Happy New Year’s to everyone hungover, starting their annual diets, and choosing between any number of bowl games, The Twilight Zone and The Honeymooners. For our part, we’re channel surfing (as usual). But I thought I’d pause to determine if there is a perfect episode present in Jackie Gleason’s classic 39.
We’ve been mad about the antics of the Kramdens and the Nortons for the better parts of our (still) young lives, and like you we have our favorites. Like any animal lover, we are touched by Norton’s despairing cries of “Lulu!”, the dog he loved and lost, thus leading to the titular escapades of “The Sleepwalker.” “TV or Not TV” features a monologue expertly delivered by Audrey Meadows culminating in the declaration that “I don’t want to look at that ice box, that stove, that sink and these four walls! I want to look at Liberace!” in her quest for a set. But what in life is perfect? Even those episodes with the best belly laughs have their faults.
“Young at Heart” contains one of the best visual gags of the entire series – Norton teaching Ralph the hucklebuck (“It’s one of those numbers that tells a story.”) along with a genuinely touching finale where Ralph realizes that we fail to enjoy the best moments of our lives while living them. But the opening sequence with insipid young lovers Wallace and Judy (or “Atomic Passion” and “Angel Cake”) feels forced, and Ralph initially mocking Alice’s desire to recapture their youth comes across as needlessly cruel for a man who, rants and raves aside, is madly in love with his wife.
“Funny Money” (or as my dad refers to it, “Suitcase Full of Money”) was never one of my favorites, although with repeated viewings I’ve found myself chuckling at Ralph’s mother-in-law assuming the large case in question is his lunch box and Ralph’s use of his newfound wealth to install a telephone on the fire escape for when he “sleeps out there in the summer.” Still, a premise where Ralph Kramden is in the same orbit with cartoonish counterfeiters Boss and Ziggy feels like it belongs on a different program.
“Pal O’Mine” starts strong, but gradually slips into melodramatic territory. Norton plans to make a gift of a handsome ring to the svelte Jim McKeever. When Ralph believes himself to be the recipient, the ring makes its way onto his chubby finger. What else can Norton do but bring Jim and the rest of his sewer buddies down to the Kramdens to show them Jim’s ring on Ralph’s hand (and of course Ralph explodes by the end of Norton’s speech extolling the virtues of McKeever). But an angered Ralph’s attempt to replace Norton with pale carbon copy Teddy Oberman followed by Norton’s injury in the sewer, a tearful Trixie, and a case of mistaken identity before the best friends reconcile at the hospital is too much too fast in the final act.
So does the perfect Honeymooners episode exist? After much consideration, I’ve settled on “The $99,000 Answer.”
Inspired by the classic game show The $64,000 Question, this is 22 minutes of perfect punchlines and an ironic payoff that Rod Serling would be proud of (sorry; Twilight Zone also on the brain). We begin with handsome game show host Herb Norris instructing contestant Mr. Parker in the hurdles to overcome and the ever-increasing cash reward en route to the ultimate prize of $99,000 (think Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for your grandparents and their friends). Parker is answering questions in the category of Banking and Finance, and $49,500 is his if he can recall how many times the numeral one and the word one appears on a dollar bill. Who doesn’t reach into their wallet at this point and scan a bill of their own, the first instance where the audience becomes a player in the narrative. Parker correctly guesses 25 times, and he’s nearly $50,000 richer. It seems a bit awkward that the game show sends Parker away to return the next week, sending him backstage so you know who can take a stab at answering some questions, but one could argue that the episode’s intro quickly and cleanly tells us the rules so we can immediately invest in our hero’s reaction to the proceedings.
Ralph, led on stage by a predecessor of Vanna White, is extremely nervous, so much so that when asked his profession he responds that he “brives a dus.” This leads Norris to relate a story about a bus driver that splashed him while on his route several days earlier. Of course Ralph was the culprit, and this first use or irony foreshadows the type of storytelling we’re in store for. Ralph chooses the category of Popular Songs (how could he pass up Table Tennis!), but alas time has run out. Kramden will return to play next week.
Back at Kramden abode, Trixie rushes down to tell Alice how exciting the show was. Any fan of the so-called lost episodes knows that Trixie as a character is better defined in those sketches and often has more interesting material to play than in the classic 39. Many a classic episode, “The Golfer” among them, fails to feature Joyce Randolph at all, and those she does appear in often find her rushing downstairs to share a scene with Alice that simply sets up whatever is to follow. But here, her flight down the steps makes sense and she gets one of her best lines referring to Ralph as “the biggest thing on television.” Ralph soon appears, after standing under a street light in the event that someone wants to talk to the newly minted celebrity. Of course his jealous neighbors do not even admit that they caught the program, but Alice is quick to remind her husband that Trixie saw the show and that Norton watched it with his pals at the bowling alley. These true blue friends will share in Ralph’s good fortune and share in Alice’s amazement when their antiquated kitchen set is revitalized in a Park Avenue apartment. Already Ralph is counting the money before it’s his, but Alice is wary. He’s bound to crack under the pressure, but Ralph has a plan: take a week off from work and listen and learn the title of every song ever sung. But can he spell antidisestablishmentarianism?
The Kramden kitchen is transformed into a music shop complete with piano and record player, a humorous development that does not become farcical. Alice’s mother appears to ask how “the brain” is doing. The mother-in-law/son-in-law conflict is hardly the most original comedic device, but here it serves the plot well. Alice’s mother’s glee at the prospect of Ralph getting all the way to final question only to see his face when he misses it strengthens our investment in Ralph’s success while subtly foretelling what’s to come. Norton comes downstairs. It is of note that Art Carney, so vital to the show’s success, appears late in this episode and then in only this one scene. But the fact that his stint at the piano is the most memorable moment of the show is a testament to what the actor can do even with minimal screen time. Whatever he plays, Ralph names. But before striking even one note, he has to warm up with a few familiar bars that, at least upon first viewing, seems to be nothing but one of Norton’s innocuous quirks, his obsessive compulsive rituals before each task. It frustrates Ralph, but soon he is on fire, naming song after song. Carney’s skilled piano playing leads to the entrance of two neighbors: Garrity, who promises his face in the next day’s paper for killing Ralph on account of the racket, and Mrs. Manicotti so Ralph can guess the title “Take Me Back to Sorrento” when his neighbor croons a few lines in her native tongue. As Alice observes, “the whole house has gone crazy.” And so have we, caught up in the fervor of Ralph’s quest.
Now for the moment of truth. Ralph returns to the television studio. The host reminds him that he can stop and any time and walk away with the money he’s earned thus far, but a confident Kramden proclaims, in spite of what his wife desires, he is going for the $99,000. Let the games begin! As soon as the question “Who is the composer of ‘Swanee River’?” hits the air, Ralph’s fate is sealed. We know he doesn’t know the answer, and we suspect we know the tune. Sure enough, Norton’s musical warmup is played. In retrospect, it couldn’t have gone down any other way. Only Ralph would spend time on Italian folk songs but neglect to ask Norton what he was tinkling on the ivories. Because Ralph does not know the answer, he feebly offers the response “Ed Norton.” In the end, who better for Ralph to turn to when the chips are down? Would if he could, Norton would save Ralph from this most public embarrassment, but does anyone else wonder if even Norton knows who Stephen Foster is? The pretty pre-Vanna White leads the crumpled Kramden offstage as he desperately calls out the names, composers, and histories of those songs he did learn. For arguably the only time, we laugh at Ralph’s despair as well as ourselves, so carried away were we by the scheme and the riches that seemed within his reach.
Feel free to disagree. Perhaps “Mama Loves Mambo” or “Alice and the Blonde” is more your cup of tea. But for a solid foundation, plausible stakes, a great Ralph/Norton scene, and the hilarious, ironic denouement, tune in to one of the best executed sitcom episodes of all time. Wildly ahead of its time in terms of construction and execution (this is not Lucy, Ethel, and Fred tricking Ricky’s boss into thinking that they’re a cavalcade of dissatisfied Tropicana customers), Gleason, Carney, and company present a playlet that would feel fresh among current top ten shows without one wasted line and an abundance of laughs.