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The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik

Writers and historians Lee Gambin and Cris Wilson are working on a brand new book entitled TONIGHT, ON A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE: A HISTORY OF TV SITCOMS THAT SOMETIMES GOT SERIOUS – a critical tome that will chronicle the Very Special Episode phenomenon that addressed everything from rape to racism, anorexia to AIDS and beyond. Primarily focusing on television sitcoms of the seventies and eighties (when the Very Special Episode was most prominent), the book will also feature a chapter devoted to precursors to this fad – from the times BEWITCHED and THE BRADY BUNCH taught us some valuable lessons about discrimination and smoking and so forth. One of the pieces co-collaborator Lee Gambin has whipped up and is willing to share here for Diabolique, is a love letter to a quietly solemn episode of his beloved ghoulish sixties sitcom THE ADDAMS FAMILY entitled “The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik” which focuses on the generation gap. Enjoy!

Please go to the Facebook page for the book in the making here: Tonight, on a Very Special Episode

“The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik” from The Addams Family

Original Air Date: January 1st. 1965

The Addams Family represents a multitude of various social constructs and does something magical with it all – it inverts what is considered conventional, questions and challenges the traditional value system, scrutinizes the reasoning behind normalcy, reconsiders the concept of familial unity, and satirizes the traditions of American culture both inside and outside of the constraints of television situation comedy. There are multiple reasons as to why The Addams’ are incredibly important in the history of sitcom “seriousness” – not only are they one of the most lovable and supportive TV families ever to grace the small screen continually dealing with alienation from the so-called “regular community”, but another major factor that showcases the sheer beauty of this “creepy and kooky” congregation is their open heartedness and willingness to accept absolutely anyone from any walk of life. The Addams’ are the real deal – a genuinely loving, nurturing, comforting and non-judgmental group of misfits who come to represent the perpetual outsider living in a world dominated by paranoia, intolerance and moralistic prejudice.

Headed by the worldly, wise and wildly beautiful matriarch Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) and her forever doting husband Gomez (John Astin), the family are remarkably connected, completely devoted to one another and share an incredible sense of warmth, compassion, security, support, fun and respect for their fellow Addams. However, this unabashed and wide-eyed loyalty for one another is not only restricted for their “own kind”, for the Addams’ are endlessly trying to make the outside world feel welcomed. But because this adoring family lives in a cold and unfeeling world, they are shunned for the most part and ostracized from the supposedly “normal” folk. Outside of the Addams’s decadent gothic homestead, there is massive hesitation and fear from most of their fretful and hysterical guests, and this is the case even here with “The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik”, where a young man from an outsider subculture still feels alienated and is terrified by the likes of Morticia, Gomez and the rest of the gang – but not for long.   

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The proudly macabre Addams family go about their days completely carefree, happy within themselves, and not perplexed by insecurities or driven to mania from any kind of narcissism or egotism. Instead they are joyous, chipper and dedicated to each other’s happiness and personal success. Interestingly enough, it is this elegant self-confidence, sense of community and mutual respect that makes them seem “bizarre” to the conventional mindset. For example, Morticia and Gomez are insanely in love and at the drop of a hat (or more specifically, at the drop of some French quip from the lips of Morticia), this highly sexed and incurably romantic couple will show their absolute desire and passion for one another, which is intensely different from the likes of fellow American sitcom couples during the early sixties. Their romantic devotion is so heartfelt and fiery that it is a rarity for the period. On top of that, gender roles are reconstructed (Gomez would be the first man to do dishes in an American sitcom; sleeves rolled up assisted by sharp tourniquets), age would simply be a number (Grandmama (Blossom Rock) and Uncle Fester (Jackie Coogan) would gleefully play in their household dungeon like a couple of youngsters) and children would be respected as freethinkers and artists (Wednesday (Lisa Loring) and Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax) forever in the throes of creativity – beheading dolls, sparking dynamite and so forth).

Opening with Uncle Fester posing for Morticia who paints him in a scene harking back to a decadent Shakespearean allusion, “The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik” is fundamentally a precursor to the advent of Very Special Episodes in that it is a solemn detour from the usually laugh-heavy monster comedy. In the episode’s final moments, there is a hush from the studio laughter and there is elongated spaces of dialogue (lengthy in sitcom standards) devoid of any humor and different in tone from other episodes. Here in this outing, the generation gap and the estrangement shared between stoic and gruff fathers and their wayward sons is examined and sensitively handled by the writers Henry Sharp and Sloan Nibley who give their heroic Addams family a job to do – which is bridging the gap and building harmony between stern old men and reckless young teens. Instantly the episode presents the affectionate togetherness and encouragement the Addams’ are so good at with Gomez excitedly praising his wife’s artistic talents. Along with this is Wednesday and Fester’s conversation about her piggybank (a skull) which positions perceptive and wistful niece and wacky uncle as one in the same – a child and a child-like man; bonding their unity and mutual admiration for one another. When the family’s day is interrupted by a big crash, they race outside to find a leather clad beatnik disheveled and injured, lying by the side of his turned over motorcycle. The disorientated beatnik Rocky (Tom Lowell) asks “Where am I?” and then upon seeing Wednesday’s piggybank skull he answers himself “Forget dad I know!” Here, the morbid façade of the Addams family bangs out an instant response in Rocky – a young man who embraces a counter culture that rejects traditional American values, but who is more or less still “spooked” by the “mysterious and spooky” Addams family.

Nursed back to health, Rocky is confused by the “all together ooky” crew. He asks “Are you cats for real?” to which Gomez responds, “Cats? Oh you mean Kitty. She’s real alright!”, making way for a wonderful appearance by Kitty Kat, one of the Addams family’s most beloved pets – a full grown lion! Rocky shakes off the injury caused by his motorcycle accident and when he is asked about his living arrangements, he lets on that he does not exactly like his home life. This all follows up from right after he attempts to get his head around why Wednesday and Pugsley live in such a strange abode (Wednesday says “We love it here, its nice and eerie”). The episode spends a lot of time with the Addams children and Rocky, connecting them thematically as the new generation – however, Wednesday and Pugsley are loved and nurtured, they are given a voice and permitted a place at the table, whereas Rocky is stifled by oppressive bourgeois society, as it is soon discovered that he is the son of a wealthy tycoon who wishes his boy to be “just like his old man”. Where Wednesday and Pugsley are allowed individual thought, the freedom to be who they are and everlasting love and affection from their parents and the rest of the family, Rocky is lacking such essential support and guidance. When he confesses his disdain for his living arrangements to the children and explains why he wishes to run away, he asks them “Dig?” to which Wednesday replies: “Only graves”. This beautifully composed macabre sense of humor that The Addams Family is so brilliant at, intercepts and rounds off a scene that could have quickly tipped into a preachy “the world doesn’t get me” trope.

While the Addams children take an affectionate liking to Rocky, Gomez is keenly interested in his slang (“Morticia and I are fascinated with languages!”) and is thrilled to hear his own children speak “beatnik”. The cadence of Rocky’s “daddy-o”’s and “I gotta split”’s sparks a fire in the enthusiastic eye of Gomez and this summarizes the aforementioned open heartedness of the Addams family who are continually courteous, eternally welcoming and forever the gracious host. They are also willing to learn and embrace varied cultures (and counter cultures). Aesthetically, the Addams family are linked to beatnik and arts-centric culture in many regards – Morticia’s musicality, Gomez’s passion for Eastern philosophies such as yoga and so forth. The beatnik subculture would make an impression on varied films and television from Roger Corman produced horror/comedy outings such as A Bucket of Blood (1959) through to Spook the cool feline from Hanna-Barbera’s classic cartoon series Top Cat (1961-1962). Morticia comments on Rocky’s personality and its influence on the household: “He’s bought charm and individuality into our lives, I wish we could keep him,” and her observations are a poignant condensation on the idea of Rocky’s subculture appealing to the Addams family who are the outsiders of all outsiders.

At the heart of The Addams Family is the importance of unique thought and expression, and the absolute necessity of tolerance and acceptance. This is all countered when Rocky’s father Rockland Cartwright II (Barry Kelley) enters the scene and is painted up as the enemy of individuality. Being a big important business tycoon, he is most definitely a caricature in the mot classic sense (a heartless bully ready to turn on his son if his son won’t play by the rules), but this establishes the generation gap in clear terms and without any unnecessary grey areas.

Helped out by Wednesday and Pugsley, Rocky comes to understand the dilemma facing these two kind hearted children. If Wednesday and Pugsley are perceived by the outside world as “strange” and “different”, then the conventional world is at a loss. What Rocky discovers is the fact that these two spider and explosives enthusiasts have an aversion to lying making them honest, and possess an overwhelming sensitivity and sweetness that warms his jaded heart.  Hiding from his father, Rocky ends up involving himself with the antics of the Addams children such as setting off hand grenades and is moved when they tell him that they have set up a birthday party for him. Touched by their tenderness, Rocky finally understands compassion and friendship while his father is repelled by the notion of his only son associating with such “riff raff”. Bearing witness to the décor of the Addams house and accepting a light from Thing only to then do a double take, Rockland Cartwright II bellows “Where is that good for nothing son of mine?” which shakes up the Addams household who would never dare speak of their children in such a way.

Standing up to his father, Rocky makes a declaration: “These people are my friends, they’re my kind of kooks, they dig me the way I am!” This is the soul of the episode and what brings it to the fore in the entire two season run of The Addams Family as a forerunner to the VSE phenomenon that would surface in more obvious and striking ways come the shows of Norman Lear such as All in the Family (1971-1979). While summarizing the issue of the generation gap – something that would be examined on mass during the period with the advent of the hippie movement drawing near, which would mark the first major divide between teenagers and their parents – the stoic stern gruffness of the cold unfeeling conservative elders pitted against the wayward recklessness of youth is a carryover from films from the previous decade before The Addams Family would entertain. Finally, in the closing moments of “The Addams Family Meets A Beatnik”, Rocky’s father thanks Morticia, Gomez and the others (“You people accepted the boy just the way he is”) cementing the Addams family as a loving medium, bringing the generation gap to a close and bringing estranged father and son together. After Rocky and his reconcile and overcome differences, the now centred well-adjusted youth bestows gifts to Wednesday, Pugsley and Uncle Fester before turning to Morticia and Gomez saying “Mr and Mrs Addams, you cats are alright.”

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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