Two Counts of Domestic Disturbance: An Introduction to Both THE MUNSTERS & THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday — well, kinda. This is actually a bonus Wildcard Wednesday, dedicated to setting up our next two series scheduled for seasonal coverage: the eternally linked The Munsters (1964-1966, CBS) and The Addams Family (1964-1966, ABC).

I’ll be honest with you. The Beverly Hillbillies was the last ’60s sitcom that had to be covered here for the sake of finding the decade’s best episodic samples. The remaining (and highly requested) series that we’ll be examining from this period are more rhetorically notable — that is, there’s something to say about what they represent in the genre’s ongoing evolution, but their lists are fundamentally less important because, basically, we’ve already highlighted what we needed to highlight. This applies to the upcoming I Dream Of Jeannie as well, but I note all this now to explain, in particular, how coverage of both The Munsters and The Addams Family will proceed throughout November. For starters, their episodes are not seminal in our broad sitcom survey, and my interest in covering them stems from being able to offer this entry: an introductory essay that hopes to provide some compare-and-contrast and context to both of these aesthetically associated efforts. But since this is essentially a Wildcard, I will give you two official Sitcom Tuesdays next week — for The Munsters. The week after that, I’ll have two posts on The Addams Family. If it seems like I’m rushing and combining coverage of these two series, uh, I am — I’m rushing because their lists are not imperative, and combining because, just like with Jeannie and Bewitched, we tend to think about them in relation to each other. And if I was choosing to feature one, it would be hard to justify not featuring the other.

Okay, I suppose the first thing you want to know is which one I prefer. Now, I could give you a straight answer, or I could discuss their individual strengths and weaknesses, delineating ways to enjoy both equally. I was going to do the latter, but because next month I’ll be stridently pro-Bewitched instead of Jeannie, for the sake of consistency I should take a stand: I consider The Addams Family a better written show and therefore more conducive to Sitcom Tuesday treatment. However, this distinction, while deliberate, isn’t terribly important since neither is stellar. And although I hope my thoughts are well explained, I’m not using this coverage solely to defend a preference. Actually, I want to discuss how they’re alike — to get an understanding of how they fit within their era. After that, we’ll discuss their differences — but mostly to encourage maximum appreciation of their individual charms. So, let’s begin with the shared reason that these two series are worthy of being discussed: they’re a paired example of the “tweaked suburbia” trend that was a fascination in many early ’60s sitcoms.

If you’ll recall, by the middle of network television’s first full decade, domestic comedies had become a tried-and-true hallmark (see: Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver), and as early as the late 1950s, executives were already trying to create variations on this familiar format, often turning to a modified family unit for something other than the traditional two-parent, mother-father home (see: Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show). Then, in 1960 — at the end of a slump in TV comedy’s popularity — the medium made a concerted effort to rebrand suburbia from quaint to sexy by positing cosmopolitan characters as contented with the white picket fence (see: The Dick Van Dyke Show). In the meantime, the era’s widening cultural disconnect between the city and the country also left room for a huge subgenre of so-called “hayseed comedies,” like Andy Griffith and Paul Henning’s trilogy, the supreme of which was 1962’s The Beverly Hillbillies. This exceptionally popular series placed a modified family in the center of a high-concept premise that directly sought to highlight the urban/rural divide by juxtaposing its core, the Clampetts, against a world that found them perennially strange and displaced. Minus the rurality, the same formula was used when developing both the Addamses and the Munsters, two “ooky” families that premiered in the fall of 1964 and were based on known quantities — Charles Addams’ cartoon subjects and Universal’s movie monsters. Both shows ran for two years at the end of TV’s black-and-white era and attracted a huge following of younger viewers, but like most of the kiddie comedies of the time, their popularity was short-lived and they both fell from the Top 30 in their first year to outside the Top 60 in their second. As for quality, they both featured material-elevating stars who fueled their series’ comic interests — the central one being the conscious lampooning of televised domesticity.

We often think the connective tissue between The Munsters and The Addams Family is their characters’ gothic depictions and supernatural motifs, for, like in Bewitched and Jeannie, this fantasy element motivates a lot of their chosen plots. But all four have aesthetic concerns couched within a domestic format that gives us a way to understand them — an identifiable, and necessary, structure. They’re each set in the home — taking on the idea of domestic bliss by complicating it, and while Bewitched and Jeannie are anchored by central couples as basic rom-coms with some second-wave feminist underpinnings, Munsters and Addams are more geared towards family life. In fact, it’s no coincidence that some of the spooktacular duo’s most prolific writers — namely Hannibal Coons of Addams and Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher of Munsters — counted youth-centric family fare as their most notable prior credits (Dennis The Menace and Leave It To Beaver, respectively), for it wasn’t just due to the ubiquity of the genre that both of these new ’64 models gave most of the textual responsibilities to men with a definite comprehension of how domestic shows were written. No, this was how the two were intentionally premised and how they needed to be rendered: as family comedies that headlined their gaudy differences but really were quite traditional week-to-week. In this way, both The Munsters and The Addams Family, even more than rom-coms Bewitched and I Dream Of Jeannie, offer us an accurate look at how the middle of the escapist decade modified the rigid family comedy to address the era’s growing need for more high concept decorations — with elements of fantasy, contrasting ideas of normal, and little concern for logic. This is the sitcom of the ’60s, and both of these macabre classics represent its guiding conceits beautifully. That’s why I like them.

However, their familial trappings are revealed through significantly different objectives. Although both families are strange, the focus of The Addams Family is the strangeness itself, while The Munsters is about normalcy in spite of strangeness. I’ll explain. The comedic engine in both is how these unusual families consider themselves totally “usual” in relation to the outside world. But on The Addams Family, whose well-off central couple looks fairly normal, every joke is about how they’re actually eccentric; from Gomez’s barely contained libido (out-of-place on domestic comedies, which are typically conservative) to the disembodied hand protruding from a box (Thing), everything we learn about them — big or small — tells us that the Addamses are odd, and “ordinary” people find them scary as a result. The Munsters, in contrast, has a central couple who is bizarre looking… but everyone in the house nevertheless conforms to the recognizable routines of a middle-class lifestyle: the wife cooks breakfast, the husband goes off to work, and the kids get ready for school. They believe they’re “normal” and try to go about living “normal” lives out in the world… even though, because of how they look to others (and us), that’s impossible. This isn’t to say they aren’t strange — no, per the movie monsters they suggest, the Munsters enjoy sleeping in coffins, own a pet fire-breathing dragon, and operate a basement dungeon that functions as a mad scientist’s laboratory. Yet, unlike the Addams family, the Munsters embrace the genre’s tropes regarding suburban life. Accordingly, the humor is different — on The Addams Family the tension purely revolves around rejecting domestic expectations; on The Munsters it’s about adhering to them no matter what. (And most telling, the latter’s opening credits is an overt parody of The Donna Reed Show’s.)

Generally, this opposing tension yields different narrative templates. On Addams, people come to the house and are confronted with the family’s abnormality. On Munsters, the family goes out into the world where people perceive them as abnormal. Both modes provide the opportunity to explore the characterizations through comedic contrast, but The Munsters has a much more difficult time honoring its premise because it requires the familiar domestic construct in support, and taking us outside their home to focus on how kooky they are to others misses that point. Oh, it satisfies some surface objectives — it hits the joke about the gulf between the Munsters’ perception of themselves and our perception of them, and it gives Fred Gwynne (and sometimes Al Lewis, his former Car 54 cohort) a chance to clown in big broad centerpieces that employ slapstick and are dependent on visual gags. But this quickly devolves into a parade of easy story-based jokes that, again, don’t make full use of the original “monsters in suburbia” premise as developed by Norm Liebmann and Ed Haas, following an Addams Family-esque format by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward (later of He & She). So, with idea-led weekly narratives like “Herman becomes a baseball player,” “Herman becomes a detective,” and “Herman becomes a wrestler,” the only way to reinforce character through action becomes highlighting their strangeness, often via the supernatural qualities that also inspire story. And, inevitably, this shifts the series’ sights onto what makes the Munsters different, when the purpose of the show is just the opposite: despite their differences, they’re normal. Fundamentally, then, Munsters is less able to produce a truly great episode because it’s less often able to narratively emphasize its bedrock of domestic familiarity — which is necessary, for we expect these characters to be strange; we don’t expect them to be framed so mundanely. That’s the joke. To that end, The Munsters’ micro goals are often at odds with its macro one.

In contrast, The Addams Family is synchronized: its family and their way of living is weird, and stories capably emphasize said weirdness by having so-called “normal” people experience it firsthand. The scripts serve this idea — we constantly expect them to be like us, but they aren’t. Easy. As in The Munsters, there’s a lot of untenable repetition though — “a shrink comes over,” “a saleslady comes over,” “an artist comes over” — and this precludes the existence of gems. Yet with its premise ably displayed in story, there are more installments that, unlike The Munsters, meet the concept’s demands and thus seem exceptional examples of what it wants to be. Also, because Addams decides to immerse the audience in their unusual world by bringing the outside in, it gets to better cultivate the characters within it — Lurch, Grandmama, Cousin Itt, etc. — all the while developing the strong, strange relationship between Gomez and Morticia at its heart. Today, when we remember the original Addams Family TV show and all of its later iterations (series, movies, etc.), its primary asset is often said to be the well-developed passionate connection between its central twosome… Well, it’s largely because of the premise and the show’s storytelling that this connection is even allowed to blossom, as only a show built to encourage this kind of identity-affirmation could develop a nucleus so oddly unique. And, you see, everything on Addams works together to reinforce it. Sadly, there’s not as much cohesion on The Munsters. While the Herman/Lily relationship is reminiscent of earlier TV spouses’, the majority of the stories depend exclusively on Herman, and most of his scenes are not with his wife (like Gomez/Morticia), but with his partner in crime, Grandpa. This is conducive to big broad slapstick… but not the invocation of domestic support. In the same vein, Marilyn, whose conventional beauty is treated as unfortunate, is great for yuks — because the Munsters have an inverted point of view — but she puts the spotlight right back on their physicality, which is atypical, not typical. So, in both cases, The Munsters reaches for something that’s funny, but doesn’t help its “they’re just like us!” premise, and that’s disconcerting.

Of course, every sitcom’s overarching goal is laughs — that’s what both want most of all. Addams doesn’t have to try very hard — it’s concerned only with the family’s quirks, which are inherently comedic. (The overgenerous comparisons to the Marx Brothers are rooted in an appreciation for this natural lunacy.) The Munsters, meanwhile, not only is more constrained with regard to its depiction of these famous movie monsters (in the suburbs, no less), it also seeks a more nuanced juxtaposition of quirks and normalcy, the latter of which is not intrinsically funny and perhaps needs goosing. It’s not a surprise, then, to see The Munsters turn to whatever stories it can find to increase guffaws, often devoting itself to sillier plots that are less related to the leads’ personas. This storytelling style is more immediately accessible — funny ideas are funny, less-funny ideas are less-funny — and considering that they’re often filled with physical bits and cartoony gags that don’t require a lot of complex thinking, they’re great for younger viewers. Also, though Addams’ John Astin, Carolyn Jones, and Jackie Coogan are hilarious actors who add so much to their characters (we’ll talk more about them later), The Munsters relies even more heavily on its terrific leads, particularly Gwynne, who plays Frankenstein’s Herman Munster as an oversized child: goofy, temperamental, sweet. He is consequently more relatable to children and, again, as with the storytelling, more immediately accessible to them too. So, it’s no wonder that most people cite The Munsters as their preference: it’s easier with which to identify when we’re young. And later, when we grow up, this nostalgia is impenetrable, allowing us to defend our choice by saying that The Munsters is funnier. It’s not, really. It’s just more aggressive in courting laughs and, despite its slightly less simple premise, simplifies the sources from which it derives said laughs, which means they come more liberally. This is a reason to watch — the constant crusade for genuine comedy is what we want from a sitcom.

Even today, I find it more joyful to watch a half hour of the original Munsters. Like many of you, it reminds me of my childhood. And it’s unencumbered by anything other than “funny people doing funny things,” with charming performances by Gwynne, Lewis, and Yvonne De Carlo in support, along with enough of the movie monster flavor to get its point across. (The strongest shows, we’ll see, balance an understanding of the premise and an opportunity for clowning, with fidelity to the characterizations implied.) I get it — it’s logical to prefer The Munsters, for The Addams Family isn’t so jolly or loose. That said, Addams also has visual humor and communicates amusing ideas that also appeal to a childlike sensibility, because, remember, it gets to focus on the offbeat and surreal exclusively. Although its process of finding laughs isn’t as direct — it requires knowledge of the “normal” and often deploys its regulars, not its situations, to oppose it — the cast is certainly up to the task; hilarious performers like Coogan are around to buttress the premise, while Astin and Jones have an adult dynamic that evokes their creator’s satirical aims — generating big hahas, satisfying the show’s identity, and providing older viewers with something more concrete on which to attach value. By these metrics, it’s, as noted above, a better written show, more suitable for coverage… However, it’s still a lot like The Munsters in that there’s only so much it can do with an idea-driven high concept when it comes to character. (Both are basically sketch fare — that’s their big problem.) And with stories confined to the home, Addams feels claustrophobic. So, even with better character work, it’s no less constrained, and I’ll reiterate: neither has essential episodes by the standards of the ’60s’ finest… And yet, maybe that’s fitting, for the suburban sitcom, even in the ’50s, was always a rote, unimaginative affair. It was only in the quirks — the characters — that they distinguished themselves. These two certainly have many quirks, but at the end of the day, are we not talking about Ozzie & Harriet but with Cousin Itt, Father Knows Best but with Frankenstein? That is, these lists will showcase both series’ unusual high concepts, but notice what’s underneath: the domestic design they were purposely built to disturb, but not dismantle. How very ’60s.

 

 

Come back next week for my thoughts on the best episodes of The Munsters! And stay tuned tomorrow for another new Wildcard!