Sic Goriamus Allos Subjectatos Nunc
(We Gladly Feast On Those Who Would Subdue Us - Addams Family motto)
Charles Addams was a resident cartoonist with the New Yorker magazine from 1940 until his death in 1988. He will always be remembered for the ghoulish and macabre humour which found perfect form in the characters that evolved into the Addams Family. They appeared in relatively few cartoons, not finding widespread fame until the nineteen sixties when ABC producer David Levy struck upon the idea of creating a TV series out of them. He asked Charles Addams to provide names for the characters and the resulting show ran from 1964 to 1966 with this, the second series, beginning in '65.
Ask anyone for the first thing that pops into their head when you mention The Addams Family and it's likely to be Vic Mizzy's catchy theme tune, closely followed by Thing, the disembodied hand that lives in box on the family's living room table. Then there's Lurch, the gigantic manservant with a voice like a foghorn and the crazy, bald-headed Uncle Fester. There's no doubt the characters, and that finger-clicking tune, live long in the memory, but how does the series itself hold up for the 21st Century viewer?
Zany rather than truly macabre and dark, as Addams' original cartoons were, the TV series borrowed the look of the characters and the creepy museum-like home, but lost the subversive elements which readers of the New Yorker enjoyed. Whereas the cartoon family were pictured pouring boiling oil on unsuspecting carol singers, the TV family are more likely to invite them in for tea. Thus truly black comedy gives way for a less controversial humour based largely on the fear, bewilderment and revulsion expressed by the 'ordinary' people who encounter them. They are, in fact, quaintly naïve and ingenuous. It's all a far cry from Christina Ricci's homicidal and deeply cynical Wednesday for example, a highlight of the Paramount movies of the early nineties.
The closest we get to the darkness of the original cartoons is occasional references to graveyards and the odd appearance of items that, in another context, would carry significant menace. An example would be an instrument of torture, which in the hands of Uncle Fester who is using it to cure a headache, leaves little menace remaining.
It's this lack of a cutting edge to the jokes that makes the TV show seem so dated now and it is sobering to reflect on how far away those seemingly innocent times are. How wonderfully ironic too that there's far more bizarre behaviour, cruelty, violence and general weirdness in your average episode of Eastenders than there is in this. The fact is the Addams, as presented here, are beacons of traditional family values once the comedy eccentricity is stripped away. Gomez is tirelessly cheerful and completely devoted to his family, Morticia demonstrates heroic levels of patience as she organises the oddballs around her, and Fester simply lives to serve. This is reminiscent of Homer Simpson being rated a good father by a university study in the late nineties.
Ultimately though, however (dimly) you view the comedy by modern standards, the characters ARE icons. Their uniqueness remains over half a century on.
“Fester, how could you be so callous?”
“I've been practising.”
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