Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Addams Family Debuted 50 Years Ago Tonight

It was 50 years ago tonight that the TV show The Addams Family debuted on ABC in the United States. The series was based on the famous cartoons by Charles Addams published in The New Yorker and other popular magazines. While the show only ran for two seasons and 65 episodes, it would become a success in syndication where it still airs. Since then it has inspired two Saturday morning cartoons, two feature films, and even a musical.

It was on 6 February 1932 that Charles Addams's first cartoon appeared in The New Yorker.  Despite this it would be some time before what would come to be known as "the Addams Family" would make their first appearance. The first cartoon that identifiably featured members of the Addams Family would not appear until 1938. That first cartoon depicted a vacuum salesman's encounter with a tall brunette in a slinky dress (who would be named "Morticia" in the TV series) and a large bearded man (the prototype for the family's butler, called "Lurch" on the TV show). Over time other members of the family would appear in the cartoons: the short, stocky father who always dressed in a suit (called "Gomez" on the TV show); a tiny, dark haired little girl and her squat brother (called "Wednesday" and "Pugsley" on the TV show); a balding fellow who dressed like a monk (called "Uncle Fester" on the TV show); and so on. Although the general public referred to the family in Charles Addams's cartoons collectively as "the Addams Family" after their creator, none of the characters officially had names. That would not come until the television series.

The "Addams Family" cartoons proved very popular, with collections of Charles Addams's cartoons published in books. It was in 1963 that television producer David Levy was walking with a friend down 5th Avenue in New York City and passed a display of Charles Addams' books in a store window, including Homebodies, which featured a portrait of the entire Addams Family. It occurred to David Levy that "the Addams Family" might make a good basis for a television show. He approached Charles Addams with his proposal for an "Addams Family" TV series and Mr. Addams approved.

Charles Addams would only make a small, but very important contribution to the TV show based on his cartoons. He provided names for the various characters, as well as brief descriptions of each of them. Of the characters' names, Charles Addams was undecided whether the family's patriarch should be called "Gomez" or "Repelli". It would be actor John Astin, who was cast in the role, who decided the character should be called "Gomez". Charles Addams had decided the Addamses' son should be called "Pubert", but the name was rejected as sounding too sexual. Pubert was then named Pugsley.  In the end, then, the Addams Family were Morticia Addams (the matriarch of the clan, played by Carolyn Jones); Gomez Addams (the fun loving patriarch of the family, played by John Astin); Uncle Fester (Morticia's uncle who loved explosives, played by Jackie Coogan); Lurch (the Addamses' Frankensteinian butler, played by Ted Cassidy); Wednesday (a sweet natured little girl who liked such things as spiders and beheaded dolls, played by Lisa Loring); Pugsley (a good natured little boy drawn to more mainstream things than the other Addamses, played by Ken Weatherwax); and Grandmama (Gomez's potion making mother, played by Blossom Rock).

Among the regular characters on the show was a disembodied hand called "Thing". "Thing" was played by Ted Cassidy's hand or, in those instance when Lurch and Thing appeared together, by assistant director Jack Voglin's hand. While it is often assumed that  Thing was created for the series, this was not the case. Thing appeared as early as 1954, as a disembodied hand changing records on a phonograph in one of Charles Addams's cartoons.

That is not to say that a new Addams family member  did not emerge from the TV show, although he appeared in the cartoons before the TV show debuted. At the suggestion of David Levy, Charles Addams added a hair covered creature. The new character made his debut in the 12 October 1963 issue of The New Yorker. The cartoon featured the character answering a phone with the words, "This is it speaking." David Levy add an extra "T" to the characters' name and he became "Cousin Itt." Cousin Itt (played by Felix Silla in most episodes) was Gomez's cousin. Covered by hair that went all the way to the floor, he spoke in gibberish that only the Addamses could understand.

The line producer on The Addams Family was Nat Perrin, who had already had a very remarkable career. Mr. Perrin started out in the business as a gag writer for Groucho Marx and worked on such classic Marx Brothers vehicles as Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933). He would go onto write the screenplays for such films as Kid Millions (1934), Song of the Thin Man (1947), and The Petty Girl (1950). On television he served as a producer on the syndicated sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire. Nat Perrin imbued The Addams Family with the manic energy of a Marx Brothers film. What is more, Gomez Addams was modelled to a large degree after Groucho Marx. Not only did he always have a cigar, but Gomez would make the same sort of mocking comments and use the same sort of skewed reasoning that Groucho did.

What is more, Nat Perrin insured that Morticia and Gomez were unlike any other couple ever seen on television. Not only did they never argue between themselves, but their marriage may have been the most egalitarian on television up to that time (in fact, Morticia may have been the dominant spouse in the marriage). Unlike many previous married couples on television, not only were Morticia and Gomez open in their affection for each other, they were very open. A word of French from Morticia would send Gomez into kissing her uncontrollably, and he wrote poems for her. Morticia and Gomez's dialogue was often laced with so much sexual innuendo that it is often surprising that it made its way onto television in 1964.

The Addams Family debuted on 18 September 1964 and proved fairly popular. For the 1964-1965 season it ranked #23 in the Nielsen ratings. The Addams Family produced a good deal of merchandising, including trading cards, a board game, a lunchbox, and an Aurora model of the Addams Family mansion. The show would even produce a pop single in the form of The Lurch". "The Lurch" was a dance song performed by Ted Cassidy as Lurch and was released in October 1965. Ted Cassidy even performed the song as Lurch on the TV shows  Shindig, Shivaree, and Hollywood a Go Go. Ted Cassidy as Lurch would even make a cameo on the 7 December 1966 episode of Batman ("The Penguin's Nest").

Unfortunately, despite the popularity of The Addams Family, its ratings would fall in its second season. Indeed, it did not even rank in the top thirty shows for the 1965-1966 season. It is difficult to say why ratings for The Addams Family fell (it certainly wasn't a decline in the quality of the show), but it seem likely that it was due to new competition on Friday night. In the fall of 1965 CBS debuted a new sitcom opposite The Addams Family entitled Hogan's Heroes. Hogan's Heroes would prove to be one of the smash hits for the season, ranking #9 for the year. Given how well Hogan's Heroes performed in the Nielsens, it should perhaps not be surprising that The Addams Family fell in the ratings.

While The Addams Family had been cancelled, it was hardly gone. It would go onto a very successful syndication run. Indeed, it is still running in syndication to this day. Four members of the show's original cast ((John Astin, Carolyn Jones, Jackie Coogan, and Ted Cassidy) provided their voices for the Addams Family's appearance on the Saturday morning cartoon The New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972. This would lead to an Addams Family Saturday morning cartoon that ran on NBC from 1973 to 1975 (only Jackie Coogan and Ted Cassidy reprised their roles from the original show). On 30 October 1977 NBC aired a reunion special entitled Halloween with the New Addams Family that reunited the original cast.

The continued popularity of Charles Addams's original cartoons and the TV series would lead to revivals in other media. In 1991 the feature film The Addams Family, starring Anjelica Huston as Morticia and Raúl Juliá as Gomez, was released. It was followed by a sequel, Addams Family Values, in 1993. Another feature film, Addams Family Reunion, starring Daryl Hannah as Morticia and Tim Curry as Gomez, was released direct to video in 1998. It was followed by a new TV series, The New Addams Family, that aired on the Fox Family Channel from 1998 to 1999. In 2010 a musical, The Addams Family, made its debut in tryouts in Chicago before going onto a run of 35 previews and 722 performances on Broadway.

There can be no doubt that the extraordinary success of the TV show The Addams Family is due to a number of factors, Just as Charles Addams's cartoons had proven before it, there is a market for macabre humour. Quite simply, by laughing about such subjects as death and injury, people overcome their fear or discomfort of such, if only temporarily.  It also seems likely that much of the show's success  lies in the fact that The Addams Family is essentially a show about non-conformists. Not only did the Addamses refuse to conform to others' expectations, but they actually took pride in the fact that that they did not. In many ways, then, the show asserted that is not only all right to be different from everyone else, it is actually commendable.

Ultimately, however, the success of The Addams Family may be due to the fact that at its core it is about a very close-knit, extended family. At a time (the Sixties) when divorce was on the rise, the Addams Family stuck together. Indeed, it must be pointed out that not does only the nuclear family of Morticia, Gomez, Wednesday, and Pugsley live in the Addams mansion, but so too do members of the extended family (Uncle Fester and Grandmama). Furthermore, other family members did visit, some often, most notably Cousin Itt and Morticia's sister Ophelia. While the Addamses may not conform to most of society's mores (and make a point of not doing so), in many respects they are a highly traditional family, close knit and very devoted to each other. An argument can be made that the ideal TV family is not the Cleavers or the Bradys, but the Addams Family instead!

The popularity of Charles Addams's cartoons and the TV show based upon them show no sign of fading away any time soon. The show is still seen in syndication and is also available on DVD and through streaming media online as well. Indeed, last October MGM announced plans to reboot The Addams Family as an animated film. Over 75 years since they first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker and fifty years since the TV show, The Addams Family continues to be popular.

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