Not for nothing was Jackie Gleason legendary in television. We didn't just laugh; we howled. TV comedy had an uproariousness it has since largely lost. Gleason didn't scale anything down for television. If anything, he scaled up.
Viacom, the TV syndication giant, is now distributing hours of old material from Gleason's CBS variety hour (1952-55). Unburied treasures abound.Everyone knows "The Honeymooners," of course, which started as a sketch on Gleason's "Cavalcade of Stars" over the long defunct Dumont Network, the Fox Network of its day. But though the tenement marriage of Ralph and Alice Kramden was Gleason's noblest and most durable creation, the hour-long shows contained many other elements.
Some are on view in Viacom's two-hour special, "The Best of Gleason II," airing in 178 TV markets between now and Aug. 28.
A "Best of Gleason III" will become available next February. And in mid-1989, Viacom will syndicate 26 half-hour shows containing still more Gleaso moments, which are playing now on the Showtime cable network.
This is the television version of an afterlife. And there are indications that, in Gleason's case, it could go on for generations.
In an interview with Dick Cavett, Gleason was asked if he didn't assume back in the '50s that Ralph Kramden was the character with the best shot at immortality. Gleason told Cavett no, he thought it would be Reginald Van Gleason III, the 80-proof playboy in the 40-gallon hat.
Gleason created the character as part of his nightclub act-basing Reggie, he told Cavett, "on a guy I got into a fight with one night. He insulted a lady and I said, `I have to fight with you, but there's no room here; we'll go over to Central Park.'
"So we start walkin' and he says one of the funniest lines I ever heard. As we head for the park he says, `Not so fast!"'
Reggie was something of a cad, something of a scoundrel and every inch a drunk. As a parody of an excessively imbibing millionaire, he predates by three decades the popular movie character of Arthur as played by Dudley Moore.
"Best of Gleason II" includes one of the earliest Reggie sketches Gleason did. In it, Reggie has begrudgingly taken one of his many short-lived jobs, this time as a salesman in a shoe store. The brilliant Art Carney plays the foppish manager.
As always, the entry of Reginald Van Gleason III is signaled by a bombastic chorus of the song "Shangri-La" by Ray Bloch and his orchestra. Gleason saunters in wearing the stovepipe top hat, an anchovie mustache, and tuxedo-Reggie's perpetual attire. He takes a bottle of liquor from a shoe box and, with a spritz of seltzer, mixes a cocktail in a lady's pump.
"Mmm-yum yum!" he says. Usually there was a loud drum roll, Gleason's eyeballs would do a few manic orbits, and he would exclaim, "Mmm, that's good booze!"
The rest of the sketch consists of Gleason supposedly attending to, but in fact merely insulting, a wealthy dowager looking for dancing slippers. Eventually she is driven from the store and Reggie is sacked again, much to his relief.
What is it about this character that's appealing? Reggie has few if any redeeming qualities, but the one that counts is that he is a rich man with a poor man's irreverence. He has no respect whatever for any of his wealthy peers, preferring the company of showgirls and, of course, his loyal bottle.
When "Arthur 2: On the Rocks" opened in movie theaters this summer, critics complained that drunkenness could no longer be funny. The film did a quick swan dive at the box office. Alcohol has indeed taken terrible human tolls, and it can catch the best of people unawares.
Ralph Kramden will continue to be the most universally appreciated Gleason character. Reggie is a broad and outrageous burlesque; Ralph and Alice are grounded in a social reality.
The rowdiness of the Gleason style is unlike anything we have on television now. In this age of minimalism, Gleason's maximalism is kind of thrilling.
Although not everything in "The Best of Gleason" is in fact the best of Gleason, its finer moments bring back a time when TV audiences laughed more and harder than they do today.