Working-Class Heroes? Not on Our Programs

Imagine, if you dare, a meeting of network-television vice presidents-the vice president for leering references to naughty body parts; the vice president for celebrating antisocial behavior; the vice president for recruiting nihilistic Ivy League “comedy writers” who specialize in talking down to their audiences; the vice president for promoting crude stereotypes (a job fit for only the hardest-working people in show business), and so on. Imagine the reaction of these people, if you’ll pardon the overstatement, if they were confronted with the following pitch:

A sitcom set in New York City (so far, so good; knowing smiles and nodding of heads around the room)-specifically, Brooklyn (eyes begin to roll; some vice presidents grab crayons and begin to scrawl primitive notes to each other). The two main characters will be a bus driver and a sewer worker (vice-presidential jaws begin to drop; some seem to think they’re being made fun of-which would be terrible, as they are paid astounding sums to make fun of acceptable “others”). The bus driver will be a lovable schemer (looks of relief and instant recognition around the room; cheeks billow, brows are mopped; the vice presidents look like death-row inmates who’ve just received good news from the governor; they like lovable schemers). The sewer worker will be an equally lovable sidekick who happens to be content with his life and who actually makes jokes about his line of work (the puzzled, anguished and even contemptuous looks return to the faces of the vice presidents; a sewer worker with dignity?).

When the vice president for product placement asks about the wardrobe of the two leading men in this controversial new sitcom, actual tears begin to fall as the executives are told that the bus driver will wear his uniform, decorated occasionally with a button from his union-the Transport Workers Union-and the sewer worker will be shown in a T-shirt and a vest. Their wives, who will steal many scenes from the men, will wear simple house dresses. Their apartment will be sparsely furnished, as befitting the actual living conditions of a bus driver or a sewer worker. One might call it “reality television.”

Of course, better to call it The Honeymooners , a television show from the 1950’s that simply wouldn’t be made today, as there is no network vice president for the dignified and even affectionate treatment of working-class people in déclassé neighborhoods outside of Manhattan. That title was eliminated some time ago and replaced with an Ivy-educated vice president for sneering contempt of society’s losers, especially those who still punch clocks, bring lunch in paper bags and do not live in sumptuous apartments in Manhattan. This job, of course, requires almost as much work as the vice president for promoting stereotypes.

The recent death of Art Carney, who played Ed Norton the sewer worker on The Honeymooners , brought back memories of a time when television executives apparently believed it was possible to create sitcoms from the lives of people who were not sportswriters, morning-TV hosts, standup comedians or magazine editors. Just as newspaper reporting lost something when journalism became a profession rather than a trade, television now reflects the lives and interests of the well-educated writers and executives who produce the stuff. So we get sitcoms (and movies) about the hilarious lives of the citizens of the Information Age, while bus drivers and sewer workers get to watch their social betters. With any luck, these outcasts will learn something about consumption-the social, as opposed to the medical, disease-from these shows, and so might become more useful members of the material society.

Of course, Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden was ready to do anything-even core a apple-for a chance at living the high life, circa the Eisenhower administration. When he thought he spotted his ship on the horizon, he immediately quit his job and eagerly planned his new life among the idle rich.

Ed Norton was willing to help Ralphie-boy, but harbored no such ambitions for himself. Talk about an American antihero: Ed Norton the sewer worker resented nobody and couldn’t quite understand Ralph’s dreams of escaping Bensonhurst. Come to think of it, Ed Norton was downright seditious-and while the entertainment industry today likes to think of itself as oh-so-radical, the vice presidents for correct political attitudes wouldn’t know what to make of a sewer worker who didn’t hate his bosses and was oblivious to the pressures of consumer society.

Obviously, The Honeymooners was not the last television show to find humor, compassion and dignity in the lives of people working in uncelebrated jobs, living in unfashionable neighborhoods. Taxi and Roseanne , to name just two, had some of the same empathy that made The Honeymooners a work of genius. Today, The Simpsons carries on a piece of that tradition.

Not surprisingly, though, it’s a cartoon. Working-Class Heroes? Not on Our Programs