16. "Better Living Through TV," The Honeymooners (1955)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Ed: Can it core a apple?
Most people who were alive during the golden age of late-night reruns on UHF channels have seen Ralph Kramden's disastrous attempt to sell the Handy Housewife Helper on a live TV commercial. Much like The Office's David Brent (see our last episode), Ralph refuses to accept that he's not in complete control of his destiny. But where David tries to bully his way into the spotlight, Ralph often goes for the comparately modern strategy of finding one brilliant idea (a "killer app," in computer lingo) to catapult him into success.
His idea in "Better Living Through TV" isn't completely crazy. Ralph is ahead of the curve in realizing that an infomercial is a much more efficient way to sell a gadget than going door-to-door with a suitcase. But he's doomed by his short cut, trying to peddle a piece of junk ("the key to my future, Alice!") instead of taking the time to come up with a good product.
Ralph: We spend 200 dollars, we make 2,000, and the profit is 1,800. We can't lose!
Ed: Can't lose, huh? That's what you said when you bought the parking lot next to where they were building up the movie house there. You said, "People going to the movies gotta have a place to park their car!"
Ralph: How did I know they were building a drive-in theater?
Alice: Listen, Ralph, I'm getting pretty sick and tired of this. Every week, you come home with some new crazy, hare-brained scheme. That's all I've heard for the past 14 years, one crazy, hare-brained scheme after another. [...]
Ralph: No one's 100 percent, Alice.
Alice: You are, Ralph. You've been wrong every single time.
OK, there's a lot of pathos in "Better Living Through TV" if you're inclined to look for it, but that doesn't stop the last scene of this episode from being one of the funniest in television history. (No one could beat Jackie Gleason in getting laughs from howls of pain.) It's perfect that Ed (Art Carney), always comfortable with playing make-believe, as seen in "TV or Not TV," is completely at ease on live television — while Ralph, always painfully aware of the danger of being ridiculed, quickly loses his nerve and is seized with stage fright.
Ed: Pray tell, who are you?
Ralph: (finally getting the words out) Chef of the Future.
Ed: Oh, hello, I'm glad to have you aboard, Chef of the Future!
Ralph: (panicked) Um... Chef of the Future!
Ed: Hello, I'm glad to have you aboard again, Chef of the Future! What have you come to show me? Have you invented a household utensil that does the work of all these old household gadgets?
Ed: (turning to camera) This is not on film, this is coming to you very live!
• Here are the mandatory fat jokes of the episode:
Ralph: This is probably the biggest thing I ever got into.
Alice: The biggest thing you ever got into was your pants.
Ralph: Just remember, you can't put you arms around a memory.
Alice: I can't even put my arms around you.
• Props to the props department for designing the Handy Housewife Helper. I can feel how cheap and rusty it is every time Ralph or Ed try to move one of its many unnecessary parts. (BTW, Gleason does improvise the line about "spear fishing" when one piece breaks off and flies across the set.)
• "Better Living Through TV" is selected as one of the show's top episodes in Phil Dyess-Nugent's "TV Club 10" essay on The Honeymooners:
Although the show was made in a state of barely controlled chaos, partly because Gleason didn’t like to rehearse, and on-air flubs and missed cues were common, it remains one of the most beautifully acted shows of its kind. That’s no surprise in the case of Carney, a phenomenally gifted, hard-working character actor (and legendarily nice guy) who went on to create the role of Felix Unger on Broadway and won a well-deserved Oscar for starring in the 1974 movie Harry And Tonto. But Gleason was essentially put on Earth to play Ralph Kramden.
• Before our main feature, here's Jackie Gleason in his own infomerical, telling us that the United States — nay, the world — needs Dick Nixon.