Subverting sitcom tropes by bringing monsters to modern America.
A common misconception about popular entertainment of the recent past is that genres and formulas stagnated because the people making them were just as married to comfort and repetition as their audience. In reality, creators frequently got bored of pulling the same levers day after day and looked for new places to go — that’s why Golden Age Superman comics are so famously bizarre: After less than a decade, the writers knew they’d exhausted “new” scenarios for the Man of Steel and turned to playing around with the logic-holes in his setup. (Example: Clark Kent and Superman are actually seen together all the time thanks to the Superman Robots.)
The mid-1960s is when the American situation comedy coalesced into the form it would follow with rare exception into the present: Comic microdramas set in and around a suburban home and the exploits of a well-meaning dad, loving mom, precocious children and a wacky neighbor/relative/adult-friend onhand if any extra absurdity was required. The formula was proven, easily replicated… and clever writers were looking for ways to subvert it almost immediately — think
The Addams (patriarch Gomez, wife Morticia, son Pugsley, daughter Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Granny and butler Lurch) are a family of wealthy eccentrics who appear to be vaguely supernatural or at least not entirely human, and whose mannerisms and taste in décor feel like a toned-down take on secret-occult characters popular in horror comics and pulp magazines of a decade prior. Lurch looks sort-of like Frankenstein’s Monster and behaves vaguely like a zombie, and Granny claims to be able to ride a broom, but that’s about as specific as it ever gets. Instead, they appear to be more catch-all “supernatural” creatures: Gomez performs feats of superhuman agility and ignites his cigars without matches. Fester electrocutes himself for fun. Morticia and the children are apparently capable of enduring (happily) what would be lethal pain to a normal human being.
In a note of irony frequently raised in regard to the show, attempts to show the Addams supposed “weirdness” in contrast to the “normal” image of the All-American Family instead made them look rather preferable and even “ideal” (in a progressive sense) to subsequent generations who made the series a classic in syndication. Whereas other TV dads were stern authority figures whose role was to gently discipline their misbehaving children and keep them on the straight and narrow, Gomez (and Morticia) generally had nothing but enthusiasm, support and encouragement for Wednesday and Pugsley’s self-expression — even when it involved trying to mortally-wound one another.
And it can’t be ignored that Gomez and Morticia’s exuberant public displays of affection, meant to be uncomfortably comic, had the effect of making them seem like the only married couple on 60s TV who had an actual sex-life. Their mutual “turn-ons” for each other’s native language (Gomez speaking Spanish, Morticia French) put the family’s mixed extraction right upfront in an era where that was far from common.
And speaking of foreign extraction…
The Munsters have a reputation today mainly as the Addams’ less subtle, less subversive counterparts. Here, the central joke (it was originally pitched as a Flintstones-style animated series) was more broad: The Universal Monsters as an otherwise-typical suburban family with specific monster archetypes. Dopey dad Herman was a Frankenstein Monster (Universal produced the show, so they got to use the Karloff design), mother Lily and Grandpa were vampires, son Eddie was a werewolf with a fire-breathing pet dragon named Spot, and Cousin Marilyn was a normal-looking teenaged girl — whose “appearance issues” the rest of the family politely didn’t dwell on.
The Munsters were more about puns and broad physical comedy than The Addams were. Their house (still standing, last seen used as an exterior on Desperate Housewives) was an elaborate haunted mansion set with crumbling architecture, a dungeon, a mad-science lab for Grandpa and a trick staircase that could pop open for Spot to menace unwitting visitors. Puns and one-liners were the order of the day (Rob Zombie’s song “Dragula” is about Grandpa and Herman’s racecar).
The series didn’t seem, on the surface, to have any kind of thematic undercurrent running under the joke — they’re monsters, doing things monsters might not otherwise be expected to do, end of story. There’s definitely nothing as subversive going on, in terms of what The Munsters themselves are supposed to be standing in for or satirizing; one popular interpretation is that they’re a caricature of the American immigrant/assimilation experience.
There’s definitely an element of that in their genial “stranger in a strange land” attempts to integrate with the rest of their neighborhood; and it’s easy to see Grandpa as an “Old Country” bigshot adjusting uneasily to being American Middle Class, Herman as the hardworking first-generation breadwinner and Marilyn and Eddie (who’d look more-or-less human save for his haircut and anachronistic clothing) as their well-assimilated offspring. A Fox Network TV movie reboot from 1995, Here Come The Munsters, brought that angle to the forefront — reimagining the brood as recent-arrivals to America seeking their gone-missing Uncle Hyde, whose disappearance may be linked to the rise of an obnoxious anti-immigrant politician named Brent Jekyll.
More recently, a radically-overhauled new series “inspired by” The Munsters, Mockingbird Lane, tried to bring the franchise back from the dead with decidedly mixed results: It never made to air as a series, and its (expensive) pilot ran as a TV special instead. The Addams, of course, came roaring back to popularity in the 90s with a pair of big-budget movies, a cartoon and a new live-actions series on cable — though it’s been dormant since apart from a stage musical.
Both concepts, however, seem to have been rather evergreen over the decades; so I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of either family. Heck — maybe these days they’d be able to crossover, something classic TV fans have speculated about forever but no one has ever managed to pull the trigger on.
Who would win between Herman and Lurch, though?