Although he tried very hard to become a movie star as well as create and produce television entertainment that was a lot flashier, like it or not, The Honeymooners ended up being the single creation for which Jackie Gleason was best known. One irony surrounding its recognition over the decades was that, as a series in its own right, it was only on for a single season, 1955-1956, with 39 episodes running 26 minutes each. They were performed in front of a live audience but shot on film to be broadcast later. All of the other Honeymooners shows -- the so-called "Lost Episodes" -- were comedy sketches of varying lengths, performed and broadcast live as part of Gleason's larger variety program The Jackie Gleason Show; they were preserved on kinescopes, films shot of the show off of a studio monitor. The results were crude, but effective, rather like the sketch comedy itself. The sketch performances of The Honeymooners from 1952-1955 may have established the setting, the premise, and the characters, but those 39 filmed episodes showed what could be done with them under ideal circumstances. Set in a working-class section of Brooklyn (actually resembling Bushwick, but referred to as Bensonhurst because the latter sounded more "Brooklyn-like" to people from outside New York), the series told of the daily life of bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) of 328 Chauncey Street, a rundown, walk-up apartment building, and their neighbors and best friends, Ed Norton (Art Carney), a sewer-worker, and his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph). Most of the action took place in the Kramdens' dimly lit, dingy apartment, with its table, chairs, dresser, and ice-box; we occasionally see the Nortons' better-decorated apartment upstairs, and every so often a scene might be set at Ralph's bus company or on a street adjacent to where Norton was working in a man-hole or the local pool room. Rarely there would be a scene in a fancy restaurant or at the home of one of Ralph's bosses or a wealthy acquaintance. Most of the scripts dealt with one of Ralph's "million-dollar ideas" and how they seemed to inevitably end in disaster for Ralph and Norton, usually with Alice (often joined by Trixie) watching sardonically from the sidelines. This often occurred after an argument in which Ralph has gesticulated with his fist in Alice's direction and muttered, "Bang! -- Zoom!" or "Do you want to go to the Moon?" Some of the other scripts dealt with Ralph and Norton's lodge, the Loyal Order of Racoons, or Ralph's stormy relationship with Alice's mother. That The Honeymooners could rival the impact of I Love Lucy, which ran years longer and left behind many hundreds more episodes, is a tribute to its cast and crew, especially the show's writers. The best of The Honeymooners' scripts (and there were a lot that could qualify) were seamless, self-contained wholes unto themselves. The episodes come off as being every bit as beautifully symmetrical as the best one-act plays, often with some surprisingly serious subtexts beneath the surface, and a delightful self-referential quality where its own medium was concerned. The opening episode, "TV or Not TV," in which Ralph and Ed buy a television set jointly, only to discover that they can't get along for even a single night watching the set, is a side-splittingly comic sketch and essay on the seductive power of television on people's lives, presented at a time when it was a new device in homes. "Better Living Through TV" takes us back to the same subject from a slightly different angle and, in the process, manages to mercilessly parody a then-current Chef Boyardee commercial -- as well as poke fun at Gleason's avoidance of complete rehearsals -- while anticipating at least a generation's worth of laughable, late-night commercials to come. "The $99,000 Answer" gives us yet another glimpse of what television meant to (and did to) people in the 1950s. All through the series, there were woven into the scripts little references to television as a pop-culture force, including the episodes "Ralph Kramden Inc.," "Here Comes the Bride," "The Baby-Sitter," etc. Yet Gleason and his writers also managed to leave room -- in the form of what was perhaps a last, fond look back for all of them -- for newspapers and magazines to figure in people's lives in a major way, as in "On Stage," "Head of the House," and "A Matter of Life and Death." What's even more astonishing is that they did it all in an authentically lower-class/working-class New York setting with accurate, outer-borough dialects and phrases, while, in the process, presenting a last look at the ideal of the great American melting pot. Just as important, they successfully sold it as a hit series to the rest of the country. Even as Milton Berle's popularity declined and television audiences grew beyond the confines of major cities and the Northeast to places that were less accepting of his urban, Jewish, burlesque-derived humor, Gleason and company presented the most urban-focused, New York ethnic comedy this side of The Goldbergs and scored a hit with it for one glowing season. And contrary to popular belief, the series didn't die because of low ratings. The ratings were fine and CBS and the sponsors were happy, but Gleason pulled the plug when he realized that his writers could never equal those 39 scripts used in that golden season.
A spin-off of a spin-off, the CBS sitcom Good Times was derived from the Norman Lear-produced comedy series Maude, which itself was spawned by another Lear project, All in the Family. The link between Maude and Good Times was the character of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), the sharp-tongued, no-nonsense African-American maid of hyper-liberal white suburbanite Maude Findlay. Beginning Friday, February 8, 1974, viewers were invited on a weekly basis into the home of Florida and her family, a cramped two-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of a federal housing project in Chicago's run-down West Loop. Florida's husband was James Evans (John Amos), a proud Army veteran who was not about to let the fact that he had only a sixth-grade education prevent him from trying to support his family. Alas, good jobs were few and far between -- and when James finally did secure employment, he generally had to hold down two jobs to make ends meet. Thus, Florida was essentially the breadwinner in the Evans household, though she would always defer to James as far as important family decisions were concerned. The Evanses had three children. Seventeen-year-old James Jr. (Jimmie Walker), better known as J.J., was a talented aspiring artist who spent most of his free time seeking out "can't-miss" moneymaking schemes or trying to score with his gorgeous female classmates; his rather inflated assessment of his romantic prowess was summed up by his frequent exclamation "Dy-no-mite!" Sixteen-year-old Thelma (BernNadette Stanis, billed in some of the earlier episodes as Bern Nadette) had dreams of going to college and becoming a journalist. And 11-year-old Michael (Ralph Carter), nicknamed "the Midget Militant" by his family, was always seeking out racial or social iniquities to be corrected -- even where, to the naked eye, no such iniquities existed. Other regulars included the Evanses' obligatory wisecracking next-door neighbor, Willona Woods (Ja'net DuBois), and the family's none-too-ethical landlord, Nathan Bookman (Johnny Brown, a recurring character until 1977). Though Norman Lear is usually given most of the credit for Good Times, the series was actually the brainchild of Eric Monte, who had himself grown up in the grim Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago's South Side. As originally conceived, the series was to have depicted in a humorous and warm-hearted fashion the solidarity of the African-American family unit despite grinding poverty and substandard living conditions. Gradually, however, the series gave way to pure verbal slapstick -- much of it racially stereotypical -- as the Evanses' flamboyant, jive-talking son J.J. emerged as the most popular character. By the time the third season rolled around, virtually every episode revolved around the antics of J.J., much to the dismay of nominal leads Esther Rolle and John Amos. At the end of the 1975-1976 season, Amos had had enough of playing second fiddle to co-star Jimmie Carter; the actor left the series, whereupon it was "explained" that James Evans had been killed in an auto accident en route to a new job in Mississippi. This turn of events was also the beginning of the end for Esther Rolle, who had signed on to the program because of its positive depiction of a ghetto family with a strong father figure. Now that J.J. was the sole "male adult" on the premises, Rolle, too, began making preparations to quit the series. She was temporarily dissuaded when the producers agreed to find a new husband for Florida Evans, in the person of repair-shop owner Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn). Even so, J.J. continued to dominate the proceedings, his character becoming more exaggerated (and to some observers, more demeaning) with each passing episode. Ultimately, just before the beginning of its fifth season, Esther Rolle followed John Amos in leaving the series; the official reason given by the actress was "illness." The writers rapidly cooked up a scenario whereby Florida and Carl had gone on their honeymoon, leaving the then twentysomething J.J. and Thelma in charge of the Evans household, with Florida's best friend, Willona, as surrogate mother. In answer to the series' many critics, the producers saw to it that the heretofore footloose J.J. landed a steady job with an advertising agency. And in hopes of expanding the series' audience demographic, a new regular character was added: Penny Gordon (Janet Jackson), whom Willona had rescued from an abusive household, and who would eventually be adopted by Willona. Assured that the character of J.J. had mellowed, Esther Rolle agreed to return to Good Times in the fall of 1978 -- minus her husband, Carl, whose absence was never explained. In a move to restore the "strong father figure" character to the series, Thelma became the wife of Keith Anderson (Ben Powers), a reasonably successful and reasonably mature football star. The arrival of Keith, however, allowed J.J. to revert to his "unemployed" status, and also (briefly) to his old scampish ways. When Keith suffered a career-ending injury that forced him to find a lower-paying job as a cabdriver, the rest of the family contributed to the Evans coffers, with Florida finding work as a school-bus driver and J.J. giving art lessons. The one echo of J.J.'s former reckless zaniness was his nervous relationship with neighborhood loan shark Sweet Daddy (Theodore Wilson). The schizophrenic nature of Good Times was reflected in its ratings. Ending its first season in 17th place among the Top 20 programs, the series hit an all-time high of seventh place the following year. It then plummeted to 24th place during its third season and never even cracked the Top 25 for the rest of its existence. (The fact that the series was shuttled all over the prime-time lineup, from Friday to Tuesday to Wednesday to Monday to Saturday, may have been a contributing factor to its drop-off in viewership.) Nonetheless, though it was never CBS's premiere weekly sitcom, Good Times enjoyed a healthy shelf life in syndicated reruns, where it continued to flourish into the next millennium.