Though he's often been called mysterious and ooky, Judge Bill Gibron doesn't mind sharing such character traits with these forgotten television icons.
"The Addams Family started when Uncle Fester farted …"
They both premiered within one month of each other. At stake were the bragging rights to a new form of funny business—the scary sitcom. Not that each series was specifically geared toward fear. No, both The Munsters and its only other rival, The Addams Family, were trying to tap into the adolescent element of the family demographic that most prime-time comedies simply ignored. Nighttime television was geared toward adults, and if either collection of groovy ghoulies could capture the imagination of the matinee set (already primed by dozens of bad B-movies), small-screen success was almost guaranteed. Sadly, neither show lasted longer than a couple of seasons. At the time they were seen as superficial and gimmicky, relying more on concept than cleverness to supply their laughs. Today, The Munsters remains a kitschy, campy creation with Fred Gwynne's undeniable brilliance as head of household Herman buffering Al Lewis's Grandpa and Yvonne De Carlo's Lily perfectly. But it's The Addams Family that stands up against the best that early TV comedy had to offer. It remains a timeless classic that is only getting better with age. Proof arrives this month in the form of The Addams Family: Volume 1, a DVD collection of the first 22 episodes that argues for the eccentric series' inclusion in the TV Humor Hall of Fame.
Facts of the Case
They live in a decaying old mansion near a swamp. The family is lead by Gomez—raconteur, bon vivant, and slighty shoddy attorney. He is married to Morticia, a heavenly homemaker with a devilishly dark side. She enjoys raising man-eating plants and knitting sweaters for various malformed kinfolk. The couple has two children: Pugsley, the oldest, enjoys typical little-boy mischief like blowing things up and playing with Aristotle, his pet octopus; Wednesday, the youngest, cherishes her massive spider collection and her headless doll, Marie Antoinette. The clan is served by their butler, Lurch, whose hulking monster mass hides the true soul of an artist. When not answering the call of his employers, he loves playing the harpsichord. Rounding out the herd is Gomez's mother Grandmamma and family icon Uncle Fester. She specializes in brews and potions. He enjoys explosives, torture devices, and using his own internal electricity to power the household appliances. They're definitely mysterious and spooky. They are also quite creepy and kooky. Though many consider them to be all together ooky, they're really just a typical American brood, otherwise known as The Addams Family.
With Season One consisting of 34 episodes (there were 64 total over the two years of the show's run), MGM has decided to put out volumes instead of the standard full-series sets. This means we miss some classic moments near the end of the first year's run. Still, the selection here is sensational, with plots ranging from the standard to the surreal. Individually, the storylines featured include:
• "The Addams Family Goes to School"
• "Morticia and the Psychiatrist"
• "Fester's Punctured Romance"
• "Gomez the Politician"
• "The Addams Family Tree"
• "Morticia Joins the Ladies‚ League"
• "Halloween with the Addams Family"
• "Green-Eyed Gomez"
• "New Neighbors Meet the Addams"
• "Wednesday Leaves Home"
• "The Addams Family Meets the V.I.P.s"
• "Morticia, The Matchmaker"
• "Lurch Learns to Dance"
• "Art and the Addams Family"
• "The Addams Family Meets a Beatnik"
• "The Addams Family Meets the Undercover Man"
• "Mother Lurch Visits the Addams Family"
• "Uncle Fester's Illness"
• "The Addams Family Splurges"
• "Cousin Itt Visits the Addams Family"
• "The Addams Family in Court"
• "Amnesia and the Addams Family"
It goes without saying that The Addams Family is a product of its time. Conceived in an era when revolution infested all facets of life—social, political, sexual, musical—artists were taking more chances with their choices. Television still was seen as hopelessly mired in a convention created back when the boob tube was merely a collection of vaudeville-inspired variety shows and how-to programs. Sitcoms themselves found most of their material from previous radio hits, and drama was either melo-, sudsy, or lost in the wilderness of the wild, wild West. With the introduction of The Addams Family (and its brethren in boo burlesque, The Munsters), the networks were attempting to experiment with the still-young funny format, testing the waters to see what audiences would accept and what they would reject outright. The fact that both series sank after just two seasons (they did live on in reruns, however) indicated that, while cleverness and creativity were high on a TV lover's list, something as downright warped as The Addams Family just couldn't work. The execution was top notch, but the subversive ideals buried within each episode were just too much for the mostly conservative home crowd to recognize.
Viewed with eyes now 40 years-plus in age, The Addams Family is nothing short of luminous. It is superbly cast, brilliantly acted, and so rebellious in its tone and tendencies that it makes for a perfect post-millennial treat. What was weird and eccentric in 1964 is now nice and normal, the family's main mantra of individualism and being true to oneself a coveted current cultural directive.It is easy to see what '60s audiences eventually dismissed about this wonderfully inventive comedy. The Addamses were radicals, rocking the boat of suburban conformity with their love of all things dark and dour. In a society shuddering under the fear of nuclear annihilation and the advancing threat of communism, a family that forced the community to deal with them on their own terms was downright treasonous. We had just avoided a third World War via the Cuban Missile Crisis, seen a beloved leader assassinated, and heard a strange quartet of British boys overwhelming the American music scene. Turmoil was building all around the white-flight facets of the United States—and now television wanted us to hunker down and enjoy the adventures of a clan that purposefully avoided everything that was good, wholesome, decent, and pure. Talk about your crimes against God, nation, and normalcy!
This is perhaps why The Addams Family plays much better now than it did in the early part of the Peace Decade. It is surely safe to say that it contained one of the best casts to ever be compiled for a weekly half-hour sitcom. As Gomez, John Astin remains a genial, joking genius, always pushing his performance to the edge of absolute madness before reeling his ridiculousness back in. For a foil, Hollywood heavyweight Carolyn Jones delivered a devastatingly sexy turn as Morticia. It is often noted that the Addamses were the first TV couple that actually seemed interested in late-night rendezvous in the boudoir. Watching Astin and Jones smolder in each other's presences is abject proof of such an early erotic overtone to the series. Equally impressive were the children, Ken Weatherwax and Lisa Loring. Not given much to do at first, they never once break character, convincing us that they are the proto-Goth siblings that enjoy the same sinister things that their parents do. Another standout was old-time child star Jackie Coogan, given the difficult chore of making Uncle Fester a loveable ogre. For those only familiar with the film, Fester is not Gomez's brother, but an elder relative whose history and experience helps guide his young nephew. Using his unique body language and malleable face, Coogan created a fascinating fiend capable of great compassion and even larger lunacy.
Perhaps the most forgotten of all the Addams cast members is Lurch, played perfectly by the criminally underrated Ted Cassidy. With a basso voice that literally shakes the rafters when it speaks and a demeanor that could give the undead a few lessons in zombification, everything Cassidy does here is fantastic. In many ways, Lurch is the glue that holds the entire hilarious clan together. He is the real representation of terror, the being that, while benevolent, also appears to be hiding a horrifying inner self. We see it come out on occasion, and when not required to smirk in a kind of cruel, casual grin, Cassidy generates a truly sinister quality. Along with Blossom Rock (the pseudonym for Jeanette McDonald's sister Marie Blake) and art direction that completely sells the haunted mansion elements of the narrative (including some iconic images that remain as weird today as they were back when), the family's creator, the dead clever Charles Addams, had nothing to be ashamed of. True, the show was not quite as erudite or quirky as the cartoonist's New Yorker panels, but his spirit lived on in almost every facet of the family's makeup.
As for the episodes presented here, there is nary a dud in the bunch. You can see the show developing its voice over the first few episodes of Disc 1, Side A. There are subtle differences between the interpersonal dynamic in "The Addams Family Goes to School" and "Gomez the Politician." By the time we get to the hilarious "The Addams Family Meet the V.I.P.s," we see the formula that the writers would rely on for the next few installments. While they work wonderfully as a stand-alone entity, the creepy clan were always more effective when playing off the local populace. Whether they‚re dealing with a missing persons detective ("Wednesday Leaves Home"), a flustered federal officer ("The Addams Family Meets the Undercover Man"), or a bumbling city bureaucrat ("Cousin Itt Visits the Addams Family"), the reactions of so-called "real" people to the Addamses‚ obvious oddness is a joy to behold. Equally enchanting are their own responses. Gomez and Morticia tend to rationalize everything that happens, while Uncle Fester just wants to pump the horrified full of lead. Lurch will groan and grit his teeth while the children mix innocence with insidiousness to completely throw individuals off their game. While many of the jokes are obvious juxtapositions between ordinary and arcane, there is a lot of character-based comedy as well.
The best episodes balance both quite well. "The Addams Family Tree" features sitcom stalwart Frank Nelson (he's Mr. "YEEEEEEESSSSSSS!") in a great combination of narrative and nonsense. "Halloween with the Addams Family" gives another famous face—Don Rickles—a chance to mug along with his monster hosts. "Lurch Learns to Dance" and "Mother Lurch Visits the Addams Family" give Cassidy two complete storylines and he is magical in each one, while the aforementioned "The Addams Family Meets the V.I.P.s" is a Cold War classic. The last four episodes—"The Addams Family Splurges," "Cousin Itt Visits the Addams Family," "The Addams Family in Court," and "Amnesia and the Addams Family"—end the collection on a high note of humor that is almost unmatched in today's cynical and ironic idea of wit. Just watching The Andy Griffith Show regular Hal Smith (Otis Campbell) match legal language with a devious, practically disbarred Gomez is great fun. It confirms the opinion that's been growing ever since the DVD set began. A few years ago, shows like The Addams Family were viewed as crappy kidvid excuses for rotten, routine slapstick. Now, it is nothing short of a small-screen masterpiece, a great show that has matured into the best the medium has to offer.
Ever since TV on DVD became a viable approach to preserving old programs, Addams fans have been anxiously anticipating the digital release of their favorite family. All series considerations aside, the wait has definitely been worth it. These magnificent monochrome transfers, fresh and crisp in their 1.33:1 full-screen images, are simply stellar. Aside from occasional pop culture references, you'd swear these shows were made within the last few years. The contrasts are sharp without excess enhancement, and the stock elements (The Addams Family was filmed, as were most early sitcoms) appear almost pristine. If you're looking for flaws you'll be hard pressed to find them here. Equally enjoyable is the Dolby Digital Mono mix provided for each episode. Sure, some of the sound effects are over modulated and tend to distort their single speaker set-up, but all the dialogue is discernible and the various ambient additions to the show (the creepy theme music and score, the occasional wails of far-off spirits) are professionally captured by the aural presentation.
Unfortunately, the added content here is a tad sparse. "You Rang, Mr. Addams" is a nice featurette offering the four living cast members (Astin, Loring, Weatherwax, and "Cousin Itt" Felix Silva) reminiscing about the show. While it's fabulous to see the stars, their insights are rather routine and sort of shallow. A look at the creation of the show's signature opening (including the now-classic finger snap accompaniment) is discussed in "Snap Snap," and there is even an opportunity to add your own voice to a karaoke version of the song. "The Addams Family Portrait" gives us a brief overview of Charles Addams‚s career and provides some of the DVD's best information. We actually get to hear Addams' characterization "charts" for the show—ideas for how each individual family member would look, dress, and act. Loring, Weatherwax, and Silva also sit down with Addams Family scholar Stephen Cox to add audio commentary to "The Addams Family Goes to School," "Morticia the Matchmaker," and "Cousin Itt Visits the Addams Family." While Cox keeps the conversation lively, the cast members have only vague memories of the show (they were kids after all) and don't dish as much dirt as we'd like. Still, the discussion does provide a performer's perspective.
One of the most disheartening things that can happen to a TV fan is revisiting an old series that just doesn't hold up after all these years. The pain of having your memories marred by the reality of a show's actual entertainment value can be a trauma too trying for even the most ardent small-screen fanatic to handle. Thankfully, The Addams Family: Volume 1 has the opposite problem. The minute you finish the 22 episodes included here, you instantly want to see the rest. As the series moves along, the characters actually get better, the storylines become more memorable and the level of humor is easily amplified. Even if you merely "like" the series and think it would be fun to see it again, the elements that made it a brave broadcast move in 1964 will modify and magnify your affection, rendering it into a full-blown obsession. Hopefully, MGM will heed the call and deliver the rest of this delightful series as soon as possible. What the world needs now is more, not less, of The Addams Family's optimistic oddness. It definitely makes for classic TV viewing.
Even with Gomez acting as his own council, The Addams Family: Volume 1 is acquitted on all charges and is hereby released on its own recognizance. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "You Rang, Mr. Addams" -- featurette
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