Jackie Gleason

By: Adam McGovern
February 26, 2015

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Lotta performers get called physical comedians, but JACKIE GLEASON (1916–87) was a contact comedian. He was a boxer before he was a comic, and a bouncer even during, in the early days, and like some brutal ballet dancer, it’s not his face so much as his fists that I most remember. The bug-eyed, outraged doubletake was beloved of caricaturists; the hefty frame was what most of the jokes aimed at him were about. But that fist, slugging into the air like a baseball star without a stadium as he threatens his wife on The Honeymooners, finally connecting with his own mouth in frustration and self-recrimination as he tries to mime the story of Jesus for a street urchin in his tear-jerking mute-hobo auteur attempt, Gigot — that fist was the prop that never deserted him and he couldn’t leave behind. The Ralph Kramden portrayal, his best-known, is remembered (rightly) now as some archaic monument to abuse, though he never actually laid a hand on Alice; less remarked is that The Honeymooners was the most class-anxious show ever on TV, painting a dystopian caricature of working stiffs whose rage short-circuits their ambition. All abusers hate themselves so you don’t have to do it for them, and Gleason’s rage shot him out of his own dead-end beginnings, to decades among the small and widescreen stars, to a lot of classic routines and unfond memories, and straight to a cold, eclipsed moon.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Karen Berger, Fats Domino, Johnny Cash, Godfrey Cambridge, Pierre Mac Orlan.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).

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