When the freelance cartoonist Charles Addams first drew his most famous creations in the New Yorker, in August 1938, he had no idea what he was letting out of the box. His Addams Family has since gained pride of place as a much-loved American institution that also feels — subversively — un-American.
Unlike any other globally exported clan you could name — The Simpsons, The Brady Bunch, The Waltons — these Addamses were plain weird: lovers of maniacal cackling in the moonlight, guillotines and creepy crawlies. Visitors to their unkempt mansion had a habit of quickly scarpering. They were not — and herein lies their everlasting appeal — entirely our sort of people.
Morticia, Gomez, Pugsley, Wednesday and t Uncle Fester became household names in the 60s, when ABC bought the rights and produced a sitcom. Amazingly, it wasn't until then that Addams even gave his characters names, but their TV success proved a bittersweet triumph for the cartoonist personally, because the New Yorker claimed a conflict of interest and severed ties. Famous though it became, especially for Vic Mizzy's finger-clicking theme song, the show lasted only two seasons, totalling 64 episodes.
Since then, the Addamses have returned in more iterations than anyone is likely to recall. These include a 70s variety show, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon featuring Jodie Foster as the voice of Pugsley, a Halloween special with the original ABC cast, two big-budget 90s feature films, an ABC animated spin-off, a badly reviewed Broadway musical and, finally, a new animated film — about which, the less said the better.
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How Addams himself would have taken to most of these, we can only guess — he died in 1988, thereby just missing the big-screen revival launched by Barry Sonnenfeld in 1991.
This global smash hit stands, for many, as the definitive treatment with the best cast: dapper Raul Julia, glamorous Anjelica Huston, and a hilariously take-no-prisoners Christina Ricci, who gets even funnier in 1993's Addams Family Values.
Without resenting the success of the 60s version, Addams did rue its preference for a more wacky, less macabre tone than his cartoons. To be fair, some of his darker jokes — Lurch pouring boiling oil on Christmas carollers, say — might have struggled to fly in the baby boomer TV days.
Addams's predilection for black humour is well-documented. Born in New Jersey into the family of a piano company executive, he was distantly related to the American presidents John and John Quincy Adams (despite the different spelling) and was an eccentric child, drawn to visiting the local Presbyterian cemetery.
It's been remarked that the slinky Morticia was modelled on his first wife, Barbara Jean Day, but his second, Estelle Barb, conformed even more to the vampish type, as well as being a ruthless lawyer who ended up controlling The Addams Family film and TV franchises. In 1980, he would marry his third and final spouse, Marilyn "Tee" Miller, in a pet cemetery, and they moved to a Hamptons estate nicknamed "The Swamp" before he died. "Just as the greatest comedians give the impression of having recently escaped from lunatic asylums, it suited Charlie very well to be taken for a madman," his friend Wilfrid Sheed has said.
What makes the Addamses so durable? You could try to argue that they hold a dark mirror up to the American dream, inverting the wholesome family values depicted in Norman Rockwell's paintings. But, in fact, they satirise that dream by managing to form a remarkably functional unit, for all their eccentricities. Take Addams's Roald Dahl-ish impression of Pugsley as not a freak at all but "the universal little boy — nasty".
Addams effectively blended Rockwell with a soupcon of Grant Wood's American Gothic, pushing a sense of the uncanny one step further by setting the calendar to permanent Halloween. If October 31 actually came around in the Addams household, the only logical way to honour it would be with shuddering dread, the donning of blonde wigs and gingham, and perhaps the throwing of a hoedown. The ordeal might prove deadly, but it would surely be worth it for the facial expressions.