February 8, 1969 – Jackie Gleason plays host to another corpulent Jack (though he’s lost a bit of weight), famed insult comic Jack E. Leonard:
LEONARD: Ladies and gentlemen…you’ve all heard of Frank Sinatra, The Voice…you’ve seen Jimmy Durante, The Nose… (indicating Gleason) You are now looking at The Lump… (Gleason breaks out in laughter) You know, you’re pretty funny, Jack…I’ve certainly enjoyed you throughout the years…I really mean it…you really like it down here, don’t ya?
GLEASON: Yeah, I sure do!
LEONARD: How long you’ve been down here now?
GLEASON: I love Miami Beach!
LEONARD: You should…you look like you swallowed it!
The Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world…but there’s no greater audience for Jack E. Leonard—who, in all honesty, is not the first name that comes to mind when I think “great comedian”—than The Great One himself, who genuinely enjoys being the butt of not only Leonard’s jokes but anyone else who’s a guest on his program. You could argue that Gleason is simply playing the gracious host (yet he’s always effusive in his praise, enthusiastically saying “Beautiful!”), but it’s something I can’t help but notice time and time again: Jackie’s so confident of his talent that he’s not the least bit envious of any of his guests and is even willing to play the straight man when necessary.
Time Life released another collection of classic Jackie Gleason Show telecasts to DVD last week (May 15), a 3-DVD compilation culled from a larger 10-disc set that came out earlier this year. I need to issue two caveats: one, the first disc in this 3-DVD’er has been made previously available (you can read about it here). Second, the shows have been edited; I knew something was amiss earlier because the footage from the June Taylor Dancers had vanished, but as member of the TDOY faithful Mike Doran (a.k.a. “Mr. Television”) has pointed out, some of the musical entertainment appears to have retreated into the dressing room with June and the girls. (The show with Leonard—which also features “Lonesome” George Gobel—clocks in at 36:26, so something is definitely not kosher.)
I suspect that old copyright bugaboo is responsible for this…but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I tend to use the fast-forward function on my remote when watching a lot of musical segments on these shows. The musical guests on The Jackie Gleason Show haven’t been completely short-shrifted in this collection, however; there are moments with Tony Bennett (who sings The Trolley Song and then his signature I Left My Heart in San Francisco against the backdrop of a streetcar/Golden Gate Bridge), Tiny Tim (a truly bizarre rendition of Secret Agent Man), Jane Morgan (Congratulations, I Guess), Frank Sinatra, Jr. (Consider Yourself), and Robert Goulet. Goulet’s rendition of the Mary Hopkin hit Those Were the Days is a bit odd (though not Tiny Tim-odd); he sings the lyric as “We lived the life we chose” (instead of “choose”) forgetting that it doesn’t rhyme with the following “We’d fight and never lose.” I like to think Bob said to himself: “I can either be grammatically correct or royally screw this up. Ah, ta heck wid it…I’m Bob Goulet, damn it!”
There are, however, three musical highlights I found highly entertaining amongst the shows on this collection. The Tony Bennett show (03/08/69) also features a return appearance from Milton Berle, and he and Jackie do their own version of Those Were the Days (with new lyrics) as they salute radio and classic movies. Berle imitates Bogart from Casablanca, which allows Gleason to counter with Peter Lorre (priceless), and then Jackie demonstrates he wasn’t too shabby with impressions by doing Edward G. Robinson. On a related note, an April 12, 1969 telecast also allows Gleason to stretch a little; in a routine with TDOY bête noire Mickey Rooney, the two propose doing another movie (they appeared together in 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight) and Mick suggests a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (forgetting that it was done in 1962, but what the hey). Rooney starts doing Charles Laughton before Jackie insists that he’ll be the lead in the film, and answers with his Laughton impression (before switching to a Fenwick Babbitt-voice that gave me the giggles: “Ah come on, Mr. Christian…come on down…”). Then the idea of doing a gangster movie is introduced, with Mick and Jackie in dueling Cagney impressions before deciding why not a Dr. Kildare movie (cue the Lionel Barrymores).
On the April 5, 1969 telecast, Jackie and Frank Sinatra, Jr. do an entertaining ditty in How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen TV), but the real showstopper is the Goulet show (March 29, 1969) with Jackie and guest Jack Haley belting out a number that Haley did with Ethel Merman in the stage musical Take a Chance, You’re an Old Smoothie. (Gleason even does a little Merman in his lines.) The two men are joined by the rest of the guests for a finale: Goulet, Alan King, and Jack Benny…and by now you’ve probably guessed that I enjoyed this show tremendously because of Benny’s participation:
GLEASON: Well, you know…practically every comedian that comes on this show always says something nasty about me…they go out of their way to get laughs at my expense…you know, like…Berle says I eat too much…George Burns says I drink too much…and I’m gettin’ a little tired of it…and I’ve never heard you say anything like that…
BENNY: Well, you’re right…you’re right, Jackie…if I can’t say anything nice about you, I…I won’t say anything at all…
(There is a looooooong pause which the master of timing milks for maximum effect by staring at the audience, which is in hysterics)
BENNY: I’m thinking, I’m thinking!
Jack later pooh-poohs the rumors that no one can come close to The Great One’s fondness for food and drink by telling the audience that at lunch, all Gleason had was a shrimp cocktail, a small green salad (“Little teeny one,” Jackie emphasizes), and an apple. “Of course, the apple was in a pig’s mouth,” Jack confesses as Jackie explodes in Ralph Kramden-outrage.
And speaking of Kramden (oh, so smooth), there are plenty of Honeymooners skits in this collection. Now, it simply goes without saying that no one can compete with Audrey Meadows when it came to playing Alice Kramden…but since Meadows (unlike Art Carney) was not willing to relocate to Miami Beach to accommodate Gleason’s love of golf, she was replaced as Mrs. K by Sheila MacRae. And I have to say this: I’m warming up to MacRae’s Alice; she doesn’t have Meadows’ sublime gift for obliterating Ralph with a cutting rejoinder, but Sheila adds an endearing tenderness to Alice that makes a lot of these sketches touchingly bittersweet. One of the Honeymooners sequences from an April 19, 1969 show is “The New Manager,” and has this nice in-joke dialogue exchange as Ralph learns to his dismay there aren’t enough glasses for the gang to celebrate with champagne:
RALPH: I’ll drink out of this coffee cup…
ED: Hey, wait…wait a minute…you mean you’re gonna drink booze from a coffee cup? (Laughs) That’s crazy…
RALPH: What’s so crazy about it? That guy who’s on television every Saturday night—he drinks it out of a coffee cup…you know, what’s-his-name…
ED: Oh, yeah—you mean Art Carney!
RALPH: No, I don’t mean Art Carney…I mean the funny guy…
If you’re not a Jackie Gleason fan—I can’t imagine a world where something like this could happen, but anything’s possible—there’s plenty of entertainment in these sets to keep you amused, particularly with comic contributions from bygone mirthmakers like Wally Cox (who does his classic Dufo routine—“What a crazy guy…”), Jackie Vernon, Nipsey Russell, Timmie Rogers (“Oh yeah!”), Myron Cohen, George Jessel, Alan King, George Kaye (the poor man’s Alan King)…even some local comics that never really made it big like Charlie Manna and Lou Marsh & Tony Adams. As always, thanks to Michael Krause and Foundry Communications for both the screener and wonderful memories!