The Cultural History of ‘The Addams Family’

As the spooky clan makes a new appearance on the big screen, a look back on the mystery of their longevity

The cast of 'The Addams Family' poses for a publicity shot. ( ABC Photo Archives / Contributor)
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In the summer of 1938, a determined salesman dropped in on a haunted mansion to peddle his “vibrationless, noiseless” vacuum doubling as both a “great time and a back saver” that “no well-appointed home should without.” It was a single-panel cartoon on page nine of The New Yorker fetching the author a tidy $85 sum. It introduced the world to an unnamed brood that will, once again, be returning to the big screen on Friday.

Mysterious and spooky and all together ooky, the Addams Family is back, this time as an animated big screen version to deliver Halloween frights for young fans meeting them anew and for old-timers who remember the original cartoons hatched in the twisted mind of artist Charles Addams. Throughout their various iterations, the family has cemented itself in the mausoleum of pop horror culture history, which to some degree is strange within itself. Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, or any of the machete-wielding madmen at the multiplex, the Addamses have been both surprisingly difficult to forget but equally challenging to bring back to life.. How exactly did they find themselves in this kooky situation? Let’s fire up the Packard V-12 hearse and take a spin down Memory (0001 Cemetery) Lane...

The Father of the Addams Family

It might stand to reason that the man behind the family, Charles Addams, was a lost soul with a troubled background who brought his pain to the pages of the New Yorker. But in reality, born in 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey, Addams grew up in a warm, loving household as the only child of devoted parents; his father sold pianos. Charles was known to be a scamp who loved a good gag—a favorite being when he would scare his grandmother by popping out of his home’s dumbwaiter. He once told Linda H. Davis, author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, “It would be more interesting, perhaps, if I had a ghastly childhood—chained to an iron bed and thrown a can of Alpo everyday. But I’m one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood.”

What Addams always had was a love for the macabre (the common descriptor of his work he eventually grew weary of), be it exploring graveyards, trespassing in an abandoned neighborhood Victorian mansion, or drawing German Kaiser Wilhelm II in all manner of graphic death scenes.

In high school, Addams fell in love with illustration and ended up at New York City’s Grand Central School of Art. In 1932, while still a student, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker, a sketch of a window washer that paid him $7.50.

“Addams is one of those rare people who made a living throughout his entire life in the arts,” says Davis, his biographer, from her Massachusetts home. “He was with The New Yorker until the end and it afforded him a glamorous sophisticated life. He wasn’t filthy rich, but he had an apartment overlooking the MOMA scultpture garden, drove a Bugatti and a Bentley, dated Jackie [Kennedy] not long after the assassination, and was always at the top of everyone’s dinner party list.”

(Alfred Hitchcock himself once showed up on Addams front door, befriended him, and later name-dropped him via Cary Grant in North by Northwest.)

Charles Addams with a Morticia doll.
Charles Addams with a Morticia doll. ( ABC Photo Archives / Contributor)

Throughout his career, Addams cartooned for a variety of publications including Collier’s and TV Guide, and for a time, he retouched crime scene photos for True Detective, the ideal training ground if ever there was one. But The New Yorker was always his first home, especially after his 1940 classic “The Downhill Skier,” put him on the map. And it's on that magazine’s august pages where he introduced the nation to the lunatics who bear his last name, even though the Addams Family represented just a small percentage of his output. Charles Addams drew some 1,300 New Yorker cartoons, but only 58 of them, almost all in the 1940s-50s, featured the unnamed family who remained anonymous until around the time the television show debuted. Addams’s popular 1959 collection, Dear Dead Days: A Family Album, features the primary six characters, but the television patriarch’s name of “Gomez” didn’t come in until actor John Astin embodied him, much to the chagrin of Addams who preferred Repelli, a play on repellent. (Pugsley lucked out, Addams originally suggested Pubert be his TV handle, but network censors found it too risque.)

A couple of the brilliant names we know and love—Moriticia (whom all three of Addams real-life wives resembled) and Wednesday—originated with a licensed 1962 doll collection but on the whole, the Addams Family as we know them today didn’t fully come into being until the television show debuted on ABC on Friday, September 18, 1964, at 8:30 p.m. The question was would the elegant ghastly brilliance on the page translate to the laugh-tracked demands of a prime time situation comedy?

The Itt Hits the Fans

In a broad sense, “The Addams Family” hit the airwaves in the golden age of broad high-concept low-brow comedies—”My Favorite Martian”, “Green Acres”, “My Mother the Car”—but in a specific sense, the show was a direct response to the planned CBS sitcom, “The Munsters.” Both shows shared some of the same spooky DNA (as well as debuting and getting canceled within days of one another), but “The Addams Family” had something its spiritual doppelganger couldn’t compete with: the original comics themselves, even if there were no new ones to draw from. Snooty New Yorker editor William Shawn banned Addams from the magazine during the show’s run.

“The TV show wasn’t as dark as the strips, it was more zany than spooky, but it captured the flavor of what Charles Addams was doing in the New Yorker,” says Stephen Cox, author of 23 book about film and television including The Addams Chronicles. “For sheer laughs, I always thought ‘The Munsters’ was funnier, but ‘The Addams Family’ delivered an intellectual charge because of the more adult themes.”

“Sophisticated” might be too strong a word, but “The Addams Family” wasn’t the typical fish-out-of-water sitcom set-up. It was the inverse, a self-contained house of horrors where normal folk were the outsiders that allowed for all manner of off-beat jokes, insane plots (like when Pugsley befriends circus escapee Gorgo the Gorilla who learns to serve tea to Morticia), and a risque pulsating relationship at the heart of the show. Credit for the Addams Family television universe is due in large part to comedic writer/director/series producer Nat Perrin, who had contributed gags to the Marx Brothers classic Monkey Business; he brought a similar fast-talking nuttiness to “The Addams Family.” The darkness was dialed down and the insanity was played to the hilt, which is why Cousin Itt and Thing (the hand of Ted “Lurch” Cassidy had its own contract), blips in the Charles Addams oeuvre, were given prominent screen time.

There was also the matter of the real-life Hollywood characters being much more attractive than the original cartoons. In The New Yorker, Gomez is ugly, defined by a sinister pug-nosed face that’s a cross between famed movie villain Peter Lorre and a pig, while Morticia’s visage is washed-out, like she’d been bleached. And as for Uncle Fester… well, he pretty much looks the same.

“Charles was up-and-down on the television show. He certainly enjoyed what ‘The Addams Family’ did for his earning power, but he said the characters were ‘half as evil,’” says Davis. “To be honest, he didn’t even really watch it, because on Friday nights he was usually out to dinner or on a date.”

Addams wasn’t the only ladies’ man in the family. Since it was basically a live-action cartoon, the show got away with showing a husband-and-wife with a deep burning passion for one another. Ravished by her bewitching sensuality, Gomez lusted after Morticia, kissing her up and down her arms, and they shared frequent smoldering glances. They are generally considered the first television couple who gave the appearance of an active sex life.

“There’s a playful sexuality between Gomez and Morticia, the kind you wish your parents would’ve exhibited,” says Andrew Lippa, the Tony-nominated composer and lyricist for the Addams Family musical. “Here I am watching reruns after school every day of a beautiful couple who lets you know it’s okay to touch.”

Put it all together: an amorous marriage, obedient children who played with medieval torture devices, a crazy uncle with a passion of explosives, a giant, monosyllabic butler who legitimately started a dance craze (“The Lurch” was all the rage in 1965), all manner of weird creatures like the family pets Kitty Kat the lion and Aristotle the octopus, and the snazziest, snappiest theme song, a Vic Mizzy classic that Charles Addams adored (and MC Hammer later riffed upon). It added up to… a mildly successful show that was canceled after two years, 64 episodes in total. “The Addams Family” did fine in the ratings, ending the first season at #23 in the Nielsens (behind “The Munsters”), but it didn’t give the show stability. No official reason was ever given for the quick hook, but 1965 was the year NBC produced all but two of its shows in color, a sea change in broadcast television as the black-and-white era was coming to an end.

The Addams Family Matters

“The Addams Family” would find new life in syndication, replayed ad nauseum for decades (and still shown in 30 markets as late as 1991.) Its cult following grew, which led to all manner of ill-fated attempts to bring them back to life, including a guest spot on “The New Scooby-Doo Movies”, multiple animated series, a dreadful 1977 Halloween made-for-TV movie, and inexplicably, a dead-on-arrival pilot for a musical variety show.

In 1991, the ghoulish clan leapt off-the-page and onto the big screen in the Barry Sonnenfeld-directed film starring Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston as Gomez and Morticia.

The Addams Family reviews were tepid, but fans ate it up to the tune of $114-million, making it the seventh-biggest U.S. hit of the year. Ironically, critics were much more enamored of the 1993 sequel—Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune called it a “valentine of venom”—but it tanked, bringing in only $49 million. The movies dried up and it seemed that after a Tim Burton-helmed stop-motion animation version withered and died on the vine, it would be the end of the Addams clan, outside of pinball wizadry anyway

Moonbathing Under the Lights of Broadway

The Addams Family opened on Broadway in April 2010 to, once again, middling reviews, but like the spectre of its predecessors, found an audience and ran for nearly two years. Once it left Times Square, however, it became a juggernaut, touring the globe to the tune of a half a billion dollars in ticket sales and becoming the most performed high school musical in 2018-19.

“I love these characters, audiences love these characters, and in every performance, once they recognize the theme song in the overture, the whole house starts snapping,” says Lippa. “It’s so much fun to get into the dark recesses of kids pulling legs off spiders knowing they shouldn’t in a humorous way.” Lippa also referenced a specific Charles Addams inspiration for a new Christmas-themed stage show he’s in the early stages of creating. “My favorite [Addams comic] is the one where the family is on the Widow’s walk of their home and they’re about to dump a cauldron of liquid onto a group of Christmas carolers but they haven’t poured it yet.”

The latest film looks to be, technologically at least, as far from the Charles Addams originals as Cousin Itt is from a barber. The cartoonist, who died in September 1988 following a heart attack while sitting in his parked automobile—his third wife Tee gave a dead-on quote to the New York Times, “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go,”—might be shocked to find his creation inspired altogether ooky breakfast foods, but he’d be tickled the 2019 Addams Family has gone back to the source material, pig-nose and all.

“I went as Uncle Fester for Halloween a couple of years ago and everyone loved it,” says Cox, the book author. “There’s a little bit of Addams characters in all of us.”

Eighty years on, one thing is for certain: They may Danse Macabre in the moonlight, but the Addams family will never die.

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