Among my greatest pleasures is watching classic television. Unfortunately, I don’t get the chance to indulge as much as I once did. Work prevents me from queueing up old shows on DVD around the clock, of course. But my old late-night fix on Nickelodeon has also gone by the wayside through the years, as the classic shows get filtered out for lineup replacements both newer and weaker. So I take what I can get, when I can get it.
Recently I have been watching my way through The Honeymooners, perhaps the most iconic of all sitcoms. It still holds up well. Most modern sitcoms do well to wring two laughs per episode from me. It’s a rare Honeymooners episode that can’t match that in three minutes. I have found myself particularly drawn to Art Carney: his physical comedy, his ridiculous accent, his incessant affability. Though I know I haven’t seen him in anything before, he gives me a warm feeling of familiarity every time he appears.
Today, I figured out why. He reminds me of Yogi Bear. And there’s good reason. A quick web search confirmed that Daws Butler based Yogi’s voice on Carney. Every time I have smiled at Carney’s antics during these delightful old episodes, I believe I have done so with the subconscious hope that this time he will finally get that pic-a-nic basket.
This identification set me thinking about those ur-stories and ur-characters that break free of specific incarnations to be recreated in countless other works. The Honeymooners is certainly one of the best examples of this phenomenon. What is The Flintstones, after all, but the adventures of the Kramdens and Nortons in the Stone Age? Ralph and Alice Kramden, the loud-mouthed fat husband and his wife of shrill voice and common sense, are reincarnated over and over again in sitcoms with only minor variations on the form: Archie and Edith Bunker, Al and Peggy Bundy, Peter and Lois Griffin, and many more iterations. And they often have a neighbor or friend reminiscent in some way of Ed Norton. Situation comedy may never outgrow The Honeymooners.
So I ask you – what are the ur-stories and ur-characters in science fiction and fantasy? Obviously The Lord of the Rings is the most prominent example, so I’ll take it off the table by mentioning it. What are the stories we tell and retell as a community, the old characters we bring back for new tales in new guises? And what on the shelves today will contribute pieces of itself to the writers of the future?