The recent news that Rob Zombie will be directing a “reboot” of The Munsters for NBC’s Peacock streaming service and/or theatrical release (which by the way is either the best news ever or the worst – I don’t think there’s much middle ground here) is certain to revive a debate that is as old as time…or at least as old as 1964. Which show was better – The Addams Family or The Munsters?
For those who aren’t old enough to remember, it is important to know that television in the sixties was a golden time for anyone who liked variety in their life. On any given night you might be able to watch a show with an uncle who was a Martian, a suburban housewife who was a witch, an astronaut who had his own personal genie, seven stranded castaways, superheroes, voyages to the bottom of the sea, visit millionaire hillbillies, enjoy rural life, sing with partridges, leave everything to Theodore, or even take a five year mission into deep space (just don’t get lost out there).
You could even watch shows featuring typical American families. Families with a couple of children, household pets, and even an elderly relative or two living in the same house. Two of these shows in particular had an enduring impact upon popular culture. Both first aired within a week of one another and, two years later, both were canceled at the same time as well. Both have had movies, spin-offs, cartoons, and merchandise galore. These shows have always been linked in some mysterious way and have been the subject of much debate and most people fell into one of two camps: you were either an Addams Family Fan or a Munsters Maniac. Much like politics today there was no middle ground when it came to Munsters vs Addams Family. You could like one show but not the other. Long before anyone wondered who shot a Texas oil baron, this was the debate which tore playgrounds, bars, and perhaps even a few families apart.
Both of these shows have superficial similarities. They both feature families most audiences then would consider to be unusual if not downright macabre. Both families lived in spooky houses, kept odd hours, and so on. Both families had strong parental figures who were not necessarily tied to the social stereotypes of the day. Both shows left us with mysteries to ponder – did Morticia have feet? If Grampa was Lily’s father why did everyone call him Grampa Munster? Both shows even had snappy and memorable theme songs!
But underneath each show represented a different version of the American dream.
The Munsters, in case you don’t know, are a family of “monsters” who immigrated to the United States. Grampa, who by the way is a Dracula but not the Dracula, often speaks longingly of the “old country.” Herman was assembled in a lab in Germany (at the University of Heidelberg) and lived in the United Kingdom and Transylvania before immigrating with his Transylvanian wife and father-in-law to the United States. Along with their niece, Marilyn (apparently adopted), and son, Eddie, they do their best to live out the American dream. Herman is clearly a blue-collar working man, he’s a grave digger by trade, and as a group they work hard to fit into their community by participating in civic events and attempting to know their neighbors. But like immigrant groups before them they are often shunned because of their “odd” lifestyle, customs, and appearance. Even those people who don’t scream and run away at first sight of them display a certain nervousness while around any member of the family. Except for Marilyn, the “normal” one to the audience but who is considered an unfortunate freak by the rest of the family. Oddly enough, none of the rest of the family seems to notice that they are the ones who look and act differently than everyone around them. They consider slim, blonde, and presumably blue-eyed (the show was filmed in black and white) to be ugly. But she looks like the rest of the world around them.
I think a case can be made that the Munsters are not only immigrants but that they can stand in for any minority group in the United States at the time. What they experienced, though exaggerated for comic effect in some cases and sanitized for television audiences, echoed to a small degree what many Black, Asian, LatinX, and other groups who looked or acted “different” might have experienced as unwelcome newcomers to a neighborhood.
The Addams Family, by contrast, are wealthy people from a wealthy family. They even have a butler – who is either a zombie or a Frankenstein like creation, I’m not sure – and all the trappings of wealth. Their theme song describes there house a “museum” presumably because of the rare artworks and antiques inside. Patriarch Gomez appears to be Spanish American (not Latino as we define it today), but seems to be native to the USA. Matriarch Morticia can trace her family tree back to the Salem Witch Trials. Unlike the Munsters, they do not worry about fitting in. They have money and know how to use it. Though they do seem to be civic minded, they tend to stick to the comforts of their home. The world is forced to come to them. They do what they please and don’t worry what others think of them. Like the Munsters they don’t always understand the reactions of people around them but they are in a position to not really care about it. In fact, Gomez often solves problems by literally throwing money at them! Wealth has it’s privileges and Gomez at least seems to be very aware of this.
Even though I’m a dyed-in-the-wolf’s bane Munster Maniac I do have to admit that over the years since the original television shows The Addams Family has been the more financially successful franchise. With several major motion pictures having been released, one (animated) as recently as 2019, and even Broadway musical. Though, as one of my theater friends pointed out to me, the play does have a plot more suited to The Munsters than to The Addams Family.
Prior to the news of this latest reboot The Munsters have had a handful of television specials over the decades and one poorly executed syndicated show (The Munsters today) which somehow actually stayed on the air for three seasons and ended up with 3 more episodes than the original show. However, the theme song from The Munsters is still popular with just about every indie rock band out there and was even sampled by Fallout Boy in 2015 (Dance Like Uma Thurman).
But back to my original reason for this post, can’t we all just get along? I personally think that there is room for both families in everyone’s heart and minds. In fact, I am actually a little concerned that as time goes on some of the uniqueness of each franchise is becoming eroded and I hope that both can get back to basics.
For example: in addition to the above mentioned plot of the Addams Family musical being better suited to the Munsters, the most recent film has a scene were the Addams Family is chased out of their “old country” which again is more suited to the Munsters characters. Granted, since The Addams Family is actually based on a popular series of single panel comics by Charles Addams, there is no reason to think that the entire Addams Family franchise should be limited to the television show’s canon. But even in the comics there was never a suggestion, to my knowledge at least, that the Addams family were first generation immigrants.
For the Munsters, I think that the problem of the various sequels and reboot attempts is that they focused on the slapstick comedy and not on the family and community relationships. With the exception of 1313 Mockingbird Lane. A version which I think actually did a nice job of focusing on family but strayed too far from the premise that the Munsters were trying to fit in. Plus, Herman was not made by Grampa – he is very clearly a later creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s. After all, the origins of the Munsters was based on Universal Studios wanting to take advantage of the classic monster properties already in their portfolio.
So, to sum up, I think that as long as both franchises stay true to their original character and perhaps expand on what makes each one unique that there is room for both in our lives. In fact, if treated properly, I think that both of these families can even teach us all how to be a little better in our own lives as well.
What do you think? I’d love to see your thoughts and comments.
All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted.
Photos and words @copyright David P. Wahr