The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show

It's difficult to name a single televised situation comedy that doesn't owe a huge genetic debt to a trilogy of early TV prototypes. The Honeymooners can legitimately be said to have supplied the DNA from which everything since has evolved. The Dick Van Dyke Show, for example, moved the genre into the suburbs and the workplace.

These shows have become so deeply embedded in our popular culture that most people don't even realize how revolutionary they were. The rediscovery of their importance might be what's fueling the current boom in complete-season boxed sets of classic TV shows—that, and the ability to finally see complete episodes that haven't been trimmed for commercial breaks every three minutes. And although The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show have been staples on local TV for decades, these new sets contain footage that even their most ardent fans may have never seen.

The Honeymooners was spun off from a recurring segment of Jackie Gleason's variety show. As a separate entity, it lasted precisely one season, premiering on October 1, 1955. There are additional episodes that were never broadcast, but the shows contained in The "Classic 39" Episodes represent that winning season.

The plots are almost incidental. The Honeymooners was principally about four characters: Ralph and Alice Kramden and their upstairs neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton. Everything developed out of those characters, and the casting was inspired. The show really centered on two relationships—Ralph and Alice, and Ralph and Ed. Love and friendship were the devices that drove these stories.

The shows weren't taped and edited the way they are now; they were live. As a result, there's a lot of audience noise: coughs, rustles, murmurs, even shouted encouragement to the characters. The live nature of the format also led to some flubbed lines and mishaps, but the actors just kept going. They had no choice.

The Honeymooners Anniversary Special, included on disc five, reveals that every time Gleason patted his stomach it was a signal he had forgotten a line. That in itself justifies the inclusion of this "edited for DVD" special feature. In addition, we are given the "Original series opening and closings not seen since 1956." That might not seem like a big deal to a generation jaded by Nick at Night "retro-mercials," but it's a nice touch

The transfer to DVD is surprisingly good, given the age of the material. The first episode, "TV or Not TV," has shaky camera work, and the sound is pretty awful, but the source is what it is—not even 21st-century digital technology can change that.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a far more polished affair. For one thing, by 1961 the networks had gotten much better at the nuts and bolts of televised video plays. The video quality is crisper and the sound is better—and a lot more money went into the set, editing, and presentation of the show than had been the case for The Honeymooners back in 1955.

The show was good from the start, but it took a few episodes to find its legs. It never flailed about searching for a direction, but you can watch the cast jell and begin to trust one another in the first season. Mary Tyler Moore, who had never had a featured role previously, proved such a strong contributor that her character was given far more emphasis than originally envisioned.

Of course, she was surrounded by a dream cast: Van Dyke personified the earnest young go-getter of the age (is it just me, or does Rob Petrie resemble a G-rated Hugh Hefner with his hound's-tooth sports jackets and meerschaum pipe?), Morey Amsterdam was perfection as tummler Buddy Sorrell, and Rose Marie completed the chemistry with generous helpings of intelligence and class.

As in The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show's comedy grew out of its characters. In its second season, the show hit its creative stride, and—thanks to a change in schedule that had it following the hugely popular The Beverly Hillbillies—finally reached a large audience. It ran another three seasons, and cemented the appeal of the workplace comedy as a television staple. However, few shows have matched its consistent brilliance.

The transfers for both of these sets, Season One and Season Two, look crisp. They're black-and-white, but they have fabulous detail, and practically glow. The sound is clean, all things considered, and quite a bit better than that of The Honeymooners.

Both sets are generously endowed with extras, including commentaries for specific episodes in each set by Van Dyke and the show's creator-producer-director-writer (and sometime cast member) Carl Reiner; retrospective interviews with Reiner, Van Dyke, Amsterdam, and Rose Marie; network promotional spots; Emmy Awards footage from 1962; and advertisements that aired with the show, using cast members and sets.

The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show have served as the inspiration for untold imitations over the years, but these fine boxed sets prove that the originals are still the greatest.

As we went to press, we were saddened to learn of the death of Art Carney. Without his brilliant performance as Ed Norton, The Honeymooners might well have been forgotten after its single on-air season.

The Honeymooners: The "Classic 39" Episodes

Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, Joyce Randolph. Directed by Frank Satenstein. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full screen). Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. 5 discs. 59634 minutes. 1955. Paramount/CBS DVD 87920. NR. $49.99.

Picture **
Sound **
Show ****

The Dick Van Dyke Show: Season One, Season Two

Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Larry Mathews, Richard Deacon. Directed by John Rich. Aspect ratio: 4:3 (full screen). Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. 5 discs per set. 750 minutes per set. Image Entertainment ID1557 (Season One), ID1558 (Season Two). NR. $69.99 per set.

Picture ***
Sound ***
Show ****