Today is the birthday of Jackie Coogan ( see my full biographical blogpost here). Coogan is often celebrated for his earlier performances in such movies as The Kid and Oliver Twist. As well they should, for they are classics. But in the end, as we all know, it all comes down to Uncle Fester. For all of us. We may all start out as adorable, irresistible babies…but we end up as bald, pop-eyed denizens of dusty old houses full of antiques.
Like many, I am a huge fan of the ABC sit-com The Addams Family (1964-1966). But I am also equally a fan of the CBS sit-com The Munsters which ran at the exact same time (1964-1966). “What’s the difference?!,” my best friend in high school used to rant, “They’re both shows about a family of monsters!” He used to take the position that the latter was just a rip-off of the former. As it happens, that wasn’t the case.
Both shows were developed independently, less a factor of coincidence, I think than zeitgeist. Charles Addams had been drawing his dark cartoons for The New Yorker since the late 1930s. Vampira began hosting old horror movies on television in 1954, and many similar corny comical horror hosts followed in her wake at local tv stations across the country. E.C. Comics published a long line of horror titles and, perhaps more significantly Mad Magazine. And American International Pictures, long known for low-budget horror, was beginning to camp it up with surf musicals and a new cycle of films starring Vincent Price, including horror-humor hybrids such as The Comedy of Terrors (1964). There is no doubt that Addams came first at his drawing board in the chronology I just laid out. BUT, as I shall demonstrate, The Munsters is very different.
The Addams Family universe evolved organically out of 25 years of Addams’ cartoons. Inspired by Addams’ sensibility and guided by producer Nat Perrin (who’d written for the Marx Brothers), the show is elusive, sophisticated and very much a sui generis. It gives us a world not really too distant from this one. What on earth can I possibly mean, you wonder? Two words — they’ll mean something to you or they won’t: Grey Gardens. We are talking about a family of old money, so old that no one seems to know or care where it came from. In the case of The Addams Family the origins seem vaguely European, although it shares much in common with Southern Gothic. The family has clearly occupied its decaying mansion for generations, living in unwholesome isolation, and clearly inbreeding. The show isn’t even subtle about this ambiguity. Who is related to whom and how? It seems clear to me that Gomez (John Astin) and Morticia (Carolyn Jones) are related in ways other than, and previous to, husband and wife — cousins at the very least. No one works, their lives are spent entirely on time-killing hobbies and projects, often of a subversive (or perversive) nature. They are cheerfully eccentric and anti-social, preoccupied with thoughts of murder, destruction and doing the opposite of what’s expected. There is a Beatnik energy to the proceedings. They are cultured in a way that is most “un-American”. They recite poetry, do Yoga, and are gourmets and wine aficionados in a way that recalls Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. They are in a literary tradition. And while they surround themselves with monsters (Lurch, Thing, Cousin Itt, and the children’s various toys and pets), for the most part the Addams Family are just morbid people, with Uncle Fester and Grandmama (a witch) at the outer fringes.
Conversely, true to their name The Munsters are monsters. In fact, literally so — all of the characters are based around, modeled upon, the Universal Studios horror franchises with patriach Herman (Fred Gwynne) clearly modeled on Frankenstein, and Grandpa (Al Lewis), Lily (Yvonne De Carlo) and Eddie (Butch Patrick) modeled on Dracula. Grandpa’s basement workshop (the “dungeon”) is a mad scientist lab. And the family periodically receives visits from other Universal monsters like The Invisible Man, the Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
While The Addams Family couldn’t possibly be more East Coast Establishment, The Munsters is totally West Coast, with its surfer theme music, its parody of Hollywood movies AND its satire of the American family as filtered through other sit-coms (My Three Sons springs immediately to mind, although probably more of the moment is the fact that the show’s producers were Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, whose previous tv hit was Leave it to Beaver.) Unlike the Addams Family, the Munsters strive to be a “normal” American family, or at least their version of it. Herman (much like another star of a similar parody of the time, Fred Flintstone) goes to work every day with his lunch box and punches in with his time card. Yes, he works at a funeral parlor, but he works. Unlike the Addams Family, the Munsters aren’t disengaged from the world around them, they aspire to be involved. They’re always answering and placing ads for things, joining clubs and so forth. People wind up at the home of the Addams Family by accident; the Munsters bring home new friends. They fail at fitting in for the most part, but unlike the Addams family they at least aspire to Keep Up with the Joneses. They are even automobile lovers with the “Munster-mobile” paving the way for other campy sit-com roadsters such as the Batmobile and Monkee-Mobile. Just a bunch of regular old American consumers. One of the most eloquent aspects of this set-up is the character of Grandpa, the immigrant from “the Old Country”, an ingenious device, I think. For what were second and third generation hyphenated Americans doing in the mid twentieth century but trying to FIT IN?
And further, I would contend that The Munsters is satire as much as simple parody. For example, I consider Fred Gwynn’s work on this show a masterpiece of comic acting. “The big strong American male” is constantly revealed to be this simpering softy, hen-pecked (borderline Oedipal), and infantile in the extreme, literally jumping up and down and stamping his feet when he doesn’t get the toy that he wants (“I want it, I want it, I want it!”). Here’s a study in contrasts: whenever Morticia Addams speaks French, Gomez doesn’t even bother to conceal his frank, leering lust – – he attacks her on the spot, and she likes it. Herman Munster’s style is to give Lily a bashful peck on the cheek (as he does in the show’s credit sequence) and then rapidly change the subject. He’s not a man; he’s an overgrown boy and his wife is an uncomfortable authority figure. The character (and the situation) is definitely heir to stuff found in Laurel and Hardy comedies and The Honeymooners….and an ancestor, for sure, of Homer Simpson.
Which of the two shows is my favorite? Unless it isn’t already plain, I could never ever choose. Let us agree to divide the universe: we’ll watch The Munsters by day….and The Addams Family by night.
Say now! I wasn on the BBC recently talking about this very topic. To hear that show go here.