On this day in 1971, the last original episode of the sitcom The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason as Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden, airs.
Although a perennial rerun favorite in syndication, The Honeymooners actually aired only 39 episodes in its familiar sitcom format, running for just one season in 1955-56. The show debuted on October 5, 1951, as a six-minute sketch on the variety show Cavalcade of Stars, hosted by Jackie Gleason. Cavalcade of Stars evolved into The Jackie Gleason Show in 1952, and Gleason continued the sketches, playing the blustery Ralph Kramden. Regular cast member Audrey Meadows soon replaced the original casting choice, Pert Kelton, as Ralph’s long-suffering wife, Alice, who deflated his get-rich-quick schemes but often saved the day. Art Carney played Gleason’s friend and sidekick, Ed Norton, from the beginning, and Joyce Randolph was the most memorable incarnation of Ed’s wife, Trixie.
In 1955, Gleason had tired of the hour-long variety-show format and wanted to try something new. He suggested creating two half-hour programs: TheHoneymooners and Stage Show, a musical-variety show, which Gleason would produce. Among Stage Show’s many musical guests was the first-time TV performer Elvis Presley, who visited the show in January 1956.
In a departure from most TV shows of the time, The Honeymooners was filmed in front of a live audience and broadcast at a later date. To allow Gleason more time to pursue other producing projects, he taped two episodes a week, leaving him free for several months at the end of the season. Shows were taped at New York’s Adelphi Theatre in front of around 1,000 people.
Unfortunately, the two shows did not appeal to audiences as much as Gleason had hoped. He soon returned to his hour-long variety format, occasionally including Honeymooners skits. He sold the full Honeymooners episodes to CBS for $1.5 million, and they would go on to earn the network a windfall in syndication. In 1966, Gleason began creating hour-long Honeymooners episodes, which he aired in lieu of his usual variety format. From 1966 to 1970, about half of Gleason’s shows were these hour-long episodes. In 1971, the episodes were rebroadcast as their own series, until May 9, 1971, when the final episode aired.
Despite its brief life as a traditional sitcom, The Honeymooners remains one of the most memorable TV comedies of all time, rivaled only by I Love Lucy in its pioneering role in television history. Its influence has stretched into modern-day sitcom classics such as Roseanne (also a show focused on a working-class American family) and Seinfeld (another sitcom about wacky New York neighbors). The devotion of Honeymooners fans throughout the years has bordered on cultish worship, including the formation of a club known as RALPH: Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners.