By Peter Hummers on August 27, 2020
In 1932, cartoonist Charles Addams began placing panels in The New Yorker magazine. His work was marked by black humor and macabre subjects, and in 1937 he submitted a cartoon featuring a sinister family that came to be known as the Addams family (<here> is an example). For years they were very popular and became the subject of a TV sitcom in 1964.
Also in 1964, the creator of Dudley Do-Right, Chris Hayward, and Allen Burns produced a sitcom that featured a family of friendly monsters. Seen by some as an imitation of The Addams Family, The Munsters scored higher ratings.
It was a strange time for American television.
“Casting agent” is probably a difficult and complicated job, but it must be very rewarding at times, such as when John Astin (Night Court) was cast as Gomez Addams in 1964. Carolyn Jones, Ted Cassidy, and even child star Jackie Coogan (who played crusty old Uncle Fester) filled out this cast wonderfully, but Astin’s gleeful leer was a thing of beauty to behold. Playing characters who had only appeared in single panel cartoons, the cast and the writers were working with essentially a blank slate.
The Addams family was an extended family of ghouls and grotesques in “normal” 20th century society. Much of the fun come from their visitors’ intense culture shock, which is lost on the family itself. A truant officer, for example, looking into the absence of their children from school, braves a sign saying “Beware of the thing,” and is met by five-year-old Wednesday, and finally shown in by Lurch the butler (Cassidy), who communicates in monosyllables and grunts, after he runs the gamut of Bruno the growling polar bear rug, and a mounted swordfish with a foot sticking out of its mouth, among other oddities.
The truant officer’s interview with dad Gomez and mom Morticia (Jones) raises the hair on his head (to the surprise of the Addamses) and when he returns to the school set on retiring, he is told that the family would like to speak to him again, by clueless coworkers who have only spoken to the Addamses by telephone.
The plots are a little thin, and dependent on the one-joke situation, but the show is kept well afloat by the beautiful sets, the sight gags and the considerable charm of its cast. The Addams Family is not quite up to The New Yorker cartoons <see some here> but it is a whole lot of fun. <Here> are the opening and closing credits.
As a wee lad and a budding snob when these two shows came out, I never thought I would one day enjoy The Munsters, another family of friendly monsters, more than The Addams Family.
The Addams Family had thrilled the fans of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, at least in New York where I lived, and TV was still in its adolescent stage. Situation comedies <Stream On> were big, and supernatural shows <Stream On> had found a good audience; so perhaps The Addams Family had convinced TV writers that supernatural comedy was the next big thing.
The Munsters always seemed to me to be a little more crass and obvious, like the New York Daily News, while the Addams Family was like the New York Times. But rewatching the shows today, I’m struck by The Munsters‘ writing and the great casting of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis from car 54, Where Are You <Stream On>, and Hollywood a-lister Yvonne de Carlo. The Munsters also came with a built-in audience proxy in their niece, a pretty blonde who was unlucky in boyfriends (after said boyfriends had met her family, of course) and blamed herself for being unattractive, as she was thought to be by the rest of her family.
The situations went beyond the simple monstrous family in a regular world trope to, for example, the family attending a neighborhood Halloween costume party—in costumes, mind you—or Grandpa (Lewis) creating a love potion for his granddaughter that worked on the neighbors, who then fall in love with these rarae aves. There’s slapstick, farce, sight gags—and a hand coming out of a little box! <Here> are the opening titles.
Next time, meta television (TV shows about TV shows).
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