Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flashback, Fall 1964: Creepy, Kooky Comedies Spook Networks

Every once in a while, several programs in a similar vein will clog the airwaves. Fifty years ago this autumn, the word “vein”—as in the body part that certain dark creatures desire—would have been used advisedly, as a trio of supernatural comedies premiered on the networks: Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters. (Within a year, they would be joined by yet another fun fantasy of this ilk, I Dream of Jeannie.)

These three sitcoms aired on different networks, with different showrunners. But, lest you think that their simultaneous appearance (all within a week of each other, in September) was entirely coincidental, remember that on TV, little occurs by chance.

What better time to write about this group than the week preceding Halloween? Oddly enough, only a month into their runs 50 years ago, only one of the shows thought fit to have a Halloween episode: The Addams Family. You wonder if a young John Hughes absorbed its plot of a pair of robbers who invade a home (the one owned by the Addamses, in the midst of a Halloween party), only to be undone by a most unlikely source (in this case, not young Kevin of Home Alone, but, of all things, Thing).

Dominated by shows such as Ozzie and Harriet, Make Room for Daddy, and Leave It to Beaver, the 1950s were anything but a party. “It was a time when a woman's highest ambition was to be a good housewife, a time when men were judged primarily on their ability to provide financial support and domestic authority, a time when happily ever after was preferable to a real life with all its delights, a time when my own dream of glory was to be a conventional suburban teenager with a tacky nickname,” Susan Cheever recalled in an essay on perhaps the most influential of these patriarchal-themed sitcoms, Robert Young’s Father Knows Best, in Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TVShows (2004). “The world seemed limited by the walls of the family ranch house. No one ever told the truth, even on television.”

By 1964, though, the rock ‘n’ roll era had opened up a chasm between youth and the adult world, with old values being questioned. Moreover, just the year before America was exposed to the likes of Samantha Stevens, Morticia Addams and Lily Munster, Betty Friedan had demonstrated in The Feminist Mystique that far more was happening behind the closed doors of the stay-at-home, suburban American housewife than anyone could ever imagine. The civil-rights movement was also about to effect a revolution not just at the ballot box, but also in communities and workplaces.

The result was that TV’s vision of suburbia—presided over by a paterfamilias with a rather indistinct occupation, with a stay-at-home mom, with nary a hint of sex between the two, and with blacks nowhere to be found except as domestics—was ready for subversion. And nothing undercuts the old order like comedy.

The nuclear family, of the Father Knows Best variety, was mercilessly parodied in this trio of horror comedies. In these sitcoms, Dad was depicted as strange (Gomez in The Addams Family), stupid (Darrin Stevens of Bewitched) or strange and stupid (Hermann Munster of The Munsters). It doesn’t matter if Dad is a lawyer (Gomez, supposedly), an ad man (Darrin) or a funeral-parlor employee (Hermann). Above all, he’s a bumbler.

Watching the Broadway revival of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Depression-era You Can’t Take It With You last month, I tried to think of what its scenario—a gallery of eccentrics presided over by an elderly male, a daffy mother, a father who blunders about a great deal, an ingénue daughter markedly different from everyone else by virtue of her normality, and a basement with all kinds of experimentation—reminded me of. Then it hit me: The Munsters.

Only the sitcom sent up the family in a way that Kaufman and Hart never dreamed of. In one episode, for instance, the Munsters were accidentally selected by a national magazine to appear on its front cover as the "Average American Family." Two magazine reporters arrive for an interview, unaware of what they’ll encounter at Mockingbird Lane!

But even from its opening credits in that first season, The Munsters was intent on laughing the Fifties American family out of existence. As the show’s musical theme played in the background, loving mom Lily Munster handed out lunch boxes to each family member leaving the house. The scene parodied a popular sitcom still going strong on rival network ABC: The Donna Reed Show.

Most of these sitcoms’ family members try to fit into the everyday world, but in straitlaced postwar America, they can’t help reverting to habit. “I don't mean to be disrespectful,” a clueless Darrin tells his mother-in-law on Bewitched, “but we wanna live normal lives.”

Endora will have none of it: “What is normal to you, young man, is to us [i.e., the world of witches and warlocks] asinine.”

The writers for Bewitched must have really loved Endora, for they gave her so many of the show’s best lines, including this gem: “Just because you married a human, Samantha, that's no reason to overdo this grubby little household role.” A little parsing will show how subversive that line is: Leave out the first half of that sentence and there is nothing that the next wave of feminism (kick-started in a major way with the formation of the National Organization for Women in 1966) would have disagreed with.

Over the last seven seasons, critics have hailed Mad Men for the manner in which it ironically chronicles the undermining of American male confidence in the 1960s. But guess what? Bewitched got there first 50 years ago, in an infinitely more sly way. Consider:

*The Drapers of Mad Men live in Ossining, NY, home of the great WASP suburban writer John Cheever; the Stevens reside in Westport, CT, another WASP outpost;

*Don Draper works for an ad agency boss, Roger Sterling, who contributes less and less to the firm as time goes on; Darrin Stephens’ boss, Larry Tate, substitutes greed for Roger’s drunken lechery;

*Both Darrin and Don are the envy of other men for their beautiful blond wives. But neither Samantha Stevens nor Betty Draper can preserve that internal household harmony so prized in Sixties suburbia—Betty, because of freefloating anxiety, and Samantha because of a restless desire to help h

 I’ve only begun to scratch the surface on these comparisons. You really ought to see all the parallels drawn out by Kathleen Keating on the blog Hypable—it truly is extraordinary.

Of the three sitcoms, Bewitched, going eight seasons, endured the longest, four times the run of The Munsters and The Addams Family. One reason for the longevity is obvious: Elizabeth Montgomery. (Or, in the words of a friend who met her once: “Mike, she could have wiggled her nose at me anytime she liked!”)

But another reason for the show’s popularity might be its endless sense of invention, in the way in which it took down one notion of society while setting up another. It poked merciless fun, for instance, at Mrs. Kravitz, the archetype of the nosy neighbor, while creating an entirely set of characters such as Uncle Arthur, Doctor Bombay and forgetful old Aunt Clara.

Significantly, Bewitched closed out its run in 1972. The show came to a halt just when, it might be said, the Sixties itself—with its dream of an alternate society, less comedic than the supernatural one in Bewitched, The Addams Family and The Munsters—came to an end.

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