Greetings classic television fans. Today I want to talk about two of my particular favorites of classic television, The Addams Family and The Munsters and do a little compare and contrast with them. Two sitcoms on rival networks during the 60's, sharing much the same themes, go head to head. Who will win? Not that it is a competition, but honestly I prefer The Munsters to the Addams gang. Read on and I will explain.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
1964 saw the launch of two situation comedies with a humorous eye toward the macabre. In September of 1964 ABC launched The Addams Family, a half hour sitcom based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, a master of one panel humor with a morbid twist. Later in that same month CBS launched its own spooky sitcom with The Munsters, a family of outright monsters in the Universal vein. Comparisons between the two are all over the internet and likely were drawn in 1964 as well.
The Addams Family was created, originally, by Charles Addams in his New Yorker cartoons. Addams was a master of the comic macabre. A previous post details that genius, but what needs to be understood for this post is that he worked in single panel cartoons, which means that the joke has to be immediately understood. To accomplish this Chas would very often show a person immediately before or immediately after an unfortunate event. Part of the charm was his use of seemingly normal people. A couple who look for all the world like normal people, sitting in a well lighted space, about to do some horrid act, often fatal, was part of his trademark style. Yet this same brilliant cartoonist also created the characters that would become The Addams Family, which if we look at his work was a subversion of his usual style in that it showed macabre characters doing macabre things, but treating it as normal, almost banal. The television show worked with this same basic sensibility, having a family of eccentrics (they would be called crazies but that they are stinking, filthy rich). The Addams are not the all-American family but are certainly an American dream family; they come from old money, are extremely well-off, and have a pedigree on both sides. They are morbid by nature, but consider their own behavior to be normal. As a group they look on the "normal" people of the world as odd, unfortunate, in need of their help, or occasionally they simply fail to notice that others find them odd, or why they might. The humor comes from both the Addamses reactions to world events and the outside world's reaction to the macabre clan. The majority of the action takes place in a few rooms of their stately mansion home. Overtly supernatural activities are avoided, but suggestions of the paranormal abound for mood and comedic effects.
The Munsters were created specifically for television and specifically to be a comic look at monsters living in the normal world. Because Universal was the production house for the series the monsters most closely resemble the Universal Monsters in their looks, especially Herman Munster, the family patriarch, who is obviously made up to be Universal's Frankenstein monster. The Munsters, despite being immigrants, are the all-American family, middle class, hard-working, sharing the sensibilities of TV families such as the Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver) or the Stones (The Donna Reed Show). The humor derives both from the ironic juxtaposition of their essentially monstrous (but not evil) natures with the lifestyle they choose to live and in the situations in which the family often finds itself. The relationship of Herman with his father-in-law, Grandpa (Count Sam Dracula) is often the source of the comic mischief, leading to a "buddy movie" feel. Given that prior to The Munsters, actor Fred Gwynne had played part of the lead duo in Car 54, Where Are You? it is no surprise to see him working well in the "buddy" comedy set up.
Both shows are noted for putting an out-of-the-ordinary family into a painfully ordinary and banal setting and letting the humor develop from the inevitable clashes that ensue. The outside world reacts with emotions that vary, but are almost universally negative, including greed, fear, anger, and disquieting confusion. In the case of the Addamses this is based in the unnerving realization that all is not hunky-dory, brought on by continued contact and in the case of the Munsters this is more visceral and immediate reaction to the openly otherworldly nature of the clan. The protagonists of the both shows share the characteristics of behaving and believing themselves to be normal (it is the rest of the world that has got it wrong) and of showing open distress when confronted with the "abnormal" reactions of the outside world. Both shows feature a loving, tight-knit extended family that lives in what would pass for a haunted house to the rest of the world. Aside from a generally spooky-but-fun atmosphere the two shows share no other overt characteristics.
This article assumes that the reader has some basic knowledge of the shows being compared. The following run-down on the characters is based on the core canon of the two shows and does not take into account alternate interpretations (feature films, animated shows, etc.) unless noted.
The Addams Family consists of 8 core members:
Gomez Addams-The patriach and nominal head of the family.
Morticia Addams- The matriarch and real head of the family. A bit of a vamp.
Pugsley Addams- The eldest child of the family, son and heir to Gomez.
Wednesday Addams- Pugsley's younger sister who gives every sign of growing up to be like mum.
Uncle Fester- Morticia's uncle, a bald-headed, robed comic relief character.
Grandmama- Gomez's mother, an archetypal crone witch character.
Lurch- Butler to the family; a large, Frankenstein-monsteresque character with a basso profundo voice.
Thing- A seemingly disembodied hand that pops up from convenient boxes providing helpful services and physical comedy.
The Munsters consists of only 5 core family members:
Herman Munster- Head of the family, a patchwork creation of Dr. Frankenstein.
Lily Munster- Herman's wife and the daughter of Dracula (a vampiress).
Grandpa- Lily's father. A Transylvanian count surnamed Dracula and mad scientist/inventor.
Eddie Munster- Edward Wolfgang Munster is the only child of Herman and Lily and is a werewolf, obviously.
Marilyn Munster- Lily's niece, thus Herman's niece by marriage. Why her last name is Munster is a mystery to me.
Pets- Both families shared a penchant for outlandish pets, with the Addamses having a lion, man-eating plants, vultures and octopuses and the Munsters keeping a dragon named Spot, a black cat and Grandpa's pet bat, Igor.
The differences between the two shows are really where the meat of the matter is to be found and it is in these details that I find my preference for The Munsters.
1. The characters. In a head to head comparison we see:
Gomez vs Herman- Gomez is suave with a dilettante's passions. A member of the idle rich, he shows a childlike enthusiasm for his hobbies and interests and a passionate, smoldering love affair with his wife. Herman is more down-to-earth, literally, as he is a blue collar gravedigger type who works for a funeral home. He too displays a childlike enthusiasm for his passions, but is also given to tempter tantrums and moments of philosophical brilliance. He loves his wife, but their passion is subtle and more like Ward and June Cleaver than a fiery tango. His large size and brutish appearance are the opposite of Gomez in every way.
Morticia vs Lily- With her dark hair, eyes, and skin-tight black dress, Morticia is a classic vamp or femme fatale in looks. Her poise and sang-froid belie the caring mother and loving wife underneath the image. She is smart, obviously in charge of the family, either overtly or subtly and mostly occupies her time with hobbies and interests. She often feels the need to help "unfortunate" normals with her superiority. Lily is pale skinned and dark haired, being a vampiress, and has a fashionable white streak in her do. She wears colorful, diaphanous layers and a sumptuous cloak when traveling outdoors. Her personality is more June Cleaver than vamp and she us supporting of Herman as husband, father and breadwinner, in the traditional American sitcom style of the era. Unlike Morticia, who is clearly the superior of her mate in every way, Lily is a complement to Herman, showing discretion in the face of his enthusiasm, but not controlling him. She is often the voice of reason, if not the moral compass of the family.
Uncle Fester/Grandmama vs Grandpa- Grandmama works the odd spell, cooks and provides sage advice for her family. Fester is a comic figure who sometimes becomes the plot focus and who makes jokes. Grandpa is a full-fledged mad scientist and vampire who is part of the basic "buddy comedy" duo with Herman upon which many of the plots hinge. Grandpa is a more active member of the family/show than Grandmama is and on par with Fester.
Pugsley vs Eddie- Pugsley is rarely more than a quick joke or plot device and in this sense Eddie is more integral to his show, but even so Eddie is often just a background character. Any show featuring Eddie is going to be about how Herman or Herman-Grandpa must respond to an Eddie predicament.
Wednesday vs Marilyn- Mostly an unfair comparison given their roles and age differences. Wednesday is, like Pugsley, rarely seen beyond her role as a plot device or often simply referred to in dialog. Marilyn, by contrast, gets more lines and more development, but ultimately serves as a straight woman for monster jokes or as a plot device. Marilyn fits into her family dynamic differently than any other character in that she is part of the monsters but looks human. The humor deriving from Marilyn's (and her family's) belief that she is hideous. Her kind nature and attitude, in keeping with the wholesome TV girl-next-door character, are actually shared by her family.
Lurch and Thing- There are no Munsters counterparts for these two. They are primarily background characters, although Lurch did get a feature episode at least once.
2. The attitude. The Addamses are twisted, skewed, and not normal. To write such characters one needs to focus on the macabre and then assume that is the norm. To accomplish this take any normal situation and skew it 90 to 180 degrees. If a sunny day is the desire of normal families, then the flip is a rainy day. Thus we find that the Addamses moontan, enjoy rainy days, clip the heads off of roses (they value the thorny stems) and generally take pleasure in dangerous pursuits. They are not, however, Bizarro Superman. They don't say "hate" when they mean "love" or punch when they mean to kiss. They are, essentially, Goths before the subculture was named. In any given situation the Addamses behave eccentrically and find it odd that the poor, unfortunate people (meaning the normal viewer types) do not follow suit.
The Munsters behave as a classic sitcom all-American family, sitting down to breakfast and dinner prepared by Lily, often with Marilyn's help. The family eats a mixture of normal foods and strange foods (and Grandpa likes blood as well), but they still behave as a normal family would. To write the Munsters you simply take the normal behavior and embellish it a bit. Herman, for example, worries about the family finances, served in the US Army, and plays ball with his son. Gomez is more likely to teach Pugsley to firewalk and is not likely to encourage a healthy interest in team sports.
3. Setting/Transportation. The Addams Family is almost exclusively set in a few rooms of the Addams's family mansion. Independently wealthy, the Addamses live not as recluses, but very much away from society. The mansion is described in the opening theme lyrics as "a museum" and it certainly is filled with art and treasures. While there is a Gothic mood to the place, it is not the storm blasted, cobwed bedecked house of 1313 Mockingbird Lane where the Munsters live. In keeping with their monster status, the Munsters live in a more modest home, but still an expensive Victorian manor, which has seen better days. The house is continuously whipped by wind and inclement weather despite the weather conditions at any of the surrounding houses. The action in any given episode of The Munsters takes place in the home and in numerous outside locations such as a doctor's office, a shop or other place of business, a police station, museum, or other normal location as the plot dictates. As such, the Munsters need transportation.
They drive around in a Barris custom Coach (canonically created when Lily had two cars chopped and modified as a present for Herman). In 1964 this was a hip, relevant, West Coat Custom sort of thing to do and really stands out as an example of the difference between the two shows. The Addamses have an eccentric, often refined, old world charm and the Munsters were at once a satire of their time and a product of it.
4. Theme song. The theme to The Addams Family was composed by Vic Mizzy whose long list of credits includes Green Acres and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (starring Don Knotts). The song includes lyrics that provide a basic explanation of the family and features the harpsichord. The Munsters' Theme is more of a guitar driven beat with a twang and is instrumental. As a result The Munsters' Theme is easily covered and has been by multiple groups, including an Ultra-Lounge version. Very hip; it cooks.
5. Supernatural influence. The Addams Family often suggests at the supernatural (Grandmamma is something of a witch, Fester can make light bulbs glow, seemingly supernatural resistance to damage) but never answers the question. A distant family member might be freakish, but is still basically human (a conjoined twin perhaps). The Munsters are overtly and obviously supernatural being a family of classic monsters, one of which happens to be a warlock/mad scientist. As a result The Munsters can pull off any one-shot joke they want in a supernatural vein and the audience won't balk.
FINAL THOUGHTS/AND THE WINNER IS...
For me, although I love them both, The Munsters stands out as the better show. This is purely my own opinion. I find that The Addams Family is very much like the verbal comedy of a Marx Brothers film, as are many of the comedy of errors plots. According to the Wikipedia this is due to the work and influence of producer Nat Perrin, who wrote several Marx Brothers films and was a close personal friend of Groucho. Gomez often delivers lines in a Groucho manner and style. I love word play in comedy and as such I love watching The Addams Family but still prefer The Munsters. To me The Munsters is like a Rob Zombie video or song. It captures Americana in all its mythic glory, relying on the viewer's understanding of classic tropes from television sitcoms of the era. With the Addamses the family is the odd point and being so wealthy they live in a dream world that the average American viewer could not have and with which he would not identify. The Munsters are middle class with a hard-working blue collar dad who desires to instill "traditional" American virtues in his family. They are immigrants from Europe but they exemplify everything Mom-And-Apple-Pie about the American experience. I really enjoy that Monster Mash crazy hot-rod driving rock'n rolling type of show. Herman is likely to dance to the latest rock n roll beat and knows a bit of hip lingo. These monsters are not disconnected from America; they are America. They are you and me. Finally there is Marilyn. Marilyn is, for me, the key difference between the two shows and really shows how they differ. Marilyn is, apparently, Lily's niece and a natural born "monster" (again, I don't know why her last name is Munster) but looks fully human. By all accounts the blond, fresh-faced Marilyn is an attractive girl, but her point-of-view, formed by her upbringing, is that Herman, Lily and Grandpa are the standard of beauty and normalcy and therefore she is ugly. However she shares their attitudes toward cobwebs, bats, inclement weather and basic human decency. She considers her uncle Herman to be the kindest, most decent and upstanding person she knows and would love nothing more than to find a decent man like him. Marilyn laments that her ugliness runs off her would-be suitors, unaware that it is her family that is scaring them away. This sums up The Munsters; they are monsters who know that they are monsters but also know that they are people. They actually miss the reactions of disgusted and frightened humans, thinking the cause is something other than what we see as obvious. The Addamses know they are different, but consider their behavior the norm and feel sorry for us for not enjoying their reality. The Munsters conform to our expectations and behavior and simply fail to understand the reactions of others. So for its hot-rod, rockabilly, monster-laden All-American wonderfulness, I pick The Munsters. The hijinks of Herman and Grandpa as they attempt to maintain their status as average Americans win my loyalty over the morbid, macabre humor of the Addamses every time.
Both shows also spawned sequel series and films. The two feature films of the Addams family (The Addams Family and Addams Family Values) were both excellent and revived a nostalgic interest in the original property. An updated Munsters film with the same budget and excellent casting as the Addams films would certainly not be frowned upon by me.
If you have an opinion on this subject, I'd love to hear it. Drop me a comment or a line and maybe I can do an update.
Until next time, keep your pumpkins lit.