|Were The Honeymooners Irish?
By Tom Deignan
The classic 1950s television show The Honeymooners was recently made
into a Hollywood movie. While the film is set on the gritty streets of New
York, it was actually shot in Ireland last year.
Either way, critics have dismissed The Honeymooners Hollywood version,
which stars Cedric the Entertainer and Omar Epps in the roles made famous
by the Great One, Jackie Gleason, as well as his lanky sidekick Art Carney.
The Honeymooners film comes out exactly 50 years after The Honeymooners
show hit the airwaves in 1955. This time around, The Honeymooners was made
with an all-black cast.
All of this makes it an interesting time to ask a question many people
have ignored — was The Honeymooners an Irish American TV show?
Jackie Gleason was definitely Irish. Born in the Bushwick section of
Brooklyn, Gleason’s mother was born in Ireland, while his father was Irish
American. Art Carney was also raised in an Irish American family from upstate
Meanwhile, south Brooklyn in the 1950s was surely (and to this day still
is) heavily Irish. The Honeymooners was actually set in Bensonhurst, which
is a famously Italian American neighbourhood. Still, there would have been
many Irish families in and around that area.
Let’s not also forget that the Irish had made many strides economically
by the 1950s, just as many Irish families in New York were scratching out
blue collar livings as bus drivers (that was Gleason’s character Ralph Kramden’s
job), sewer workers (Carney’s character Norton’s job), cops, fire-fighters
and other civil service jobs.
But what, then, do we make of the fact that Gleason gave his main character
the not-particularly Irish name of Kramden? His lifelong pal, played by
Carney, was named Ed Norton.
You could say Norton is an Irish name. But Kramden? That sounds more
German than anything else.
You might say, in the end, this was just a TV show. The writers, as well
as Gleason, may have had no interest in representing reality when it came
to ethnicity. So what does it matter what you call the characters?
But there is one important fact that this argument ignores. Observant
fans of The Honeymooners who have seen every episode over and over again
know that the Kramdens’ many neighbours in their apartment building all
have conspicuously Irish, as well as Italian, German or Jewish names.
There’s “Old Man Grogan,” whose underwear flies proudly on the laundry
line over the courtyard. There’s Tommy Mullen, whose water pistol plays
an important role when Ralph is confronted by burglars. There’s the other
Mullen kid, off in the Navy, who comes home for Christmas.
Then there’s Mrs. Schwartz, who wants to use Ralph’s house phone when
he very briefly becomes the janitor of his building. Then there is the unfortunately
named married couple the Manicottis, Italian immigrants who appear in a
hilarious episode about mambo dancing.
So it begs the question — why would Gleason, as well as The Honeymooners
writers, give the minor characters in the show such obviously ethnic names,
yet give Ralph a name which reveals very little about his ethnicity?
To my knowledge, no one has ever come out and answered a question such
as this. I do have a theory.
First things first — I suspect that the creative forces behind The Honeymooners
were mostly concerned with making people laugh and didn’t worry too much
about ethnic issues. However, I suspect they would have avoided making Ralph
too obviously Irish.
First of all, American pop culture always avoids issues which might be
controversial in any way. But I also suspect that some middle or upper class
Irish Americans might have been rubbed the wrong way if the loveable but
sloppy Ralph was too Irish.
Don’t forget, Gleason had already played the lead character in The Life
of Reilly. (That show, however, was set on the West Coast). To give the
obviously Irish Gleason yet another Irish name on The Honeymooners might
have come off as playing the Irish card a bit too aggressively.
Meanwhile, not a few people might have pointed out that, while it was
true that some 1950s Irish Americans were living as the Kramdens did, many
more had joined the post war flight to Long Island and other suburbs. So
maybe the portrait of Brooklyn Irish life in The Honeymooners would not
have been so accurate after all.
The fact that all these annoying question arose probably just made it
easier for the writers of the show to give Ralph a name everyone could relate
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