Jackie Gleason, Our Miss Brooks, and Ozzie & Harriet join the comedy ranks
|With Lucy and Red Skelton having joined the ranks as hit-makers, it was inevitable that a few flops should eventually appear. One such flash in the pan was Red Buttons. Having made his name as a burlesque comic, Red hit the airwaves with a Tuesday night comedy-variety show. The only trouble was that he just wasn’t that funny in front of a TV camera. His one hit- the “Ho-Ho Song”- was a self-indulgent bit of silliness that became his trademark opening for the television show- but a thin bit of material it was, and as such, didn’t carry him far. By the time the second season ended, Red’s ratings had tanked and his show was canceled.|
But all was not lost. Later, on Tuesday evening, came “The Bob and Ray Show.” Though it didn’t fare much better than Red Buttons, Bob and Ray’s brand of subtle satire was genuinely funny in small doses, which was why they aired it in fifteen-minute segments, Monday through Friday. Time has been kind to the duo, their brand of humor ahead of its time, thus more appreciated now than it was in the early Fifties.
And just to prove that a gift for comedy can be inherited, Bob Elliott’s son Chris rose to stardom several decades later, first as “The Man Under the Stairs” on the David Letterman Show, then as the lead character on “Get a Life.” As for his role in the movie “Cabin Boy,” the less said the better.
Then came “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” on Friday night. Viewers and cast members never dreamed the show would become as popular as it did, but the series caught on, lasting 435 episodes until its end in 1966. The show starred Ozzie and Harriet, the parents, and their two real-life sons, David and Ricky. Ozzie was one of the early “bumbling” fathers; he meant well but was involved in an inordinate amount of screwups over the years. But he was a loving father and a friend to all, which probably made up for all the mistakes. While Harriet spent a lot of time in the kitchen, she was Ozzie’s guiding light, and the wary, long-suffering wife.
One thing that set this show apart from most other sit-coms was Ricky. About five seasons in, the powers-that-be (and Ozzie) believed they could promote Ricky as a singer. So, in 1957, the writers weaved a singing performance into one episode where Rick performed a cover of the Fats Domino hit “I’m Walkin’.” To the amazement of all, the song hit the charts and rose to #17. Rick soon became a teen idol, as one hit after another was performed on the show, then hit the charts. Before the show ended, Rick had thirty-three hits to his name, sixteen of those in the Top Ten.
Later, on Fridays came another landmark comedy, “Our Miss Brooks.” Though a sit-com, it distinguished itself as a screwball comedy- for most of the cast members were more than a little off, Eve Arden at the head of the pack. In love with another teacher at the school, Miss Brooks divided her time between trying to woo him and getting into all sorts of jams. Similar to Lucy, Arden engaged in slapstick and wacky behavior- but it was her snappy comebacks that set her apart from Lucille Ball. Unlike many other male or female comedians, Eve could hold her own with the likes of Groucho Marx (see Marx Brothers at the Circus), which mean that encounters with Gale Gordon (Lucy’s boss in her later series) were usually a standoff, his shouting and Eve’s withering putdowns the perfect match.
The show, which had its premiere on radio in 1948, featured other cast members whose weirdness provided a rich comic vein from which to mine. Mrs. Davis, Miss Brooks landlady, was several bricks short of a load, coming up with the most harebrained remarks. Walter Denton (played expertly by Richard Crenna) was the high school kid who drove Brooks to school every day. His nasal, squeaky, rasping voice alone was good for laughs, which only made his screwy outlook on life even funnier.
While the show’s format eventually changed during its four-year run, those early episodes are comedy gold.
Which brings us to Saturday evening and The Jackie Gleason Show, on CBS. Though the show opened variety numbers, the second half, called “The Honeymooners,” is what brought Gleason lasting fame.
A modest New York City apartment was the scene of weekly battles between Ralph Cramden (Gleason) and The World, while his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) and best friend Ralph Norton (Art Carney) taking collateral damage as a result of Ralph’s tirades. The interaction between these apartment dwellers was rife with comic possibilities, the show becoming so popular that it’s still watched and enjoyed to this day.
As for the rest of the show, Gleason went on to perform as host for weekly variety series throughout a twenty-year period, eventually bringing back The Honeymooners series for a final run.