SpOOookKYYyy Days

    In “From Domestic Spaces to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com,” Lynn Spigel traces the transition of television genres from domestic to fantastic because it reflects the changing attitudes towards domesticity in the American society as well as the introduction of the New Frontier in the American government. One popular genre hybrid was mixing comedy with horror, such as The Munsters and The Addams Family. At first glance, these two television series look like another horror show with the haunted house and eerie-looking family members, but they are sitcoms at heart. While Spigel’s essay tackles both shows, for the sake of addressing a variety of shows from 1960s, she makes broader and more generalized statements regarding sitcoms’ response to the changing culture in America. Even though Spigel’s argument about the sitcoms’ cultural work is true, both shows, or at the very least both episodes, display ideological containment when it comes to the treatment of women and the clear distinction between Americans and Russians. Both episodes tackle the idea of an average American family by presenting a highly abnormal, dysfunctional but also loving image of family with the Munsters and the Addams as Spigel has expressed in her essay.

     “Family Portrait” from The Munsters opens with Chip Johnson, Lennie Bates, and the owner of Event Magazine, which is a national magazine that conducted a survey to find the average family with their research computer, picking the Munsters as winners. Herman Munster, the patriarch of the family, exclaimed that it’s “quite an honor for our family to be chosen.” The scene then smashes to the theme song, introducing each family member starting with the mother Lily. From the very first few scenes including the theme song, it is obvious that this family is not “average,” and the title of the show is a play on the word monster because the entire family looks like monsters. The contrast between the presentation of the Munsters and the image of a normal American family establishes the main conflict in the episode, attesting Spigel’s argument. However, the fact that the theme song begins with the mother introducing the rest of the family almost implies that the mother has to carry the emotional burden of the family by taking responsibility in introducing family members to the audience. The entire family except for Grandpa is delighted by the news that they got picked as the average American family it can improve their “standing in the community” and maybe “Eddie’s playmates will all begin to notice him.” These remarks reveal the difficulty for the Munsters to be accepted in their community because of how strange they act and dress, which echoes Spigel’s point about how even though they are “friendly, kind, generous folks who welcomed strangers into their homes,” “their difference from the white middle class made them unacceptable to suburbanites who feared deviations.” Grandpa thinks it is an insult to the family name to be called average, which Herman’s response is that no one cares about royal blood. Grandpa’s reluctance to join the family portrait shows the generational differences, where he wants to embrace the strangeness of the family rather than to assimilate into the average American family stereotype. The episode here almost laughs at people’s need at that time to fulfill the unrealistic image of a perfect American family, when in fact, that is not most people’s reality. Interestingly, the reason why the Munsters were chosen was because they fit the statistics of having “two children, a pet, an aged grandfather, and a bird.” Obviously, this is not the construction of what the average American family looked like back then, but it is a way for the show to comment on society’s need to quantify and solidify a definition for a normal family.

     Chip and Lennie arrive at the Munsters’ doorstep but the howling wind and haunted house make them realize that this family may not be what they thought. Since Grandpa disappeared to avoid being in the portrait, Lily and Herman asked Marilyn to distract the men from Event magazine, so they can go find Grandpa. However, when Chip sees Marilyn, who is supposed to embody Marilyn Monroe with her name and her looks, he lights up and starts aggressively flirting with her. The objectification of Marilyn by Chip coupled with the laugh track demonstrates a complication with what the episode is trying to communicate because the laugh track is either laughing at Chip’s invasive, sexist actions or simply laughing at the situation. It is very possible that the show is criticizing the mistreatment towards women, but Chip’s sexual harassment is so persistent that it makes the whole situation very uncomfortable, and it stopped becoming a critique and more just an insensitive play for cheap laughs. When Lennie called his boss to voice his concerns about the unusual household they are in, his boss remarked that their “computers are never wrong. They’re infallible. Why, They picked my last three wives for me.” The reliance on computers in finding the perfect fit for the average family or, in his case, a wife relates back to Spigel’s essay about the fascination with technology in the 60s. People put a lot of trust in machinery and technology, which can create a lot of tension and even miscalculation; in this case, the computer clearly chose a family that does not exactly fit into the definition of an average family. However, the dependency towards technology leads to miscalculation and to a strange family, which really displays the show’s criticism towards society’s obsession with technology and need to define family. At the end of the episode, Chip and Lennie finally got a photo of the Munsters, which their boss at Event Magazine was pleased because they have a photo of an average American family celebrating Halloween. The family, on the other hand, was not amused because this is how they are normally, and Eddie, the son, comments on how during Halloween, they would “put on masks and try to frighten people.” But Herman comforted his son by saying “let’s just be good sports and laugh it off because we owe it to our country to keep our sense of humor,” and the episode ends with the same theme song with only the house in the background. Herman’s comment at first seems to be just accepting Event Magazine’s inaccurate description, but saying they “owe” it to their “country” highlights the country’s inability to be inclusive, and those that are different have to conform to the rest - eerily similar to many ethnic working class families’ struggle.

    The Addams Family has a similar episode to The Munsters’ where two strangers visit their home to only find something unexpected. “The Addams Family meets the V.I.P.’s” begins with their theme song featuring the entire family from the first frame instead of introducing one character each time like The Munster. Straight from the theme song, the lighting is lighter compared to The Munster, and the house looks bigger and much more extravagant, but the cob webs and spooky decorations are quite similar. Both The Munsters and The Addams Family have similar mise en scène, creating a horror-like visual, but it contrasts with the animated, perky sound effects that balance out the two opposing genres of horror and comedy. The Addams family does look a little wealthier and more tight-knit than the Munsters; nonetheless, both families are strange but extremely friendly. Gomez the father intentionally crashes the toy trains, while Morticia, his wife, praises on the fine train wreck. Spigel mentions in her piece about “Gomez’s proclivity for train wrecks” and how “sit-coms poke fun at the consumer lifestyles of suburban culture.” On one hand, the train wreck demonstrates the odd and slightly sardonic sense of humor Gomez and Morticia have; on the other, it mocks people’s obsession with finding or testing new technological advances in their suburban homes back in 1960s. Gomez’s friend Mr. Harris is on the newspaper recently because he is conducting tours for foreign diplomats although the diplomats on the newspaper look displeased. The two diplomats are mad at Mr. Harris because they want to see the real America, but he says that if he “fails to give [them] a good impression of [his] country, it’ll mean the axe for” him, which they misinterpret as in Washington will chop his head off. Their accent and disdain for the United States suggest that they could be from Russia despite not explicitly stated in the episode. As outlined in “From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com,” Sputnik was a technological embarrassment on America’s part in the space race with the Soviet Union. Spigel points to more of the television series that reflected the rhetoric of the New Frontier; however, she does not discuss much of the conflict with the Soviet Union, which this episode does. The diplomats exclaim that they want to see “the downtrodden masses slaving under bureaucratic whip,” and that they “choose honest way.” Their unfriendliness and overt contempt towards the United States reflect the real-world political tension, but this also leads them to want to visit and observe an average family, which they randomly chose the Addams family.

     Mr. Harris is very scared for them to meet the Addams because he knows they are nowhere near “average” and offers the two diplomats to go to a pub downtown with “dancing girls,” but they decline to the bribing because “they are strong men” but ends with “we’ll go later.” This childish offer and response resonate with Chip’s sexual advances in The Munster’s episode, where even though many series in the 60s were doing some progressive cultural work, the treatment towards women was still a work in progress as cheapening women’s value was still an easy joke to be made. The diplomats were also excited to meet their servant Lurch because they think he must be a “downtrodden member of the American slave class,” but Lurch turns out to be a scary, tall, and big man, whom they consider to be a robot. Due to the political competition the United States and the Soviet Union was engaged in, both countries want to beat each other in technological advancement, and this scene immediately points to the, presumably, Russians’ desire to figure out American’s secrets. One of the diplomats pointed out that Lurch is the third stage because “first stage plant, second stage hand, final product human robot.” This traces the diplomats’ way of piecing together all the strange parts of the family and house together to make sense of everything. In addition to Lurch, the young son Pugsley shows them the disintegrator gun that he created, which actually works, and stuns them. After all they have seen, the diplomats decided to flee back to their country to make a full report because they thought “average Americans were fools,” but now they learn that they are “dangerous geniuses” with “electricity and eerie robots. From now on, [they] must learn to respect all Americans because it is not safe to offend these people.” While this is satirizing Russians’ inability to accept a family that is out of the ordinary, it is also pitting Russians against Americans by, essentially, declaring Americans as those whom other should respect. The Munster episode critiques American society by challenging the idea of an average American family, whereas The Addams Family episode challenges the very same idea by putting the blame on Russians for being unaccepting. Even though overall the episode successfully counters the public’s vision of a family as illustrated in Spigel’s writing, it ultimately could do more damage as it only creates more divides between people of different nationalities.  

      Both episodes object society’s construction of an average American family while diverge in how they are challenging the norm, where the Munsters ultimately go against the image the magazine bestowed on them but The Addams Family blames the Russians for not embracing the Addams’ differences. Regardless, Lily and Herman wanted the prize money from the magazine because they could spend that money vacationing on the Dead Sea, and Morticia suggested that travelling to somewhere fun like Tombstone or Death Valley - perhaps that’s what every American family should do once in awhile.