Cheers for Fears: The Charles Addams Legacy

My first proper date with my wife was a lecture about the life of Charles Addams (1912-88) at the Museum of the City of New York. (It was actually our second date, but it was the first one we acknowledged to be such. We both love him a lot, though the more obvious influence on my wife’s work as an illustrator is Edward Gorey.) I have had dozens of occasions to mention Addams on this blog. I am obsessed with tracing the origins of things. Addams’ comically macabre vision was so hugely influential, but where did he come from? No one but Adam (never mind Addams) is allowed to be really “original”. This post won’t (can’t) answer where Addams imagination came from, but the question continues to intrigue me.

My post on the original Addams Family TV series is among my most popular (it even got me on the BBC and has been widely shared on other websites) but it is far from the whole story of this pop culture genius. I had the good fortune (unusual for someone of my age) of discovering Addams in the proper order. My best friend in elementary school had paperbacks of Addams’ one panel cartoons from The New Yorker. It was only after I looked through all these that I learned that there had been a TV show based on them. This was over a decade after the show’s regular run, and it wasn’t rerun in syndication where I lived. I undoubtedly saw the 1973 animated series by Hanna-Barbera (below) before seeing any live-action iteration of the show. A few years later, my best friend in high school was a pretty devoted cartoonist, and his two biggest influences happened to be Addams and B. Kliban (whom I believe was also strongly influenced by Addams, though not in obvious way. His visual style is very different, but his sense of humor is similarly dark, grotesque and offbeat).

Addams was from a very old American family. He was related to social reformer Jane Addams, and both the Adams Presidents (though not through his main patrilineal line, it’s a different family.) Thus I am distantly related to him, too. The town Addams grew up in, Westfield, New Jersey, dates to the 17th century, and it contains some large, ramshackle 19th century manses of the type he loved to draw. He was also fond of frequenting cemeteries. So this is at least a partial explanation for his Gothic sensibility. His first couple of years of college were at U. of Penn. — and Philly is a town with plenty of spooky, atmospheric old buildings, as well. After art school Addams got a job at True Detective retouching crime scene photos, starting in 1932. Five years later his unique cartoons began running regularly in The New Yorker.

Those one panel, deadpan, pen and ink knee-slappers were not only influential upon the worlds of illustration and cartooning, but ultimately fashion, as well. I’m pretty intrigued by the origin of the Goth aesthetic. My post on Carolyn Jones (who played Morticia Addams on the TV series) is even more popular than my one on the TV show, and she was pre-dated on TV screens by Vampira, who said she’d been inspired by Addams, both in her look and her sense of humor, though there had been some cinematic precursors, such as Jean Brooks in The Seventh Victim (1943), Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Carroll Borland in Mark of the Vampire (1935), and ultimately the three wives in Dracula (1931) (Geraldine Dvorak, Cornelia Thaw and Dorothy Tree). And surely there were examples in the silent days, a question which bears exploration, but we digress. Interestingly, Addams three wives all bore some resemblance to the character who came to be called Morticia, though he conceived her and began drawing her a full decade before his first marriage.

Here’s Addams’ first wife, Barbara Jean Day:

Second wife Barbara Barb, who liked all her hair to spill out one side:

And 3rd wife “Tee”:

Another major public figure whom Addams clearly influenced was Alfred Hitchcock, whose little introductions and closing bits on his TV shows in the ’50s and ’60s are unmistakably Addams inspired. Addams also designed title sequences for William Castles’ 1963 remake of The Old Dark House, and the exquisite 1976 Neil Simon comedy Murder by Death.

As I say, I wrote about the original Addams Family series (1964-66) in some depth in this post. But we have not had the opportunity to mention the numerous reboots and sequels in the decades since then. There are far more many of them than I knew about, and the fact that a new one just debuted makes it somewhat timely, so here we go.

1973 Animated Series

The origin of this show was 1972 crossover episode of Scooby Doo, which had featured the voices of most of the original cast members. This was the age of animating new versions of older shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch) and even some movie series (such as Jerry Lewis and The Three Stooges). When the animated Addams Family became its own show, only Ted Cassidy (Lurch) and Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester) returned, with other voices provided by Lennie Weinrib, Pat Harrington, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, and believe it or not Jodie Foster (as Pugsley!) . The premise in this one is that the family is on some sort of permanent vacation, seeing America in their “Creepy Camper”, a version of their spooky house on wheels, not unlike Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine or the Munster-Mobile.

Halloween with the New Addams Family (1977)

A deceptive title, as this show was cast almost entirely with the original actors. And surprisingly, this very fun Halloween special is NOT a disappointment. It’s very much in tune with the spirit of the original show, the actors are clearly having a blast, and furthermore we have the added novelty of seeing the characters in color. The plot is similar to one of the episodes (crooks comes to steal their fortune), but the fact that it is set on Halloween gives it perhaps unintentional echoes of Arsenic and Old Lace. Worth checking out (I saw it on Youtube). This is the last incarnation of the series produced while Charles Addams was still alive (he passed away in 1988).

The ’90s Theatrical Film Reboot

In 1991, Barry Sonnenfeld, previously the cinematographer for the Coen Brothers, directed a big screen version of the show with an all new cast. And the casting is one of the best aspects about it. Since the original actors are so beloved you might think we’d be predisposed to be finicky about these interlopers, but there’s something really inspired about it, and they all do a wonderful job and are duly hilarious: Raul Julia as Gomez, Anjelica Huston as Morticia, Christopher Lloyd as Fester, and the great avant-garde theatre giant Judith Malina as Grandmama. And perhaps best of all, Christina Ricci achieved the startling feat of eclipsing Lisa Loring in the role of Wednesday. There are aspects of the writing I don’t like. I don’t like the idea of clarifying Gomez and Fester as brothers, for example. It seemed much more ambiguous what Fester was on the show, and that was preferable. And there are many things that Sonnenberg introduced in his direction that I downright hated, such as as having the disembodied hand “Thing” scurry about all over the place, which is completely outside Addams’ sense of humor. I find the movie enjoyable, but uneven. The sequel Addams Family Values (1993) a dark and caustic satire, is much better. The brilliant Paul Rudnick wrote this one and it’s wonderfully subversive premise is that the Addams children go to a summer camp run by Peter MacNichol and Christine Baranski, whose relentless normality and chipperness are their own kind of tyrannical horror, something all outsiders can bond over. The brilliance of it is that it is a new riff on something that was inherent if unarticulated in Addams’ original cartoons. Another inspired touch in the second film (much as I loved Malina) is that Carol Kane was now cast as Grandmama. Sadly, Raoul Julia died shortly after the second film was made, and the sequel was not as successful as the first, so this incarnation died after two movies.

Second Animated Series (1992)

Some great voices in the 1992 animated Addams Family — John Astin returns as Gomez, and there’s also Rip Taylor as Uncle Fester and Carol Channing as Granny! There were 21 episodes.

Addams Family Reunion (1998)

Despite the fact that it is full of stars, I had no idea that this straight-to-video, second reboot attempt existed. This one had Tim Curry as Gomez, Daryl Hannah as Morticia, and Alice Ghostley as Grandmama, with notables like Kevin McCarthy, Ed Begley Jr, Ray Walston, Clint Howard, Conrad Janis, and Leigh Taylor-Young also in the cast. But sadly this is the first return to the concept that is actively terrible…Munsters-reboot level terrible.

The New Addams Family (1998-99)

This Canadian series is notable for having produced more episodes (one more) than aired in the original series, and for featuring John Astin in the new, recurring role of “Grandpapa”.

Animated Features (2019-2021)

An entirely new look and attitude was devised for this series of animated theatrical films The Addams Family (2019) and The Addams Family 2 (2021). As time rolls on, the thing drifts farther and farther away from Charles Addams’ original vision and sense of humor. What even is it any more? All of these exhausted, empty retreads of something that was last vital a half century ago. It might as well be Space Jam. There are the voices of great stars in it: Oscar Isaac as Gomez, Charlize Theron (whose prior screen career actually tracks nicely with this franchise thematically) as Morticia, Chloë Grace Moretz as Wednesday, Bette Midler as Grandmama, and Snoop Dog as Cousin Itt! I’d say it was just for children, but truly — you can do better by your children.

Wednesday (2022)

We were excited about this new series because of the involvement of Tim Burton, who at one point had been slated to direct an animated reboot of The Addams Family (but didn’t), and whose own work was clearly influenced by Addams. (I’m also assuming that Burton’s early dark films Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands helped make the 1991 Addams Family reboot the viable possibility it proved to be). We watched the first episode and liked how it looked, but found the premise misconceived and inconsistent. It’s designed for young people, which is fine, and I hope they enjoy it, but the idea that Wednesday is enrolled at a very Goth school of monsters kind of blows the whole Addams Family comic idea to smithereens, and not in a positive way. The script tells us she’s a fish out of water, but that’s nonsense. In a school of monsters, doesn’t she automatically fit right in? And if she gets in trouble with authorities isn’t that what Addamses are SUPPOSED to do? Strictly for 12 year olds; not recommended for Addams Family fans.

In this, as in all things, it is best to go back to the source, even if you must take out a shovel and dig it up! Get your hands on the many published volumes of Charles Addams’ cartoons!