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Hiya, Mr. Dunnaghy

Has everyone in America ever agreed about anything? Yes, and his name was Frank Fontaine.

12:00 AM, Aug 17, 2004 • By LARRY MILLER
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IN THE WEEKS, months, indeed years of exhausting campaigning, speechifying, and punditizing leading up to a presidential election--exhausting, that is, from the voters' point of view--and in a particular contest in our nation's history when the rhetoric has been especially, er, tart--I was wondering the other day whether we Americans have ever agreed on anything, large or small, and my answer was: No; I don't think so.

And things were no less divided in the past; probably worse.

During the American Revolution, a very high percentage of us were British loyalists (or Tories), and long after Yorktown, victory, and the adoption of our Constitution, many of them were still antagonists, even agitators.

During the War of 1812, many, if not most, New Englanders sniffed about it being "Mr. Madison's war," and shrugged off the impediments to our trade and commerce imposed by an imperious, or at least oblivious, English parliament.

In the Civil War, still the nonpareil for loss, suffering, and carnage, the North was so divided in opinion that in the election of 1864, the Democrats (or Copperheads) nominated ex-General George McClellan to run against the incumbent, Mr. Lincoln, on a platform that included a promise to the South that, if they just returned to the fold, the Emancipation Proclamation would be voided, and they could resume the institution of slavery.

And on and on. Not just in wars, but in culture, religion, family, sexuality, entertainment, I don't think there's anything we all agree on. I'm sure there are folks out there who've seen Casablanca and said, "Didn't care for it." I can't imagine any guy in the world, even Siegfried or Roy, who could meet Marilyn Monroe in 1960 and not say, "Yes. Just yes. Whatever the question is, the answer is yes." The same goes for women and Sean Connery. Still, you and I both know people who just shrug and say, "Nah. Doesn't do anything for me."

Perhaps the closest we came to unanimity was after John Kennedy's assassination, or September 11, but I'm sure even at those moments (so searing we all remember where we were), a shocking chunk of our people still thought some very dark and bad things.

Ah, well, that's the way it goes.

But I think I found one the other day. Not for all of us, strictly, but out of a subset of all of us, I think I have something every single one of them felt and said. If you grew up in the '60s, and had a television and a dad, I think you'll recognize it.

When The Jackie Gleason Show was on--not The Honeymooners, the next one, the variety show based in Miami, the one that always ended with him screaming, "Miami Beach has the greatest audiences in the world! Goodnight, everybody!"--one of their regular and most beloved sketches was a thing called "Joe, The Bartender."

It was on the show every week and, most importantly, the vital structural elements of it were always exactly the same. The camera would dolly in through swinging barroom doors, like the Old West, and Gleason would be found, alone, wiping down the bar, hair slicked and parted in the middle, garter on the arm, singing the end of "My Gal, Sal" in his wonderful Bassett Hound howl.

When the applause stopped, he would look right in the camera, which he played as the customer, who was a regular named Mr. Dunnaghy. "Oh, hiya, Mr. Dunnaghy," Joe would say. "The usual?" (No response since the camera, remember, was the silent partner.) Then Gleason took a glass and poured a beer from the tap, filled it too high, watched the head start to go over the top, and calmly stuck--no, rammed--his index finger right in it to stop the flow. Then he took the finger out, wiped it off ostentatiously, admired his successful technique, and smilingly placed the glass in front of Mr. Dunnaghy, saying, "There you go, pal."

Every week. Every moment in the sketch so far was the same. And that was good. It was the sameness we wanted; it was the sameness we needed; it was the sameness we loved. But that's not the part I'm talking about.

Then came the body of the sketch, whatever it was that week, a one-sided chat from Gleason to his customer, and it was always great, even when it was just okay, because Gleason was great. Then the best part. Gleason would pause and say, "What's that, Mr. Dunnaghy? Oh, he's in the back, I'll call him out. Hey, Craz'!" And the applause would start again, even bigger.