Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting the best of The Addams Family (1964-1966, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD and Amazon.
The Addams Family stars JOHN ASTIN, CAROLYN JONES, JACKIE COOGAN, TED CASSIDY, BLOSSOM ROCK, LISA LORING, KEN WEATHERWAX, and FELIX SILLA.
As you know, the original TV iterations of both The Munsters and The Addams Family illustrate how the 1960s manipulated the domestic comedy format to support a growing need for more high-concept, and in this case, supernatural, narrative trappings. However, unlike Munsters, which posits its strange family as nevertheless typical, Addams is more straightforward: these people are strange. That’s it. The show therefore has an easier time hitting its premise in story, for all it’s got to do is reinforce their strangeness. This creates a template — from which this first year seldom deviates — where someone “normal” comes to the house and is directly confronted with their macabre oddness. Like on The Munsters, having a template breeds redundancy, and without that show’s natural inclination to leave the home and provide big centerpieces for its slapstick-proficient star, Addams also tends to feel more constrained and comedically limited… On the other hand, it doesn’t have to do as much to satisfy its thesis — all we need is the family. To wit, this series is better than The Munsters at prioritizing character, for by being homebound, episodes have more time to explore the leads and develop their relationships, particularly the central dynamic between Gomez and Morticia, who have a passion that both stands out as unique within the ’60s’ TV landscape and supplies a human relatability — an anchoring bond from which characterizations, however strange, can blossom. Unsurprisingly, the best episodes here feature this duo as the primary reiteration of the family’s kookiness, for although this may seem an easier task with, say, Fester or Lurch (who are more Munsters-like because of their physical appearances, which propel so much of their humor), it’s more rewarding with Gomez and Morticia, given the extra dimension that comes from established continuity (of motivations, flaws, quirks, etc.) — giving order to the disordered in the same way that The Munsters uses suburbia. Only, again, this series does it more through character… So, Addams may lack the grand comic shtick of its rival, but it’s got better character work and more premise-affirmation, and while, like Munsters, it’s too slight to deliver must-see classics, it claims stronger scripts that honor the series’ intentions with earned laughs in commensurate supply. But see for yourself; I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 2: “Morticia And The Psychiatrist” (Aired: 09/25/64)
Gomez and Morticia worry when Pugsley wants to become a boy scout.
Written by Hannibal Coons & Harry Winkler | Directed by Jean Yarbrough
Following a solid premiere that ably illustrates how the Addamses are different from the other families we’ve seen in this domestic format, the series’ sophomore excursion repeats the same idea, but with a more pointed use of the characters, as Pugsley’s developing interest in subjects that we would consider “normal” for his age (like joining the scouts) is a horrible shock to his parents, who even call in a shrink to examine him. This clash of the family’s perception against ours is a source of much humor on both this show and The Munsters, but Addams really uses it to its advantage here, letting this joke prove just how off-kilter the series will be.
02) Episode 5: “The Addams Family Tree” (Aired: 10/16/64)
A neighbor convinces Gomez to look into his family’s ancestry.
Written by Hannibal Coons, Harry Winkler, & Lou Houston | Directed by Jerry Hopper
Jack Benny’s Frank Nelson guest stars in this early offering as the snooty father of one of the new neighbor kids — and his reactions to the ookiness of the Addamses and their house are as enjoyable as you’d expect. But the real reason I highlight it here is that its second half finds Gomez tracing his ancestry, which enables the show to provide details about the many eccentric members of the Addams clan — a recurring source of comedy throughout the series and one that helps build out the family’s mythology and expand the depth of their weirdness.
03) Episode 7: “Halloween With The Addams Family” (Aired: 10/30/64)
The Addamses mistake two robbers for trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
Written by Keith Fowler & Phil Leslie | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Halloween is ideal subject matter for The Addams Family, considering the characters’ morbid and macabre pursuits, but this memorable entry starts with what’s actually a bit of a “typical sitcom” premise — a misunderstanding where crooks are assumed to be something else. Here it’s Halloween, so they’re mistaken for trick-or-treaters, whom the family invites into the house — allowing the pair to see the spooky joint up close and personal, at first thinking they’re all putting on for the holiday, but soon realizing it’s sincere. Beyond the comic story, this outing also benefits from the inclusion of the iconic Don Rickles as one of the robbers.
04) Episode 8: “Green-Eyed Gomez” (Aired: 11/06/64)
Gomez is jealous of Morticia and her old boyfriend.
Written by Keith Fowler & Phil Leslie | Directed by Jerry Hopper
Notable as the first true Gomez/Morticia episode of the series, “Green-Eyed Gomez” also begins with a “typical sitcom” narrative, as the husband is jealous of his wife’s relationship with an old flame and then brings in another woman to steal the romantic rival away. Of course, this series emphasizes what makes the characters different, so even when a plot seems fairly ordinary, its execution ensures the opposite. More exciting, however, is the burgeoning passion exhibited, in particular, by Gomez, who tangoes and teems with lust for his beloved — a key aspect of his characterization. Del Moore and Pattie Chapman are the amorous intruders.
05) Episode 11: “The Addams Family Meets The VIPs” (Aired: 11/27/64)
A pair of foreign dignitaries comes to meet a typical American family: the Addamses.
Written by Keith Fowler & Phil Leslie | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
I’ve cited this installment because it’s the year’s quintessential example of the tried-and-true narrative template that the majority of its scripts employ (in some fashion) — the outsiders coming into the house and experiencing all these frightening oddities firsthand. But this entry goes one better, calling attention to the rejection of typical TV domesticity by building the joke around the family being perceived as “average” by Russian dignitaries who soon learn that this couldn’t be more untrue. Stanley Adams, Vito Scotti, and Frank Wilcox guest.
06) Episode 13: “Lurch Learns To Dance” (Aired: 12/11/64)
The family tries to teach Lurch how to dance ahead of a big ball.
Teleplay by Jay Dratler & Charles Marion & Jerry Seelen | Story by Jay Dratler | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Ted Cassidy’s Lurch is a favorite, particularly among younger viewers, for like Herman Munster, his outward appearance is inherently comic and projects the strangeness on which every script capitalizes. Accordingly, episodes centered on him have an overinflated reputation — again, I think the Gomez/Morticia shows are more rewarding, because the comedy fueling their personas revolves less around how they look and more around who they are. But Lurch is a major part of the series and I wanted to highlight at least one of his shows. I’ve chosen this one because it’s the most character-oriented, as the Addamses try to teach Lurch, in their own varying ways, how to dance, indicating their individual personalities. Penney Parker appears.
07) Episode 18: “Uncle Fester’s Illness” (Aired: 01/22/65)
The Addamses call a doctor after Uncle Fester loses his electrical charge.
Written by Bill Lutz | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
As with Lurch, I wanted to single out at least one show built for Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester, a wonderfully bizarre figure who also sees many of his laughs derived from his outer appearance, even though he truly has more of a real characterization — making him the best defined regular outside of Gomez and Morticia. As a result, stories with him tend to be both funny and character-filled… although not all of them lead with this; most are more distracted by plot. Fortunately, “Uncle Fester’s Illness” is principally concerned with showcasing his strangeness, when he loses his charge, so it’s his best half hour here in Season One.
08) Episode 22: “Amnesia In The Addams Family” (Aired: 02/19/65)
Gomez gets amnesia and loses all of his regular personality.
Written by Phil Leslie & Keith Fowler | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Amnesia In The Addams Family” features a story that The Munsters actually used in its second year, where the patriarch develops amnesia. But there’s a big difference. When Herman Munster loses his memory, he retains his childlike aura and his identification as a movie monster, which means he doesn’t really lose his characterization, perspective, or peculiarities. When Gomez Addams loses his memory, he loses the very eccentricities that propel his depiction and the entire premise of the series — not to mention his inverted perception of the family’s “normalcy.” This contrast sums up the disparity in how the two shows use character in story and why Addams is superior on this front… That said, to be fair, The Munsters eventually matches this persona-switching conflict in another segment, “Just Another Pretty Face,” when Herman is “disfigured” and the family is horrified by the prospect of him being (what we would call) “normal.” However, this again reveals a core distinction: so much of Herman’s strangeness is rooted in how he looks, while Gomez’s is rooted in how he behaves — and this explains why Munsters is about familiarity in spite of strangeness and Addams is purely about strangeness. So, this is a potent idea.
09) Episode 32: “Cousin Itt And The Vocational Counselor” (Aired: 05/07/65)
Gomez and Morticia bring in an expert to help Cousin Itt find his calling.
Written by Hannibal Coons & Harry Winkler | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Cousin Itt is one of the show’s more eccentric characters — a dialogue-less creature whose inclusion was likely an appeal to younger viewers who are better served by visual and more visceral humor, like the kind seen on The Munsters. Yet, since he’s such an odd being, he works within the series’ thesis. I’ve chosen this installment to represent the best Cousin Itt story of the year because, as with “Lurch Learns To Dance,” it makes good use of the rest of the characters, including Morticia and Gomez, whose relationship is a focal point when Itt tries to be a marriage counselor. Also, Dick Van Dyke‘s Richard Deacon guests.
10) Episode 34: “The Winning Of Morticia Addams” (Aired: 05/21/65)
Uncle Fester intervenes to shake up Gomez and Morticia’s relationship.
Teleplay by Jameson Brewer & Charles Marion | Story by Charles Marion | Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Season One ends with another relationship-driven offering that displays just how important the heated, sexual dynamic between Gomez and Morticia has become to the series’ weekly projection of its heightened weirdness. The story is also about jealousy, like the aforementioned “Green-Eyed Gomez,” but now it’s because the family, mainly Uncle Fester, is intentionally scheming to shake things up for the couple, when he encourages a French doctor (Lee Bergere) to woo Morticia. This is a victory for the characters, providing one of the clearest depictions (this year) of Gomez and a plot that makes plenty of time to revel in what renders him, along with the rest of the family, so unlike anyone else then on TV. A fitting end to the year.
Other notable episodes include: two additional Lurch shows that are much gaudier and therefore more likely to appear on fans’ favorite lists… even though they’re less character-driven and more enamored of their own stories, “Mother Lurch Visits The Addams Family,” which guests Ellen Corby and sees Gomez and Morticia pretending to be Lurch’s servants, and “Lurch, The Teenage Idol,” a parody of “Beatlemania” that’s more reminiscent of The Munsters than anything else here, along with “The Addams Family Meets The Undercover Man,” a solid show about the family being suspiciously strange, and “The Addams Family In Court,” one of the rare times that the family leaves the house. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are “Cousin Itt Visits The Addams Family,” Itt’s debut, and “Thing Is Missing,” a story built around the disembodied hand who lives in a box.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Addams Family goes to…
“Amnesia In The Addams Family”
Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on the best from Season Two!