In June of 1962, Pete Martin interviewed Art Carney by phone with the intention of interviewing Jackie Gleason for a book, Conversations by Jackie Gleason. Martin's objective was to ghost write Gleason's book, providing a verbal account by Gleason through artistic merit. Martin was a celebrated ghost writer for Hollywood celebrities, gifted for digging into the facts before he even began typing the first chapter. He ghost wrote two of Bob Hope's books and numerous magazine articles. I was recently privy to zeroed copies of many of his unpublished works, including a completed unpublished autobiography of Arthur Godfrey, and the same for Bob Hope. (I have since passed them to a publishing company that has made arrangements for these projects to be preserved, rather than tossed in the dumpster, which was the alternative had they not been rescued.)
Doing research about Jackie Gleason, before interviewing "The Great One" himself, Martin conducted an interview with Carney. Reprinted below are excerpts from that interview and keep in mind that Carney's words in this audio transcript are certainly his own. No ghost writing here.
PM: Tell me how The Honeymooners did start because I'd lie to get him to tell me about it. If you tell me, I can make more sense.
AC: Actually, well, as far as I know now, his story may not jibe with mine... when he was on the Cavalcade of Stars, he did Reggie, the Poor Soul, Fenwick Babbit (?)... you know, assorted characters like The Loudmouth. And The Honeymooners was just another sketch about this bus driver and I was written in as a neighbor, the guy who lived upstairs. I did my own characterization, this Brooklyn-type guy, Norton, and the fact that he worked in the sewer.
PM: That was a stroke of genius.
AC: Yeah, it worked out wonderfully because I think the reason they wrote this guy as a sewer worker is that it bounced off with a gag against Gleason's being a bus driver -- his being up above the ground and me down below the ground, you know. I kept things rolling along downstairs. He kept rolling along up there.
PM: Is he a man that when he shakes hands on a deal, it's a deal as far as he's concerned?
AC: As far as I'm concerned it is. He and I have never had one argument or ill feeling toward each other, any kind, anything small or anything like that, I'm sure he trusted me and he knew that I wasn't after his job or wasn't going to steal a scene from him, or something like that. Because we'd play straight for each other, actually. It was nothing like a straight man and a stooge, or a comic and a stooge. Very often in the sketches he would have the punch lines. He would have the laugh lines and I'd set it up for him. And then two or three minutes later it would be reverse, and he'd set up a gag for me beautifully and I'd get the punch line.
PM: You make it sound like it's almost unrehearsed.
AC: Well, we didn't have much rehearsal. That's one thing you can talk to him about... rehearsals.
PM: He's not a follower of a script, you mean?
AC: Well, it's not that so much. He never cared about rehearsing for long periods of time, for comedy, that is, when we did our show. Yet, he's a very fast study when he wants to be, much faster than I am, quicker than I am. I don't know how he does it. He's got his own system, maybe a photographic memory or something. I don't know.
PM: He's not a standup actor, is he? Like Bob Hope.
AC: No. In other words to me, Gleason as opposed to Hope or Berle, can be believable in a sketch doing characters. He is much more believable to me than Hope or Berle or some of these other fellows that try to do comedy sketches. By the same token, I am not a standup comic or emcee. Gleason to my way of thinking is not either.
PM: He claims he's not, eh?
AC: No, he's being honest about it.
PM: He says he's a lousy emcee.
AC: Well, i don't think he;s a good one either, you know?
PM: I tried to get Jack Benny to tell me about timing one afternoon, but he couldn't tell me at all. He couldn't even begin to tell me about it. He just gave up. I suppose he waits longer than anybody else. I supposed that's why we think he's good.
AC: It's hard to put your finger on because it's different every time, when you're working in front of an audience. Let me put it this way. Some people can tell a funny sort, a joke, they don't have to be in this business. I know friends of mine that are not in this cock-eyed business that I'm in that tell a great story in that they've got the ability you know to tell it right. And how often have you heard someone say, I'll tell you a story, but you'll probably wreck it, you know. They start out that way. They don't have the natural something-or-other quality, the sense of timing, the humor, or something to get through to the punch line. There again I think you're born with it.
PM: Well, Jackie's obviously got this quality, whatever it is.
AC: he sure has. he does the most beautiful takes and double-takes, and he can do the longest takes, to make you laugh, that I've ever seen. Once in a while when I catch one of those re-runs I always sit back and look at the two of us, and laugh. I laugh at him, and at myself, and then I think, 'Gee, and I conceited or something.' I'm looking at the two characters as... not me. I get a bang out of them.
PM: So I imagine that's the way you felt.
AC: Yeah. My first TV re-runs I just get a big charge out of them. I sit back and laugh. Gleason is a big fan of Laurel and Hardy. As a matter of fact, once or twice during the show we'd do some take-off and he'd do Oliver Hardy and I'd do Stan Laurel. During the frame of The Honeymooners. Like when I had entertainment or something at the Raccoon Club or something, and Cramden and Norton had to supply some entertainment so Cramden would say we'd do Laurel and Hardy.
PM: There is going to be an awful lot of disappointments this fall because most everyone thinks you're coming back with Jackie in The Honeymooners on TV this fall, and you told me you weren't.
AC: Well, there's been so much publicity about it.
PM: I know. My farm boy, for example, was looking forward to it. He said, 'When you see Mr. Carney, tell him I can't wait. I'm waiting for The Honeymooners. I'm waiting for this fall.' I've got to tell him you won't be there. It's going to be a great shock to him.
AC: Well, you see, they're so overly-anxious, the newspapers that is, to get stuff in there, that it's not accurate and you read that I'm going to be with him. You know, that's Gleason's going to back and Carney's going to be with him, and so forth and so on.
PM: Well, that's what I've read to.
AC: And it's not set and occasionally as I told you before, we hope to work with each other. But as of now, it's not on paper and not on any regular basis, until we find out what's going to happen [with Carney's present stage work]. But I have to tend to my affairs and my manager and I, McAffrey, I don't know if you met him. We have to work together and see that I don't all of a sudden have a slump because as you know this kind of business is... well....
PM: It's a roller coaster, isn't it? It could be.
AC: It's like the life of a ballplayer. It lasts so long. After so long, you get up to the top and then where do you go from there? And if you go down the other side of the hill you go as gracefully as possible.