This was first written in January 2014. There is an update at the end of the article.
After watching a documentary about the show, I was inspired to re-watch The Munsters. This was a successful American television show that aired for 2 seasons from 1964-1966 on CBS.
In the early 1960’s Universal sold the rights to their monsters; Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest became loved by all new generations of people. CBS wanted a new program about monsters that would rival the ABC’s new show in production The Addams Family.
What they came up with was a tweaked version of the bugs bunny creator Robert Clampett’s original idea for a cartoon which had been turned down years before; a comedy series about an all American family living at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. The only difference being that the patriarch of the residence is Frankenstein’s creature, his wife is a vampire as is her father Grandpa; the Count, the family is rounded out with their son a wolf-boy and their unfortunate niece Marilyn the ugly duckling of the family who is a normal looking human (with an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Monroe).
The casting of the show was just perfect; the 6 foot 5 Fred Gwynne played the kind-hearted and simpleminded Herman Munster, the emotion compass of the show Yvonne De Carlo as his wife Lily, Al Lewis the straight man (yet ridiculously funny) Grandpa, Butch Patrick as the son Eddie who is a werewolf and Marilyn played originally by Beverly Owen who left after 15 episodes due to homesickness. She was replaced by Pat Priest who won the part due to her resemblance to Owen and also the fact that she fit into her costumes. Gwynne and Lewis has worked together before and already had a tried and tested comedy relationship, they were often resembled to great comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Each actor fit perfectly into their part, the chemistry was great and they were loved by children and adults alike.
The production was a slow one, the performers spent 2 or more hours in hair and make-up, what probably simplified the process was the black and white format. There was a sixteen minute presentation commissioned in colour to show the executives what was in mind for the show. But it would have cost $10, 000 more each episode to shoot in colour and it was decided against. I think this was a great decision, the black and white format added to the spookiness that the amazing sets created. All the stars of The Munsters did a lot of advertising for the show in their downtime and it has got to be one of the most mass marketed shows in existence, especially for the time. Long before Star Wars (1977) the marketing team at CBS produced a range of merchandise designed around the show playing on its huge popularity. Model cars, figures, lunchboxes, masks, model kits and jewellery there was even a rock album with the band wearing Munster masks.
One of the reasons the show worked so well as a comedy was the perspective the family took; they could not understand the strange reactions people had to them. In their eyes everyone else is strange; they are a perfectly normal family. This makes ordinary interactions with other characters so funny to watch and the gags are so well written. The Munsters holds up today; despite its black and white format and it’s 60’s setting it has not dated. The dialogue was so fine-tuned that it still works today as do the physical slapstick gags. The jokes are so funny because they contradict normal everyday sayings and feelings; “Oh, Marilyn, the circles under your eyes….how lovely you look today” “For every Silver cloud there is a dark lining” It was lines like these that made both young and old tune into the show. And who can forget the car, I can’t do an article without mentioning the car, fashioned between a hot-rod and a hearse, it had to be one of the coolest cars on television.
The Munsters was an innocent, fun programme but in its second season (1966) Batman was released; big, loud and in colour The Munsters with its all American values in black and white could not keep up and it was cancelled after 72 episodes. But the amazing thing about The Munsters is that it has never really gone away; there was a film Munsters, Go Home! (1966). There were many attempts to bring back the show, a relaunch of the show as a cartoon was a flop and with 2 shows in the 1980’s which failed the first had the original cast but it was aired on the same night as The Wizard of Oz (1939). The second was with all fresh faces and a make-over The Munsters today. But it was just not the same without the original cast, they made the show what it was, it was their characters and their chemistry that did it, you could not reinvent something that had worked so well, it was magic. The show has been in constant syndication since not long after it finished its run on CBS. Children of all ages for the past 56 years have tuned in to watch the original Munsters show on weekend mornings all over the world. I remember being a huge fan when I was young; anything kooky and monster-ish always caught my attention. When I mentioned rediscovering it again to a friend recently they grinned and remembered watching it themselves as a child and loving it.
Gwynne, Lewis and De Carlo have now passed but their characters of Herman, Grandpa and Lily Munster still live on 54 years after its cancellation. There are some corny moments of course, the 60’s were a very different time, but there is just something so pure about The Munsters; pure innocence and comedy at its best. If you’re a fan of the classic horror era then you will enjoy this, and if you liked The Addams Family you will see the same kookiness embedded here. Give it a watch you won’t be sorry.