, spiteful words. In my home that wasn't the case, it couldn't be: anger and recriminations carouseled around us. Mom couldn't forget the past--Dad disappearing for three days while she and three children under five fought bronchitis; Dad making her beg for household money, while he spent a wad at the track; and finally, an indelible image: Dad crashed on the couch and all of us gently walking, avoiding end tables, afraid of bumping him out of his hangover. I'm not saying she should have forgiven the past, but, in a weird way, I wished she could have. I wished she could be more like Alice. But Alice didn't have to cope with my father. Unlike Dad, Ralph doesn't have a drinking problem (he gets smashed on grape juice!) and his homelife is free of domestic violence. Sure the veiled threat is always present ("Bang, Zoom" to the moon), but Ralph never hits Alice (surprisingly, Trixie does hit Norton!). Although they argue, fight, their love binds them. Several scripts end with Ralph apologizing and Alice accepting. "Baby you're the greatest," he says, and then they embrace, in what the script calls "Kissville."


"Kissville." This recuperative power is what appealed to me then as a kid and appeals to me now. With each narrative, Ralph's working class frustrations are addressed and then banished with one final kiss. In my home there were no kisses, only lingering regrets (Dad wishing he could be more of a gentleman to my mother; Mom wishing she hadn't been so naive and married my father) that ended in divorce in 1980. The Kramden "Kissville" is a myth I realize, a wish-fulfillment, but I also believe the myth to be a human possibility, a reality open to all. And that kind of pathos mixed with sentimental hope, that kind of throwback to the films of Charlie Chaplin, is perhaps the driving force behind the series' long-standing power. The Honeymooners is what I wanted my homelife to be.

Audrey Meadows, the better-half of "Kissville," is one of TV land's great leading ladies: stoical, patient, understanding, practical. Her Alice Kramden, unlike my mother who raised three children and was emotionally exhausted by my father, isn't so much long-suffering as she is compassionate. Initially Gleason didn't want to hire Meadows as the second Alice (Pert Kelton, the first, was blacklisted) because he felt she was too beautiful.

Audrey Meadows in grunge wear.

Meadows pleaded and hired a photographer friend to take pictures of her waking up in the morning. These deglamorized, grunge shots worked, and Gleason gave her the part. But it's what she does with the part that's really amazing. Meadows, an Emmy Award winner in 1955, downplays her physical comedy to accommodate Gleason and Carney. She stands up to her husband, trades barbs with him, but has several moments of intense quiet. As she sits at the table, and he apologizes or raves, our eyes move rapidly between both performers and we can read her apparently blank, expressionless face as one of acceptance, forgiveness, love. Alice's great qualities I never fully appreciated as a kid. Now, as an adult, I have internalized them and spoken through them to my dad. I admire how Dad's been off alcohol for eight years, begun life anew with a second family, and how comfortably we talk on the phone.

Alice immediately guesses Ralph's suprise.

One brilliant episode, "The Loudspeaker" (4/21/56), captures the recuperative powers of the "Kissville" narrative without relying on a kiss. It begins with Ralph rushing home, excited, and convinced that Alice can't guess what has happened to him. "Well, there's only one thing I can think of from the way you're acting. You've been named Racoon-of-the-Year in that silly lodge of yours," she answers the challenge, not respecting the Racoon Lodge, most likely because of its impracticality and lack of community purpose. But Ralph disagrees, claiming that the Racoons are an "important organization," "vital," and when they attend the next convention, as Racoon-of-the-Year he and Alice will get to stand at the bridge of the ship as they cross racoon point. "Well, golly, gee," Alice quips.

Alice continues to tease her husband as he prepares an acceptance speech that involves a joke. Ralph practices, attempting sincerity, but he's totally insincere, repeatedly saying, "I am HUMMMMble" about the honor. And his rehearsed joke is worse yet. In a great comic set-piece (Gleason the comic being unfunny as Kramden the comic novice), Ralph tries it on Alice, but the timing is all off and the narrative flat: "Now get ready, here it comes--" he says, promising, mercifully, to end the joke, and when he delivers the punchline Alice doesn't laugh. In medium-close up she says, "I don't think it's funny." He gives a patented "Bang, Zoom" and leaves to try it out on Garrity.

Alice's rejection of Ralph, up to this point, is just good comedy, but when the context changes, so does Alice's attitude. The Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler visits the Kramdens with a prewritten speech. Ralph is off telling the joke and Alice discovers, in one of The Honeymooner's great ironic switcheroos, that it's Norton and not Ralph who is Racoon-of-the-Year. Pained, eyebrows arched, she looks away. Ralph returns, his joke a triumphant success with several tenants, and he lumbers behind the table, babbling on and on about the benefits of the award while the camera stays on Alice's disappointed face. Quietly she speaks his name, no longer making jokes. "I guess that will prove once and for all how important I am," Ralph boasts, picking up the speech written for him. Suddenly he discovers what Alice already knows, and he walks around stunned, swallowing hard, shaking his leg and waving his left arm. Ralph's social mobility is not only thwarted in the workplace but also in the halls of recreation.

Alice consoles Ralph ...

Alice had mocked the Racoon Lodge earlier; now, she dignifies it and her husband in a stirring speech of support and acceptance. "Ralph." She places her hands on his arm. "I know how you must feel. I know how much you wanted to win that Racoon-of-the-Year Award and how hard it must be for you to find out that you're not getting it. But there's always next year, Ralph. And other Racoon-of-the-year Awards. Do you know something, Ralph? I bet you'll win it. And even if you don't, Ralph, there's something else I want to tell you. You'll always be Racoon-of-the-Year around this house."

... and then everything's fine.

In an extreme Chaplinesque close-up, full of the pathos of City Lights, Ralph looks at her, smiles, nods, and says "Okay." There's no kiss--he exits to see Norton: "he'll be riot with this joke," and Alice turns to the table, picks up the coon cap and looks at it bitter sweetly--but the recuperative power of the absent kiss lingers as a presence. In this moment of brilliant poignancy, Ralph has found in defeat what I, Mom, Dad, and all of us desire: victory through love.

Grant Tracey is the editor of Literary Magazine Review and an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

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Photo credits: Fox Video

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