The Addams Family and their new picture window. Artist: Charles Addams.


Original Medium: Magazine cartoons
Published in: The New Yorker
First Appeared: 1937
Creator: Charles Addams
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It wasn't a series like other series. It didn't appear regularly, in a particular part of the magazine, with its own headline — in fact, it didn't have a title at all. For a quarter of a century, the …

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… characters didn't even have names. Yet, it became so familiar to the U.S. public that when, in 1964, word went out that there was going to be a TV series based on the cartoons of Charles Addams, everyone knew exactly what to expect.

Addams was a cartoonist with a macabre sense of humor, who delighted in juxtaposing the fantastic and gruesome with the mundane and ordinary. As early as 1935, when his cartoons started appearing in The New Yorker — perhaps America's most prestigious humor magazine — he displayed an ability to get big laughs out of truly jarring situations and images. Without his wit to put them in their proper light, the things he drew might have been chilling, disturbing, even horrifying; but when they came from him they were funny.

In 1937, a few regular characters began to emerge. At first it was just an incredibly creepy woman and her even creepier butler, but other members of the household soon turned up — her grinning lunatic of a husband, their malevolent children, the wild-haired old lady, etc. And the house itself began to take on a stable form, based (very loosely) on an old Victorian structure in the neighborhood where Addams grew up. The weird family appeared in cartoon after cartoon, over a period of decades, and became as well known as The Saturday Evening Post's Hazel or Playboy's Little Annie Fanny.

Addams's cartoons started appearing in book form in 1942, with the publication of Drawn & Quartered, and the unnamed family had a strong presence in that volume. Boris Karloff wrote the introduction, in which he credited Addams for immortalizing him by basing the butler's appearance on him. Altogether, more than a dozen such collections were published.

It wasn't until 1964 that the characters received names. That was when ABC aired a sitcom based on Addams's family, now dubbed The Addams Family. A half-hour story requires certain details that can be glossed over in a one-panel cartoon, so the creepy woman became Morticia; the butler, Lurch; the husband, Gomez, and the children, Pugsley and Wednesday. Addams, needless to say, is the one who supplied the names. The show debuted on ABC, on September 18 of that year.

The sitcom died after two seasons, but wouldn't stay in the grave — it has enjoyed a lengthy afterlife in syndicated reruns. In 1972, the characters guest-starred with Scooby-Doo, which led to a Saturday morning animated series of their own in '73, produced by Hanna-Barbera. And that, in turn, led to a comic book, published by Gold Key, which ran three issues in 1974. They had a Halloween special in 1977. Three movies were made — 1991, '93 and '98, tho the latter went to video so fast, not everyone even realizes it actually appeared once on cable TV before doing so. A second animated series aired 1992-93, and a second live-action series appeared on cable 1998-99.

As for the real-life Addams and the cartoons that started it all — he seems to have lost interest in his fictional family after it became a media sensation, as they appear less often in his later cartoon collections. In fact, in the last collection to appear in his lifetime, Creature Comforts (1981), they aren't seen at all.

Charles Addams died in 1988. The characters he created, however, refuse to.


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Text ©2001-06 Donald D. Markstein. Art © The New Yorker magazine.