Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of The Munsters (1964-1966, CBS), which is currently available in full on DVD and Amazon.
The Munsters stars FRED GWYNNE, YVONNE DE CARLO, AL LEWIS, BUTCH PATRICK, BEVERLEY OWEN (Episodes 1-13), and PAT PRIEST (Episodes 14+).
Last week we discussed how The Munsters is really just a suburban domestic comedy with a supernatural high concept, contextualizing its central family’s innate differences within a framework that we would call “normal” — essentially Father Knows Best but with Frankenstein’s monster. However, we also noted a disconnect between the series’ premise and its storytelling, which instead comes to rely on a looser, more plot-driven design where Herman goes out into the world, confounds others, and gets involved in goofy slapstick related to his conspicuous participation in broad situations. This type of story highlights what makes his character unusual in comparison to those around him, but fails to recognize the overall thesis: despite the Munsters’ differences, they’re just like us. Yet if The Munsters is unable to regularly fulfill the promise of its premise, that’s not a huge concern; many viewers still cite it as more enjoyable than the similarly themed The Addams Family, as its episodic reliance on amusing ideas and broad characterizations — enlivened by amiable performances from the animated Fred Gwynne, his former Car 54 cohort Al Lewis, and the sultry Yvonne De Carlo — render it a more palpably accessible show to younger viewers, who consider it funnier. Truthfully, I don’t think it is funnier, but it’s more direct and uncomplicated in its humor, for our basic comprehension of its movie monster archetypes carries a lot of the weight for its comic characterizations. And again, these characterizations are also stimulated by the actors, particularly Gwynne, who brings a childlike playfulness to Herman that becomes an engine for many of the show’s most memorable episodes… Speaking of which, even though the series’ textual limitations ensure that there are no excellent half hours of The Munsters (in relation to other shows), picking the best by its own standards means finding the ones that do what the series does best — spotlighting Gwynne with big shtick that’s supported by some kind of character-knowledge and/or premise-affirmation… while also being hilarious. That’s what I’ve tried to find here when selecting my picks for the ten strongest episodes from the first season of The Munsters. There may be a few surprises.
01) Episode 4: “Rock-A-Bye Munster” (Aired: 10/15/64)
Herman is under the false impression that Lily is having a baby.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Abbott
This is the first episode of the series to put the Munsters in a typical domestic sitcom construct — the pregnancy misunderstanding, used on everything from I Love Lucy to Frasier — and because it rejects the concept’s more fanciful supernatural trappings and the easy narrative notion of people being scared of Herman, it’s also able to reinforce both its central premise and the comedy at the heart of its existence: these monsters may be odd, but they’re normal. Plus, Paul Lynde makes his first (aired) appearance, and Sid Melton has a memorable scene.
02) Episode 13: “Family Portrait” (Aired: 12/17/64)
The Munsters have been chosen by a magazine to represent the Average American family.
Written by James Allardice & Tom Adair | Directed by Lawrence Dobkin
Beverley Owen’s swan song is one of the most thesis-related outings of the run, as the Munsters are chosen to represent the Average American Family in a magazine — a prospect that has fun contrasting their own perception of normalcy against ours. Interestingly, though, it feels more like an Addams Family — not only because the guests (including Harvey Korman) are intruding upon the family’s world, but also because the script gets to emphasize strangeness while still keeping the premise invoked. (Incidentally, I think Owen’s Marilyn is more conventionally sexy and better for the concept, but Priest has better chemistry with the cast.)
03) Episode 18: “If A Martian Answers, Hang Up” (Aired: 01/21/65)
Herman believes he’s contacted Martians on a ham radio.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Abbott
Herman’s naïveté is solidified as a crucial part of his character by the time of this offering, in which he believes that’s he’s contacted aliens on a ham radio… not knowing that he’s only talking to a pair of kids just messing around. It’s a silly idea that depicts him as quite moronic, but remember, he’s Frankenstein’s monster — he’s not a genius, so this is not far from what we expect of his character. Also, while the Munsters have their own supernatural charms via their monstrous personas, they’re not well-versed in the sci-fi world, and there’s something of a typical suburban attitude to their fears of a potential Martian attack that helps draw the dichotomy between the family’s strangeness and their averageness. Herbert Rudley guests.
04) Episode 19: “Eddie’s Nickname” (Aired: 01/28/65)
Grandpa tries to make Eddie taller but instead makes him grow a beard.
Written by Richard Baer | Directed by Joseph Pevney
Often overlooked, this amusing installment feels the most like a, say, Leave It To Beaver, for the story is rooted in Eddie’s insecurity about his height, which is causing him angst at school. Naturally — and in line with the family’s movie monster characterizations — mad scientist Grandpa thinks he can magically make the kid taller… only it doesn’t work and Eddie grows a big bushy beard instead. Paul Lynde again appears in this ideal blend of domestic sitcom averageness and supernatural strangeness — what The Munsters should be doing more often.
05) Episode 28: “Movie Star Munster” (Aired: 04/01/65)
Herman is the unwitting victim of a life insurance scam.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by James Allardice & Tom Adair | Directed by Jerry Paris
Frankly, there’s not a lot here born from the premise, but because so many outings are predicated merely on putting Herman in amusing situations and allowing Gwynne to clown, I wanted to represent that type of story on this list by picking its finest sample. That would be this one, in which the childlike Herman believes he’s going to be a star… thanks to two conmen who take out an insurance policy on him and plan to kill him. As expected, Frankenstein’s monster is hard to kill, and so is Herman — that’s the joke, so it’s somewhat character-related (and reminiscent of the plot for the 1966 feature film, Munster, Go Home!). Jesse White guests.
06) Episode 29: “Herman The Rookie” (Aired: 04/08/65)
Leo Durocher thinks he’s found his new hitter: Herman.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Dick Conway | Directed by Jerry Paris
Just like the above, this is an offering whose value resides in its comic idea — Herman playing baseball, which is broadly funny because he’s an intimidating monster whose sheer strength contrasts against the goofily juvenile persona that’s developed for him and manages to impress guest Leo Durocher, who was making the rounds on many of the sitcoms of the day. Though not the best, this is one of the most memorable entries of the entire run — funnier and bolder than its less notable basketball predecessor, “All-Star Munster.” Elroy Hirsch also appears.
07) Episode 30: “Country Club Munsters” (Aired: 04/15/65)
The Munsters win a membership to an exclusive country club.
Written by Douglas Tibbles | Directed by Joseph Pevney
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), this underrated excursion doesn’t get enough credit for mixing every important aspect of the series’ identity into a highly comedic and satisfying potion. For starters, the setup of the Munsters gaining entry to an exclusive club — an opportunity that would excite most middle-class suburbanites — reinforces the central premise of them being basically normal despite the character quirks that exist because of how they look and act as a result of also being movie monsters. All the ensuing laughs are then supported by this narrative groundwork’s innate tension. Additionally, the second half makes it a point to give Gwynne a big comic centerpiece, as he wreaks havoc on the golf course. So, with everything satisfied here — premise, characters, shtick — this is an ideal Munsters.
08) Episode 33: “Lily Munster — Girl Model” (Aired: 05/06/65)
Lily gets a job as a fashion model, making Herman jealous.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Dick Conway | Directed by Earl Bellamy
What works about this installment is that it once again starts from one of the era’s typical sitcom story templates — the housewife goes out to get a job, upsetting her husband — which is then fleshed out by the particulars of these characters and the supernatural elements they invite. I’m speaking primarily of Herman and Grandpa’s decision to crash Lily’s fashion show where she’s modeling, with Grandpa disguising himself as a buxom blonde companion to make Lily jealous. There the entry gets to spotlight De Carlo and pair its two bumbling goofballs, Gwynne and Lewis, together — a great comic construction (and an improvement over the similar “Herman’s Rival,” produced and aired earlier). Roger C. Carmel guests.
09) Episode 37: “Herman’s Raise” (Aired: 06/03/65)
Herman tries a series of odd jobs after he gets fired from the funeral home.
Teleplay by Douglas Tibbles and Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Douglas Tibbles | Directed by Ezra Stone
A story that cycles Herman through odd jobs seems a bit easy and not unlike the hacky and ubiquitous Victories In Premise where he’s merely put in funny situations independent of his character. But unlike some of those more outrageous notions — “Herman becomes a wrestler,” “Herman becomes a basketball player,” “Herman becomes a drag racer” (one of the most character-starved) — the ideas here are more down-to-earth and relatable, satisfying the “bizarre people doing normal things” premise. And with this foundation, the slapstick afforded to Gwynne is all the more enjoyable. John Carradine and Benny Rubin guest.
10) Episode 38: “Yes, Galen, There Is A Herman” (Aired: 06/10/65)
Herman befriends a little boy whose parents don’t believe his stories of “Uncle Herman.”
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Abbott
Season One ends on a sincerer note, as this plot has Herman befriending a boy whose parents don’t believe their son’s wild tales of “Uncle Herman.” They send the tyke to a shrink (played by Harvey Korman), who gets the shock of his life when he visits the Munster home and sees them for himself. Focusing on the world’s reaction to this family is the opposite of what Munsters usually does — it’s Addams’ template, actually — but this entry ably displays the characters, particularly Herman, whose utter humanity fuels the plot and provides the normalcy that every offering has to have as its bedrock. Marge Redmond appears.
Other notable episodes include: “Don’t Bank On Herman,” which has something of a Car 54 plot with Herman and Grandpa being mistaken for bank robbers, and “Love Locked Out,” the most unimaginative husband/wife sitcom story of the series — but perhaps the best exhibition of its central joke: these monsters are suburbanites! Of more Honorable Mention quality are early shows “Walk On The Mild Side,” about how people react to the way Herman looks, “Pike’s Pique,” in which the Munsters confound guest Richard Deacon, “Low-Cal Munster,” which was the first show shot with Paul Lynde, who plays doc for a memorable exam scene with Herman, and “Knock Wood, Here Comes Charlie,” which begins the process of loosening up Gwynne as he gets to portray Herman’s deceitful British brother.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Munsters goes to…
“Country Club Munsters”
Come back tomorrow for Season Two! And stay tuned next week for The Addams Family!
aw man so happy to see finally this show here ! love all the cast and the paul lyne eps are great .
Hi, BB! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Yes, Paul Lynde is great as the doctor — it’s always lots of fun when he examines the Munsters!
Have always thought there was a night and day difference between the writing on The Munsters and The Addams Family,and not in this show’s favor. But I do appreciate the great cast on both. Yvonne DeCarlo is so underrated. What would you say is her best episode?
Hi, Elaine! Thanks for reading and commenting.
That’s a good question. But it’s a hard one to answer, simply because this series seldom prioritizes anyone other than Herman, and if it’s throwing long comic scenes to a pair, it’s more often Herman/Grandpa than Herman/Lily (unlike on THE ADDAMS FAMILY, where the central couple is the obvious main attraction). I think I’ll play it safe and say that, if “a rising tide lifts all boats,” then the best episode for Lily (De Carlo) is probably the best episode of the series as a whole. That would be “Just Another Pretty Face.” Stay tuned for my thoughts on it tomorrow…