The Honeymooners: Nostalgia is sometimes not so nice

When television was in its infancy in the 1950’s, a show never to be missed was The Honeymooners. I was a young child and recall the show to this day. However, in comparison to today’s sophistication and political correctness, I wonder how it achieved such popularity. Don’t say nostalgia, as if THAT can erase all past evil and chalk it up to, “It was an acceptable form of treatment between couples back then.” When we apply what we know about domestic violence and intimate partner violence today, we should be horrified, shocked and dismayed at the treatment of women in the 1950’s and the wife as slave and one to be abused,  as portrayed in this classic comedy which all family members laughed at and looked forward to each week!

Yes, I can take a joke about things that are truly funny. A review of many YouTube episodes of The Honeymooners revealed some funny stuff between Jackie Gleason and his sidekick, Art Carney. However, the married couple’s relationship can be viewed as questionable, and in some circles, abusive. My opinion is such shows give evil people evil ideas.

The character of Ralph Kramden is a know-it-all bus driver, who gets involved in one get rich quick scheme after another and who loves to dominate and bully his wife. In fact, it appears that his friendship with best friend Norton is far more intimate regarding personal closeness and compatibility than with his wife, Alice, the begrudging housewife who serves “the master.”

Alice Kramden is your typical ‘50’s housewife, BUT, she is no pushover. She frequently stands up to her husband’s verbal, physical and psychological abuse. Writers for Wikipedia attempt to explain away his bad behavior by saying, “Ralph is very short-tempered, frequently resorting to bellowing insults and hollow threats.” Hidden beneath the many layers of bluster, however, is “a soft-hearted man who loves his wife and is devoted to his best pal, Ed Norton.” How can we be so sure of this?  We have a very insecure male who is barely scraping by to provide a living for his wife who is not at all ambitious, with the exception of lifting a fork. His world revolves around bowling and he doesn’t appear to care about bettering his situation in real meaningful ways. And so, he finds fault with everyone else.

How often has the character of Alice been frustrated, angry, in tears or wanted to run away from her apartment prison? Although we may not have seen blatant physical abuse, there was plenty of physical gesturing/threats, pounding on or throwing inanimate objects, screaming and verbal threats.

Ralph’s mother in law constantly reminds him of his weight and that he is a bad provider to her daughter. The character of Alice apparently studied to be a secretary prior to marrying Ralph, and according to the storyline, she was one of 12 children with a father who never worked. Talk about lost dreams for these two characters caught up in the life within a Brooklyn tenement. This series was supposed to mirror the working class of the 1950’s, but, were the innocent 1950’s really so bad? Was the working class so angry?

It appears to me, that current life is a lot more complicated, with far more sources of anger upon which abusers can blame their unacceptable behavior.

 The Evolution: 

Historically, the start of The Honeymooners began as a six-minute sketch on the DuMont Television Network and then as one of the featured sketches beginning in 1953 on the Jackie Gleason Show (a variety/comedy hour) moving to the CBS Network. The Gleason show was a rival for the ever popular, I Love Lucy show.

Several actresses were considered for The Honeymooners co-starring wife role. However, some of the actresses were blacklisted during the time of the McCarthy hearings. What an opportunity for Audrey Meadows. She sent Gleason her “wake up in the morning look” in a ripped house coat when she was considered too pretty for the role. As it turned out, Jackie Gleason was paid a whopping $65,000 per episode increased to $70,000 during the second season. Audrey Meadows received $2,000 per week.

Other Characters: 

The other two characters of The Honeymooners included Ed Norton, skillfully portrayed by Art Carney, and his wife, Trixie, a rather nebulous person, portrayed by Joyce Randolph, a relatively minor role who was Alice’s best friend. Ed Norton was your average Joe working in the New York City sewer system. He was goofy, yet affable and loyal to a fault to his friend, Ralph. Although his character supposedly went to typing school, he didn’t like contained spaces. Norton was proud to describe his job as, “A sub-supervisor in the subdivision of the department of subterranean sanitation. I just keep things moving.

Back to Intimate Partner Violence… Is Ralph Kramden an Abuser?

I reviewed about a dozen episodes of the Honeymooners on YouTube. Although the viewer can make the case that Alice was very capable of giving it back to Ralph with biting sarcasm, what would be the consequence if she had not stood up for herself? Would Ralph eventually follow through with his gesture “to the Moon, Alice!” and make contact?

On the other hand, being submissive and following an intimate partner’s demands to the letter in no way shape or form guarantees safety. So what’s a woman to do? Anger and jealousy over perceived infractions will often continue to fuel the partner’s behavior. Alice does not have to do anything wrong in the eyes of the world. What Ralph perceives and does is what matters in the end with such toxic relationships.

A Few Examples of Ralph’s Verbal Abuse from Episodes of “The Honeymooners” 

“Alice, you’re a riot…. I’d like to… (Waving fist); Boys and Girls Together episode;

“Just be careful Alice, Be careful… The life you save may be your own”; A Women’s Work is Never Done episode;

“Oh Boy, are you ‘gonna get yours… Just once… Pow” Peacemaker episode;

(Talking about not washing his bowling shirt or darning his socks) “… I’m gonna put in a new system right now. When I come home, if it isn’t done the way I say, you get one demerit. Do you know what happens to you when you get ten demerits…? A Woman’s Work is Never Done episode

Take my advice and do not let your kids watch The Honeymooners.
Parting Comments:
Alice/Audrey Meadows: Audrey Meadows was a lot more savvy than Alice. She was the only actor on the series who requested financial compensation and residuals be written into her contract for the viewing of shows over time. In real life, she served as Director of the First National Bank of Denver for 11 years, the first woman to hold such a position. She also was instrumental in the design of flight attendant uniforms and customer service policies at Continental Airlines (her late husband’s company).

Smart woman!!! She protected her financial interests and was a pioneer career woman too! Ralph would have been so jealous!

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  1. This has got to be a joke. I will let my children watch the Honeymooners before I let them watch 90% of the shows on TV today. Ralph wasn’t abusive; he was a blowhard who made empty threats and never once acted on them. Alice stood up for herself and gave it right back to him. If anything, HE was afraid of Alice!! I’m sorry, but I’ve been watching this show since I was 10 years old and never once interpreted Ralph’s actions the way you’ve described. That’s not to say his character was admirable, but it sure made for funny television in my opinion, and that’s all it was ever meant to be: a TV show.

  2. I have been a Honeymoonie for over 40 years since I started watching the reruns in the 70s and to me, The Honeymooners is one of the funniest shows of all time. Jackie Gleason made that show famous and he put a lot into it. Even though Ralph screams so much, he does love Alice and is loyal to his best friend Norton. Gleason and Art Carney are one of the greatest comedy teams in TV history and there are a number of scenes throughout the classic 39 episodes that show why.

    As for the sketches, often referred to as “The Lost Episodes,” it’s a different story. I saw a number of the episodes and i felt there was way too much screaming. It was like hearing long time college basketball coach Bobby Knight scream in a whole half. Those episodes lacked continuity but there was a lot of physical comedy and out of control props.

    The Honeymooners is a true comedy classic and I still watch the episodes on METV on Sunday nights. The honeymoon will never be over for this show.

  3. It figures this would be the modern attitude and reflection on a show that had genuine humor years ago. How many times did Ralph belly-up to Alice because he made an idiot of himself and she certainly displayed to be the one with sensibility and wisdom. And how many times did he apologize to her and be genuinely remorseful cause he screwed up. He may have raised a hand but that was it. I never saw any violence. I felt part of the humor of the Honeymooners was how Alice would just stare down Ralph when he got pissed and was being stupid.

    I don’t believe anyone ever could say they didn’t feel like belting someone at one time or another. But, what we think and what we do are very different. Consider what you’d may want to do to your neighbor when they’re out there with their lawn mower early in the morning and your trying to sleep in. Or when someone’s blasting their radio about three or four o’clock in the morning when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep so you can get up and be productive the next day. I think most may feel like raising a hand when aggravated for one thing or another.

    So go ahead and slam this program for it’s what would now be considered “political-incorrectness” while allowing our modern and sophisticated society to embrace thought provoking and oh so humorous winners such as “Two and a Half Men”, “Two Broke Girls”, or “Modern Family”. Yeah they’re all really so clever and humorous and of course display only the best of morals our modern society can deliver.

    • Any woman who has lived with an insecure screamer recognizes that sound in Ralph Kramden’s voice. Anyone with a brain knows that one angry partner killing a partner never killed that person before, but things do escalate to that point…one time.
      My phone has some Honeymooner episodes on it, and the last one I saw was of The Kramdens adopting a baby. The biological mother decided to take back the baby within days and Ralph totally ignored an opportunity to comfort a very sad Alice, thinking only of his sadness and scolding her for not seeing his feelings were all that mattered. Whoever wrote this stuff was either hoping to wake folks up or they were real morons.

  4. I’d like to see a single frame from the entire run of the show when Alice showed even a hint of fear. As a character, she was years ahead of her time (a pre-first wave feminist) and truly strong in their relationship. Ralph may have blustered about being “the man of the house”, but find and episode where it was actually the case by the end. He’s far more cuckold than ruler, playing with being in charge, but inevitably recognizing who’s the real boss.

  5. The Honeymooners has rightly been criticized over the years for making light of wife abuse. But of course, because of the world we live in, the depictions of husband abuse, far more horrific in that they weren’t just threats they were actually carried out, are totally forgotten. I saw an episode recently (“Something Fishy”) where Ed and Ralph were going to go on a fishing trip without their wives. Ralph doesn’t dare tell his wife because he admits he is afraid of her. But of course, the wives find out. Alice just informs Ralph that she is going. But we only get to hear what happens when Trixie finds out. We hear crashing noises offstage, (maybe caused by a frying pan, the “funny” weapon of choice for abusive wives in sitcoms) and Ralph cringes in the knowledge of what’s going on. In the next scene, Norton appears with a bandage on his face. Of course, it’s all very funny, and still is considered so today. Impotently threatened violence against a woman, not funny today. (I fully agree with this by the way.) But actual violence against a man, still hilarious in the eyes of most. Violence against men is still as invisible as ever.

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