by Perry Meisel
Who says there are no traditions on TV? Even though network programmers like to tell us how new this season's shows are supposed to be, every viewer knows that television's past is always a part of its present. Where would Phyllis or Rhoda be without Lucy and Gracie? And where does Kojak come from if not Naked City, M Squad, and The Detectives?
Television's lines of descent are probably easiest to see, though, in the story of the American workingman told by three classic shows in the history of situation comedy - The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, and All in the Family. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden is the prototype for Fred Flintstone and Archie Bunker both, and Ralph's character and style of life constantly define and direct the temperaments of his successors, and the predicaments in which they are embroiled.
Ralph's famous rage has no clearer reflection in subsequent television history than Archie's famous ranting, while the Bunker racism and ultraconservative politics simply make overt what you might have expected from Ralph all along. It's one thing to share life at 328 Chauncey Street with the Mullinses and the Manicottis, but what would happen if a black or a gay tried to move in downstairs? If Ralph is so ready to send Alice to the moon, can you imagine the fate of such aliens in the confined world of Bensonhurst? Even a suave dance instructor gets booted from the building by Ralph and Ed Norton.
Norton's heir, of course, is Barney Rubble, Fred Flintstone's best friend and neighbor. In fact, the team of Fred and Barney is really an instant replay of Ralph's and Ed's legendary banter and mutual browbeating - just listen to the way the voices match up. If that's not enough, watch the way Fred lords it over poor Barney ("You're the stupidest man I ever knew," says Ralph to Norton), even when Fred concocts the world's dumbest schemes. Remember Fred's doomed attempts to sneak out on Wilma for some bowling? How many times has that bowling ball given Ralph away when he tries to slip out on Alice?
If the shows have common characters and situations, they also have common themes and a common vision of America. Ralph, Fred, and Archie are all working-class heroes, of course, but even more than that they tend to be schemers and dreamers hoping to get rich quick. Each is intoxicated with faith in himself, and each thereby underestimates what kind of world he is up against. "I got him just where I want him," says Fred when he thinks he has Mr. Safestone, the supermarket king, up against a wall in a deal to buy truckloads of Wilma's homemade pies. Fred's scheme does not only rely thoughtlessly on working Wilma to the bone. ("Go home and start cooking," Ralph commands Alice in a similar gesture when he tries to win a bet on his prowess as master of the house.) Fred's scheme also relies on his general unawareness of the social and economic realities that make his pies cost more to produce than they will yield in profit. Like the old squeeze play that Ralph so cavalierly tries to pull on his boss for a raise in pay and a promotion, Fred's estimation of Mr. Safestone precludes any realization that power here rests solely in the buyer's hands. So too Fred is unwittingly exploited as a stunt man in the movies for no pay, just as Archie is totally ignorant of the blatant rip-off scheme behind the local undertaker's obeisances. Archie's prejudices are particularly self-defeating, since they seal him off from sympathy with those other parts of society used and discarded like his own.
Such delusion, however, is usually the source of the shows' uniform brand of humor. But at what a price! Day after day, episode after episode, all three of our heroes are subject to the grossest humiliations and defeats imaginable. We laugh when Ralph and Archie hit the ceiling at the slightest challenge to their authority but that happens precisely because both are sensitive to their peripheral position in society and the powerlessness that accompanies it. Thanks to the resources of cartoon, Fred Flintstone literally finds the ceiling hitting him, at least when the script calls for some concrete expression of his victimization. Even Fred's intermittent torpor manages to represent the defeated cast of mind that seems to underlie both Ralph's and Archie's excessively combative (read defensive) attitude toward life. There's such trouble, such striving, such pain in Ralph's face when he starts screaming. And no wonder. "My whole life's been a struggle," says Ralph, "ever since I was a kid." It's a miracle he doesn't have a stroke right there on the set, a fear that may even connect Ralph and Archie medically when the Bunkers conspire to keep their breadwinner on a strict regimen to control his blood pressure and diet.
Sadness and despair, of course, wouldn't seem to rank high among comedy's attributes, but there they are, informing and directing the humor every step of the way. What's more, the workingman's submerged grief is a clue to the understanding of society that lies behind the shows' humorous exteriors, but which still seems to escape the consciousness of the major characters. Norton's job in the sewer, Ralph's on the bus, Fred's in the granite pits, Archie's in the warehouse loading room - all these jobs are basic functions in the economic system, and place the characters in each show at the center of society. This economic centrality is, of course, hidden, or at least made ironic, by the peripheral position the characters occupy from the point of view of status and upward mobility. But by placing such characters in the role of stars - that is, by making stars out of working-class characters - American television really affirms this centrality after all, and renders the worker, with all his disappointments and defeats, the real hero of the society in which he lives.
Neither characters nor viewers, though, are allowed to tender such an insight for very long, since our blindness to it is what sustains the humor of all three shows and guarantees their success as entertainment. This fine tension or balance between facts and funnies, however, is what makes these programs as powerful - and as powerfully funny - as they are. It's also what succeeds in giving them the authority of a tradition on American television. Even though we like to think it's just the commercials that intrude on our entertainment viewing, there is more than a share of the realities they represent right at the heart of TV's funniest shows.
Originally published in TV Book: The Ultimate Television Book (New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 1977)