Welcome to another Sitcom Tuesday… on a Wednesday, as we finish our 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 as Herman, YVONNE DE CARLO as Lily, AL LEWIS as Grandpa, BUTCH PATRICK as Eddie, and PAT PRIEST as Marilyn.
As we’ve established, The Munsters’ primary challenge is reinforcing its “monsters in suburbia” premise in episodic plots that also meet our expectations for boffo shtick with Fred Gwynne’s Herman Munster, the series’ star and main attraction. This is always a concern, but Season Two is often said to be less successful than its predecessor at balancing these objectives, and there’s a correlated belief that, in addition to ABC’s midseason scheduling of the trendy Batman, The Munsters’ dwindling popularity ahead of its cancellation was also due to an erosion in quality brought about by too much shtick, not enough substance. But that’s not entirely fair. Two’s worst showings actually come in the beginning of the year (pre-Batman), when scripts are over-dependent on the “Herman becomes X” template, abandoning too much of the concept for story-led comic ideas that may be situationally amusing, but don’t use enough of the series’ particulars to warrant praise. There’s a surprising self-correction from this in Two’s latter half, as plots become more domestic, reengaging the satire of TV suburbia that has supported the format and these characters from the start. Yes, balance remains hard to attain, for these stories aren’t often able to feature Gwynne in the same kind of physical centerpieces that have also become key to the series’ identity. But the year does try to be more textually sincere, and if it still fails to satisfy (and it does), that’s more an indication of The Munsters’ perennial shortcomings — with regard to the limitations in its format and its surface use of character — than any real changes in quality, for, actually, there’s not an obvious drop-off between seasons; One, while more novel, is no better at blending comedy and concept (let alone character). Even the feature film, which came right after the series’ cancellation and boasts most of the same cast and crew (minus Pat Priest), is an accurate aesthetic extension of both seasons, with an ostentatious “outside world” plot that doesn’t favor the premise but at least has an amiably broad comic energy that’s also reflected in the show’s best segments, of which Two has plenty. But see for yourself — as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 45: “Operation Herman” (Aired: 10/28/65)
Herman and Grandpa visit Eddie in the hospital before a tonsillectomy.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Dick Conway | Directed by Norman Abbott
As discussed, the first half of the second year is lacking in entries that simultaneously honor the show’s domestic construct while also catering to the comic demands of spotlighting its star. This is one of the few exceptions, courtesy of a familiar sitcom premise — Eddie has to have his tonsils out — that also allows for some hijinks at the hospital, where Herman is mistaken for a patient. Also, with references to both Father Knows Best and Donna Reed, this intelligent script is winking at us, telling us what the series aims to be. Marge Redmond and Bill Quinn appear.
02) Episode 51: “Underground Munster” (Aired: 12/16/65)
When Spot runs away, Herman goes looking for him in the city’s sewer system.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Don Richardson
Once again, this installment is worth highlighting because it’s able to find a comic centerpiece while also employing a typical domestic plot — the family pet goes missing. Yet because it’s The Munsters, we’re not dealing with a dog or a cat, but a fire-breathing dragon — a detail that successfully balances the family’s strangeness alongside the foundational relatability of their typical suburban existence. From this basic idea, the story then invites the opportunity for broad comedy when Herman goes looking for Spot in the sewer, scaring all the workers.
03) Episode 54: “Herman Picks A Winner” (Aired: 01/06/66)
Herman gets entangled with organized crime after trying to teach Eddie a lesson.
Written by Dick Conway | Directed by Ezra Stone
Admittedly, this outing is less narratively ideal than most here, but I’m featuring it for the physical comedy afforded to Gwynne in the climax, when Herman attempts to evade getting killed by a group of mobsters with whom he’s become involved while trying to teach Eddie a lesson about the evils of gambling. A lot of what we remember about the series is the shtick performed by its star, and this is its best showcase in Two. Joyce Jameson guests.
04) Episode 55: “Just Another Pretty Face” (Aired: 01/13/66)
A lightning bolt disfigures Herman and makes him look like a “normal” human.
Written by Richard Baer | Directed by Gene Reynolds
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Just Another Pretty Face” is also the best of the entire series, for it utilizes a story that addresses The Munsters‘ core themes while also prioritizing Fred Gwynne and his hilarious work as the goofy Herman Munster. Here, when Herman is struck by lightning and “disfigured” into looking like, well, Fred Gwynne — a “normal” human being (a large “normal” human being), he and the family are disgusted by the change. This not only allows big hahas because of the Munsters’ inverted perspective about physical beauty, it also calls attention to his (and the family’s) intrinsic peculiarities, which, let’s face it, have mostly revolved around how the outside world reacts to them, and this largely has hinged around their appearance. Now, with a “normal” face — and the removal of the outward reminder of the movie monster he represents — Herman is just another suburban sitcom patriarch (albeit with an amusingly childlike personality), and this provides two things: A) an understanding of the series’ central conflict, which is destroyed for the first and only time in the series’ run, despite the characters not seeing it as a positive development, and B) an ability to appreciate the characterization of Herman that has developed independently of his physical presence as a monster. In other words, both the premise and the main character shine here, with a memorable story that earns its fair share of laughs and capably venerates Gwynne. This is everything we want The Munsters to be. (Also, Dom DeLuise guests.)
05) Episode 57: “The Most Beautiful Ghoul In The World” (Aired: 01/27/66)
The men experiment with electricity while the women go into business.
Written by Ted Bergman | Directed by Ezra Stone
Though not the best of what the series narratively has to offer, this half hour nevertheless satisfies comedically, splitting off into two amusing and interconnected subplots where Lily and Marilyn open up a beauty parlor while Herman and Grandpa experiment in the lab with electricity. Elvia Allman plays one of the ladies’ two clients, who at first get a frightful makeover and then find themselves bald thanks to Herman and Grandpa’s screwup. What I like best is that the regulars’ personas are revealed in the handling of the stories — the women make their customers look like monsters, as the guys are up to their own “weird science” antics in the dungeon. So, it’s something that only The Munsters could do. (Charles Lane also guests.)
06) Episode 59: “The Fregosi Emerald” (Aired: 02/10/66)
Herman gets a cursed ring stuck on his finger.
Written by Richard Baer | Directed by Ezra Stone
This popular entry boasts the most supernaturally inclined story on either of these lists, for if you’ll recall, I said that one of the core problems with this series is that it too often focuses on the Munsters’ differences, which in turn minimizes how they adhere to domestic tropes, a necessary part of the premise that needs to be equally invoked. Accordingly, stories that use too much supernatural/sci-fi/horror mumbo jumbo are inherently imbalanced, and while one could argue that any thematic connection to their movie monster origins is a reinforcement of character, laughs are seldom filtered through their actual depictions. However, this installment is somewhat successful, thanks to an audacious story with a few memorable moments, including an appearance by Gwynne and Lewis’ former Car 54 costar Paul Reed, who steals the show as a mad scientist. (That said, he faces some stiff competition from Louise Glenn in a bit role.)
07) Episode 60: “Zombo” (Aired: 02/17/66)
Eddie is enamored of a ghoulish TV host, making Herman jealous.
Written by Dennis Whitcomb | Directed by Ezra Stone
While “Operation Herman” acknowledged the show’s interest in being a domestic satire through a few pointed jokes, “Zombo” goes even more metatheatrical with a self-aware narrative built around Eddie’s fixation on the ghoulish host of a horror-themed TV show — played by Louis Nye — and this makes a natural association with The Munsters itself. But there’s an emotional center here also — Herman’s desire to connect as a positive role model for his son — and I think the main value of this outing is, again, seeing the show tell us what it is and how it’s perceived; some think it’s just a campy horror piece, but it’s really a family comedy.
08) Episode 64: “A Visit From Johann” (Aired: 03/17/66)
Lily unknowingly goes out with Herman’s less civilized look-alike cousin.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Gene Reynolds
Although my MVE is far and away the season’s and series’ finest, the second strongest showing here is this excursion, which accomplishes the same two things that the aforementioned “Just Another Pretty Face” does — highlighting the show’s central conflict about the Munsters being a family of domesticated monsters, while also celebrating the persona that it has cultivated for Herman Munster, whose portrayer is afforded the chance to be hilariously funny. But instead of using the idea of normalcy to make these points, “A Visit From Johann” presents us with a stranger version of Herman: his cousin Johann (also played by Gwynne), who lacks all of Herman’s civilized embrace of suburban expectations, essentially rendering him the version of Frankenstein’s monster to which we’ve all become accustomed. From the opposite side of “Face,” “Johann” allows us to see clearly that Herman Munster has a palpable characterization that extends beyond his monstrous origins and it hits the thesis about the family existing as typically domestic creatures — far unlike the monsters that they symbolize.
09) Episode 67: “A House Divided” (Aired: 04/07/66)
Herman and Grandpa feud and decide to draw a line down the middle of the house.
Written by Dick Conway | Directed by Ezra Stone
We’ve seen ye olde “divide the house with an artificial line” plot before — an early I Love Lucy episode called “Men Are Messy” springs to mind — and, as usual, whenever The Munsters utilizes a domestic sitcom cliché for its narrative, it’s also able to emphasize the family’s suburban typicality and therefore succeed on the terms of its premise. But this kind of story is not always capable of landing those big yuks that come mostly from huge slapstick set pieces with Fred Gwynne. Fortunately, because this installment puts Herman and Grandpa — the series’ two clowning partners-in-crime — at the center of its household squabble, it increases its laugh quotient and stands out as an ideally well-rounded sample. A gem.
10) Episode 70: “A Visit From The Teacher” (Aired: 05/12/66)
Eddie’s composition about the family brings a house call from his teacher and principal.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Ezra Stone
The series’ finale, this offering has one of the rare stories that adheres more to the Addams Family’s narrative template — where, instead of The Munsters going out into the world and being abnormal in front of others, strangers come to their house and are taken aback by an immersion in theirs. In this case, though, the premise is ably reinforced because the strangers in question are Eddie’s principal and teacher (Petticoat Junction‘s Pat Woodell), who visit Mockingbird Lane after Eddie’s composition on his “average” family raises some red flags — it’s a topic that calls attention to the idea of perceived ordinariness, which is related to the suburban familiarity that this series is aiming to lampoon in the first place.
Other notable episodes include: three that don’t use the central premise well, “Herman’s Driving Test,” which never rises to the comedic occasion its plot promises, “Will Success Spoil Herman Munster?” which has the slight but memorable notion of Herman becoming a singing sensation with his own interpretation of “Dem Bones,” and “Herman’s Sorority Caper,” which claims a few guest stars and an amusing “Herman in a sorority house” story, but again, isn’t really a laugh-laden dynamo or an essential look at the series’ foundation. Of more Honorable Mention quality are three outings in the opposite direction — they’re admirably suburban, but lack the push for big laughs that often come from Gwynne and provide the series with its overall raison d’être, “The Musician,” “Eddie’s Brother,” and “Herman’s Child Psychology,” which explicitly brings up Connelly & Mosher’s Leave It To Beaver. Lastly, I’ll single out “John Doe Munster,” which claims a big broad plot that also hinges around Herman’s cultivated personality but is dragged down by a strangely ill-conceived set piece — Lily and Grandpa pretending to be lovers — that detracts from the entry’s character value.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Munsters goes to…
“Just Another Pretty Face”
Come back next week for both seasons of The Addams Family!