We’re Gonna Pay a Call on…The Addams Family

The Addamses vs. the Munsters


Monstrous Competition

A good deal of the advance press concentrated on the fact that The Addams Family would not be the only ghouls on the block come the new fall television season. In early 1964, CBS had announced its intention to present a comical series about a creepy family whose patriarch resembled the Frankenstein Monster. In fact, it was their decision to go ahead with The Munsters that was instrumental in ABC giving the green light to a competing program along the same lines.

We’re Gonna Pay a Call on…The Addams Family CONTINUES...

In so much as the Munsters did live in what looked like a haunted house, it was smart for Levy and his team to reject the set design from the original Addams drawings after all, as the two shows would constantly be compared and assessed in tandem enough as it was.

The Addams Family made its debut in the 8:30–9:00 pm EST time slot on Friday, September 18, 1964. (The Munsters premiered the following Thursday). For the most part, reviewers were pleasantly surprised at how well the Addams series had captured the blackly funny tone of the cartoons. Although there were concessions to certain sitcom conventions and the ever-present sound of the requisite sitcom laugh track, the show definitely had a certain subversive vibe, a celebration of all things kooky, spooky, and off-the-wall, an endorsement of nonconformity, as the Addamses made absolutely no apologies for who they were. Although the show appealed tremendously to children, it had a great deal more dark wit in its presentation than the tamer and more sit-comically traditional Munsters, thereby earning its share of loyal adult viewers as well.

 

Vic Mizzy’s aforementioned finger snapping title tune (“They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky …”) was one of the catchiest ever composed for the medium and set just the right mood. The performances were spot on, with Jones dryly lugubrious in her line readings; Astin wiggling his eyebrows and brandishing his stogie with manic delight in a most affably strange manner; Coogan pitching his vocal intonations higher to make Fester that much more child-like and weird; and Cassidy speaking volumes most often by simply groaning gutturally. Unseen but good for a laugh were the names of many Addams’s relatives, including Uncle Droop (whose ashes were kept in an urn in the living room), Cousin Grope (who had three ears), Grandma Squint (who made weird sounds up in the attic), Cousin Crimp (whose two heads made him “great fun on double dates”), and Great-Great-Great Aunt Singe (who was burned at the stake at Salem).  


 

Selling the Addamses to the Network

A fifteen-minute presentation film was quickly shot at MGM on a redressed set from the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown to be shown at the National Association of Broadcasters gathering in March of 1964. This included a glimpse of Gomez sharpening the spikes on the property’s fence with a real home looming in the background.

Outside of the premiere episode which featured an actual backlot house set, this was the only exterior shot that would be seen in the subsequent show once it was inserted into the opening credits. (The house on the series was otherwise represented by a drawing). Also filmed was the miniature train wreck/explosion, footage that would appear on several episodes. The actual full pilot episode that developed out of this footage, “The Addams Family Goes to School,” ended up being directed by Arthur Hiller, shortly after he finished shooting The Americanization of Emily and six years before he earned an Oscar nomination for helming Love Story.

ABC responded enthusiastically to the sales film and purchased the show, which would be produced by Filmways, Inc. A full-page ad heralding its upcoming debut appeared in the March 25, 1964, issue of the New York Times, dominated by the very same Charles Addams drawing of the family posed in front of their creepy digs that had given David Levy the idea for the series in the first place.

Nat Perrin, who had written for such comedians as Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, and Red Skelton, was brought in as producer, doing a great deal of writing as well, though without any onscreen credit. Knowing they would alienate audiences if the family was simply too weird to warm up to, the series version made the characters less ominously anti-social and more gleefully eccentric, as if unaware that their behavior is interpreted as strange to others, cheerfully inviting outsiders into their specialized world, if any of them dared to stick around long enough. The Addams went about their lives having the utmost fun, sword fighting in the living room, bobbing for apples, knife tossing for pleasure, deliberately destroying train sets, owning a pet lion whom they referred to as “Kitty Cat,” and riding motorcycles in the house, leading viewers to believe that an  unconventional lifestyle was something to envy and aspire to. Unlike most situation comedies of the time, there was a great deal of love displayed between the parents, who became television’s first couple that seemed to have an active sex life, so passionate were the kisses Gomez excitedly planted on Mortia’s arm, so smoldering were their glances.

Another decision made by the producers was to not recreate Charles Addams’s settings which resembled a cobweb-strewn haunted house. Instead, the Addams lived (on North Cemetery Drive) in a much tidier abode, albeit a cluttered one featuring just about the most entertaining set dressing in the history of the medium. The living room featured a huge stuffed grizzly bear; a hanging noose used to summon the butler; a ticker tape machine; a mounted sword fish with a leg protruding from its mouth; a bear rug that growled when stepped upon; a piece of furniture resembling a two-headed tortoise; a moose head with a bent antler; and a portrait of a giraffe in a tuxedo. And of course there were all kinds of props and places for Thing to pop out of at a moment’s notice. Although this particular set was where a majority of the series’ action would take place (it was built on Stage 8 at the General Service Studios in Hollywood), there was also an occasionally-seen “playroom” which consisted of instruments of torture like a rack and a bed of nails.

Fortunately the series was produced two years before the dictum that all primetime programming start airing in color, allowing it to be shot in the far more appropriate black and white process; perfect for capturing the Charles Addams look.

 

Merchandising to the Fans

The Addams Family was a hit in its first season, reaching the top ten in the weekly ratings by the end of October. (It trumped both series that ran against it, NBC’s Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater and CBS’s The Entertainers, and ended the season at Number 23 in the Nielsens).

Over the next two years merchandising flooded the market, including Halloween costumes; a card game from Milton Bradley; hand puppets; Remco dolls with squeezable heads of Fester, Morticia, and Lurch; an Aurora plastic model kit of their house; a Thing bank in which the hand reached out to grab your money; a View Master slide set of the episode “Portrait of Gomez;” and a 45-single entitled “The Lurch,” in which Ted Cassidy instructed listeners on how to do the newest dance fad. The actor showed up in character on the syndicated music program Shivaree (1965) to perform the number, accompanied by some exuberant go-go dancers, an unforgettable sequence later repeated at Halloween time on Shindig, that same year. In addition to Pocket Books reissuing such Charles Addams anthologies as Drawn and Quartered (with Morticia and Lurch now on the cover), Nightcrawlers (the family sprawled out sunning on their roof), and Black Maria (the family happily sitting a paddy wagon), Addams released an all-new hard cover compilation, The Groaning Board, in 1964, with an illustration of the Addamses sitting down for a dinner of octopus and mushrooms. Ads pitching the book specifically referred to the characters by their television names.

Although Charles Addams was pretty much hands-off where the show was concerned he did draw versions of Morticia and Gomez to tango with Astin and Jones on the October 30, 1964 cover of TV Guide, for an even $1,000 fee. The following year, also to coincide with Halloween, he wrote an article for the same magazine (Jones and Addams were once again on the cover) detailing how the characters had been brought to life. Initially, the cartoonist was just glad to make some extra cash, but wound up thinking more highly of the series than he ever imagined he would. Unfortunately, because of a deal he had made with an ex-wife, signing over rights to the characters in order to placate her, a settlement was made in which 10% of his cut of the show was required to go to her, making his intake smaller that it might have been. Nevertheless, Addams would come away with $141,276 from episode payments, reruns, residuals, etc.

It was nice that he was getting these paychecks from Hollywood, as there was no income to be had from the Addamses back on the East Coast. In a decision that was a plain and simple case of snobbery, the New Yorker (who had not allowed David Levy to display their name anywhere in the show’s credits) refused to run any more cartoons featuring the family while the series was on the air, or afterwards. Addams was allowed to use them where he liked otherwise and would slip them into other New Yorker cartoons on occasion, but their heyday in the magazine that had launched them had unceremoniously come to an end. It was a serious error on the magazine’s part to deprive readers of one of their signature features, but it didn’t kill the franchise off. The Addams Family had now become too engrained in the public consciousness to simply fade away.

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