Jackie Gleason turned living in poverty into comedic success
"There was a lot of affection. But, the place was dull."
The Honeymooners couple, Ralph and Alice Kramden, were among the first to bicker in a sitcom. Played by Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows, the show differed from what viewers usually saw.
The Kramdens didn't have a lovely, small house in a neighborhood where white picket fences surrounded the homes. They lived in an apartment building, had no children and Ralph was a bus driver.
It's common for actors and comedians to use their childhood trauma or growing up in poverty for inspiration and jokes. It's something Jackie Gleason had no shame in doing. In an interview with Morely Safer in 1984, Gleason detailed how growing up in poverty inspired much of his content. He described how the round table and scenery in the Kramden's apartment were almost identical to the apartment he grew up in.
"My mother had to work because my father had left when I was about eight years old," he said. "So, she couldn't take care of [the flat] very well and work at the same time. But, she was a good mother, and everything was pleasant even though it was desultory."
When Safer asked what he meant by "desultory," and if he was trying to say that there was no affection from his mother, Gleason made sure to mention it was the environment that lacked brightness."Oh, there was a lot of affection. But, the place was dull. The bulbs weren't very bright. And, the surroundings, of course, were very bad."
The Kramdens were perfectly crafted by Gleason and other writers of the show. However, the idea of this bickering couple didn't just come out of thin air. "There were a lot of Kramdens in Brooklyn, and almost everyone was a Kramden in this particular neighborhood I lived in," the actor said.
Safer interjected, saying Ralph Kramden was a "pretty lousy" husband, and Gleason disagreed. "Well, no, not really, Marley. When you think of him, the poor soul doesn't have a [lot] of ability. But he keeps trying. He keeps schemes, and the schemes are all to make [him] and Alice happy," he said. "He fails. And when he fails, she feels a great deal of affection."
The character of Ralph Kramden can resonate with a lot of people. In Gleason's words, he's just a regular guy "trying to make it." The actor believes that reruns of the show became even more successful than its debut because it's funny.