MORE than 40 years after he hit TV and five years after his death, people still talk about Jackie Gleason with the same urgency they do about Bill Cosby or David Letterman - as if Gleason had appeared on prime time for the first time last night. His best-known vehicle, the domestic sketch called "The Honeymooners," still airs on stations all over country and has long since become a cult, with fan clubs and published anthologies of the scripts. And now a probing and carefully considered book about the man
himself has been published, "The Great One: The Life and Legend of Jackie Gleason," by William A. Henry III, a distinguised "culture critic" (don't ask me what that is) of Time magazine.
The biography is the epic of a prodigious talent who grew up in poverty and survived a tragic family life. As an adult he was a Hogarthian figure of unrestrained appetities and self-destructive excesses. But even before "The Honeymooners" he was a comic master whose broad style came to the tube just when it most needed him.
I recall his style on live TV as a frontal assault, as if he were fighting with this cool new medium. In his monologues Gleason always gave me the feeling he was grabbing you by the lapel and demanding a hearing. It was usually worth the time, but he struck me as missing the kind of gifts seen in other comic greats of the period: the innate genius of Danny Kaye, the razor-sharp delivery of Milton Berle, the manic creativity of Sid Caesar, the radical insights of Ernie Kovacs.
But when Gleason became Ralph Cramden, it was something else. The "Honeymooners" format first appeared in 1950 as a sketch on the "Cavalcade of Stars," a variety show starring Gleason as a bus driver raging at life. In Ralph, Gleason's brilliant braggadocio and volcanic personality found the meaning it always seemed to be searching for in other acts. His raucous talent was no longer just spouting jokes or creating spoofs, like the rich man Reggie Van Gleason. It was now in the service of a deeply realize d allegorical character: the decent but anxiously macho American blue-collar male, made a little larger and louder than life by this fiercely bombastic comic whose tone of voice told a tale of frustration and denial.
Gleason had always been something of a screamer on stage and screen, but now at last he had something worth screaming at: the slings and arrows of the urban worker's world and everything in it. Ralph screamed at his wife. He screamed at his boss (but only at home). He was really screaming at life, but you never worried about such abstractions. You were too involved in the reality of the scenes - the dingy little apartment, the sarcasm of his wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), and the absurdly effective antics
of Ralph's doltish neighbor Norton, played memorably by Art Carney.
I have a book of "Honeymooners" scripts somewhere that I've only skimmed, because more than almost any other show I can think of, this one needs the voices. "You're a blabbermouth. A BLABBERMOUTH!" The words leap off the written page only if you've heard Gleason yell them. I know people who wouldn't dream of watching old sitcoms, yet they make an exception for "The Honeymooners" because it seems to escape the mental cliches of other old shows. Way back in the '50s, I found "The Honeymooners" a refreshin g cure for the cutes that had already invaded sitcom production styles. Instead of sunny kitchens and frilly living rooms, here was a setting of existential starkness, dominated by a champion of blue-collar middle-aged manhood and his long-suffering wife.
The format would not have worked half as well without its nucleus of players. Without Gleason, it wouldn't have worked at all. Only a few times in TV has so protean a talent found itself in so perfectly structured a setting. It tells you something about how entertainment TV can work and why it often doesn't. Ingenious formats alone won't do it. TV history is haunted with the ghosts of "clever" but unrenewed series. Gifted performers can't do it alone.
But Gleason had found a perfect chemistry of character and situation and concept. This happens only rarely on TV, and the show remains an implicit rebuke to the contrived formats of many series today.