Better Living Through TV

The Honeymooners


Jim Shepard

The room where my family watched TV when I was a kid was tiny: five paces would take you from wall to wall, and from the rocking chair in one corner if you stretched out your foot you could almost touch the TV in the other. The room was down the end of the hall opposite my parents’ bedroom, and when I was a toddler it served as the spare room that held my mother’s sewing machine. Around the time I hit first or second grade the TV was moved into it as part of her campaign to save the living room for company: since the kids liked to watch TV, getting the TV out of there was one way of keeping it presentable. As a way of making the transition more palatable, she had the new TV room paneled, and started calling it the den.

My parents watched a lot of TV as well, and so it worked out that in a very small house holding four people who mostly didn’t get along, when we each hadn’t retreated to our prospective corners we tended to be all piled together in what was easily, outside of the linen closet, the most cramped space in the house.

What do I mean by ‘didn’t get along’? We all loved one another and made each other laugh, but we were also — even the least of us (me) –volatile personalities. Our parents fought so much when my brother and I were growing up that when no one was yelling in the house I found myself wondering if someone had died. Friends who came to visit left open-mouthed at the amount of abuse, good-natured and otherwise, that accompanied a routine meal.

It started with my mother, who was to put it kindly a force of nature. At her funeral a longtime family friend said that one of things that he loved about her was that she was never afraid to speak her mind, and saying that my mother was never afraid to speak her mind was a little like saying that Joseph Stalin was willing to take charge of things. You could tell from low flying aircraft that she came from what used to be called hearty peasant stock, and when it came to interacting with her family, she had the touch of a blacksmith. When agitated, she was something to behold, and she was almost always agitated. She had a voice that could knock squirrels from trees. I remember a boy who lived two streets over remarking on the bus to school one day that he’d heard me being disciplined the night before.

My father, on the other hand, was considered by most of his friends and family to be one of the more covertly anxious people they had ever encountered. Having grown up in the Depression with an unapproachable father and a solicitous but fearful mother, both of whom warned him regularly that they were all about to lose their house and end up out on the street, in the Second World War he’d honed his capacity for anxiety by flying ground attack missions in Burma and then cargo over the Himalayas when the attrition rate on those latter missions was around twenty percent. He survived that and contracted malaria, and survived malaria and made it back to Connecticut, only to marry our mother and find himself with two erratic kids who regularly gave him every reason to believe that we were about to blow up whatever fragile happiness we’d managed to cobble together. I specialized in life-threatening idiocies like nearly drowning myself any number of times while scuba diving at the age of 13 or so without any certification, or lying on the runway at Bridgeport Airport while incoming aircraft were landing, while my brother was even more upsetting: he had gone from a quiet boy who mostly just shied away from social situations to someone who by the time he was fifteen or so was having agonized problems when it came to any kind of life outside of his room. This was around 1967 or so, and my brother, who’d been a passionate fan of the music of the British wave, had grown his hair so that it just covered the tops of his ears. He’d also graduated from a truly awful and regimented Catholic school in Bridgeport to an equally awful public high school in Stratford right at that moment when the school’s administration had decided to Hold the Line in terms of discipline. When he refused to cut his hair he was singled out and made to stand throughout all-school assemblies, or sent home, a three and a half mile walk.

All of this would have been a problem for any kid, but as my brother headed into adolescence something disastrously biochemical was transpiring that made him more devastated and enraged by humiliation than any other human being I’ve ever known. At sixteen after losing a game of gin rummy to his eleven year-old brother and a friend he upended our kitchen table, a massive cherry oval with big cross-beamed legs. At its highest point the entire thing was up over our heads. It made a permanent divot in the linoleum where the table edge came down. Our friend was so traumatized he refused to play cards with us again.

My brother dropped out of school, and then lost jobs. He went to therapy and group therapy. He was clearly disturbed, but no one had a diagnosis.

My mother thought he was just malingering and could be whipped into shape with a little more discipline and shouting. My father, who had a horror of the potential impossibility of trying to retrieve him from a state mental institution, seized on a new experimental program at Yale-New Haven hospital that promised to treat him as an in-patient for only six months. My brother didn’t want to go and then pleaded with us every single day to get him out of there. (We visited almost every day, and those separations at the end of our visits remain some of my very worst memories.) The hospital tried drug therapy but this was in 1969, or the Dawn of Time when it came to psychopharmacology, and no one knew anything, although since it was a teaching hospital, an array of disagreeing doctors gamely tried everything, even though many of the drugs had humiliating and/or debilitating side effects, and my brother was finally released as one of the Institute’s complete failures – “We throw up our hands with him,” the resident told my parents – with a lifelong suspicion of the medical profession and a loathing even for aspirin.

After that things got worse. My mother blamed my father. My father blamed my mother. My brother blamed them both. Six or seven times at least things got so violent the police had to be called. The routine was that the police would drive him to the bus station and tell him that he couldn’t come back for a while. Sometimes he’d threaten them while they were ushering him from the house, and I was always struck by how professionally they handled it. My father would slip him thirty or forty dollars, which would further enrage my mother, and after the police car had left, she would resume her outline of the fatal mistakes my father had made as a parent, which he’d endure for a while, and then they’d go at it again.

Anyway: you get the idea. We even managed to fight over what to watch on TV, which made the one show that we did all agree on – The Honeymooners, at that point in nightly syndication on WPIX out of New York – the most blessed sort of relief, and haven. It wasn’t only that except in the very worst cases a truce would be imposed whenever someone turned on the show; it was also that maybe more than anything else in the history of television, the show modeled for us a way to expose and then to recuperate all sorts of problematic emotional intensity in a domestic setting.

Which meant we experienced the show as both an escape and a meditation on what we were going through. In terms of the latter, and our mostly grateful sense of the show’s wondrous and unexpected emotional authenticity, we were responding of course to its neorealist touches: the way, for example, Jackie Gleason had seen to it that his character’s apartment matched the tenement in which he’d grown up, or the way Ed Norton’s trademark hat had come from Art Carney’s own wardrobe, and the comic business of his maddeningly elaborate hand movements before any activity he’d copied from his father. But around the Shepard household we were also responding to Ralph Kramden’s essential characteristics, which were so terrifyingly close to ours: his jealousy, his hair-trigger capacity for jumping to conclusions, his big mouth, and his desperate insecurity that overwhelmed whatever generosity he did wish to generate. When the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes pointed out that the show’s “harshness” was “often too realistic to be funny,” he was referring as much to its emotional intensity as its portrait of economic deprivation, and he went on in the same piece to note how much actual dislike the show communicated when it came to day-to-day strife between bonded family members. It was that edge that gave the show so much of its power.

But Gleason – and the show he created – made all of that bellicosity and instability moving, even appealing. And how that magic trick was supposed to operate was of interest to all of us.

Nearly every show was about either Ralph’s desperate attempts to better his lot or, in the face of that failure, to assert his authority over someone else in his domestic sphere, usually his wife, and since both agendas were always torpedoed by the very urgency of his need to make them work, the question in so many of the episodes’ comic situations often became How long can Ralph suppress his rage before it erupts? And in such situations we could feel the show’s writers having as much fun waiting for that moment as the audience did.

All of Ralph’s efforts frequently made things worse for himself in ways he couldn’t have imagined, as in the episode “Better Living Through TV” when his scheme to hawk Handy Housewife Helpers via a live commercial backfires in spectacularly humiliating fashion. Humiliation was as close to an explosively taboo topic in my house as you could find, but what Ralph went through we could riff on endlessly, as a group.

As unhappy as my family managed to be, we were all raised Catholic, and so had had drummed into us at an early age that guilty sense of how fortunate we all really were, and therefore how ungrateful: At least you have your legs, one of the nuns who taught me in grammar school used to respond whenever our class had a complaint. As many have pointed out, it’s not hard to see the eternally thwarted Ralph Kramden as Jackie Gleason’s idea of where he so easily might have wound up—and where, in the early days of his TV success, he probably feared he still might wind up—if and when this show-business thing didn’t pan out.

And that was another source of anguish that Ralph modeled for us: the vastness of that gap between who he imagined himself to be and who he so often was. As an actor Gleason prided himself on his versatility but the only character he ever inhabited nearly as fully as Ralph Kramden was his Minnesota Fats in 1961’s The Hustler, which was no accident, since in the latter he played a legendary poolroom shark who was then revealed to have long since sacrificed his principles and lost his autonomy to the gambler who now staked his games.

That was another source of sympathy that Ralph generated: the persistent implication underlying so much of his behavior that he already knew he was in desperate need of self-renovation. This operated in self-conscious and direct contrast with his pal Ed Norton, whose role in the series was to model in comic terms what it meant to be fundamentally satisfied with your lot, even when that meant working in a sewer.

No one watching The Honeymooners for more than five minutes could doubt that Ralph’s love for his wife Alice was far and away the most important value in his life. And no one watching for ten could miss the persistence with which he acted as though the opposite were true. It’s not exactly accurate to call The Honeymooners feminist, but no other television show of the fifties or even the sixties mocked a male character so mercilessly for not understanding either the burdens of his wife’s position or his contributions to those burdens. And for all of her restraint in the face of Gleason’s histrionics, Audrey Meadows’ comic brio as an actress was most fully on display whenever she was reacting sarcastically to her husband’s accusations about her inadequacies as a homemaker.

Which led us, as a family, to yet another hard lesson that The Honeymooners taught. Over and over again in the thirty-nine half-hour narratives that for so many years were the only record of the show, Ralph paid the penalty for not telling the truth, and for having, in so doing, put his entire family in jeopardy. An episode like “Oh My Aching Back” was a good example: in it Alice warns him not to go bowling the night before his company physical, since if he hurts his back, as he so often does, it could cost him his job; naturally, having solemnly promised not to, he goes bowling anyway, and of course hurts his back, and the bulk of the show involves his and Norton’s attempts to conceal his agonized immobility from her. And again, in the history of television, maybe no one did pain – physical and emotional – as persuasively, without losing touch with the comedy that was the essential point of the project. Ralph’s Uncle Leo appears in a surprise visit, and is instantly identifiable to the live audience as a back slapper as soon as he gives his booming hello, and watching now is mostly a matter of enjoying the dread on Ralph’s face, and hearing the anticipation in the audience’s responses, as everyone awaits what’s coming. As Catholics who’d been abusing each other for however long, how was my family supposed to resist that?

* * *

Ralph’s “Baby, you’re the greatest,” and his and Alice’s embrace at the end of most episodes weren’t just formulaic, or automatic, either: in “Hello, Mom” Ralph flies off the handle at the news that Alice’s mother is visiting, only to learn at the episode’s end that it’s his mother who’s visiting. Alice, of course, is completely gracious to his mother nonetheless, and the scene following is memorably agonizing in its depiction of her disappointment in him and his shame. He tells her he doesn’t know what to do or say. And in the silence that follows she tells him that the previous night – which she spent alone because he had abandoned her to sleep in Norton’s apartment – she found a letter “that was written by a pretty big man on the subject of mother-in-laws.” She tells him to read it out loud. Which he does, while she stares impassively ahead at the audience. It turns out to be a working man’s primer on empathy, the Toots Shor version. (Gleason claimed that someone at the bar where he famously held court had showed it to him.)

Dear Mom:

I just thought I’d write and tell you this. A mother-in-law is the most criticized, the most misunderstood, and the most defenseless of all women. The average woman must be clever enough to know when to speak, but a mother-in-law must know when to keep silent. She must be very wise – wise enough to withhold advice even though she knows the answer to the problem. The mother-in-law must sit on the fence between her own child and the child by marriage, and somehow she must keep her balance. She must lean backwards until her spine aches or else she’s accused of being partial, and she isn’t permitted the luxury of hurt feelings or tears. If a person could put themselves in their mother-in-law’s place, weigh her in the balance, be completely fair, they’d nominate her for the Presidency of the United States. And she’d be the first woman to make it.

Once he’s finished he asks her who wrote it. She reminds him that he did, fifteen years ago, when they were on their honeymoon. His response is first a shamefaced silence and then to announce that he’s going out for a little air. And the episode ends with Alice not acknowledging his announcement, and standing to clear their kitchen table. Watching it today I can still feel how quiet our family always became when watching her, left onstage alone.

Each night after 28 minutes or so of playing Ralph Kramden’s dysfunction mainly for laughs, the series was savvy enough to focus in its final gestures on Gleason’s essential humanity, and on the remorse his face was so gifted at conveying. That, along with Audrey Meadows’ calm attractiveness and patience, is what allowed a series that indulged so much strife to nonetheless radiate hope. (The original Alice, Pert Kelton, was much older, and more implacably enraged and contemptuous, which made her pairing with Gleason not only less nuanced but quite a bit bleaker.) Meadows’ Alice for all of her strength was so clearly emotionally present for her husband when he really needed her to be that it always reminded him and us that for all of their poverty and troubles, this endlessly combative couple that seemed at first glance to have gotten such a raw deal really did have something crucial going for them when you came right down to it: they had each other. And they had the ennobling feelings that they were capable of generating in each other, and neither of those gifts constituted a trivial source of solace. So: crammed into our darkened den, as physically close to my mother and father and brother as I can recall being, I remember thinking, about Ralph and Alice, that I refused to accept them as failures as human beings, if at their best they could feel the way they so clearly did.