Actor Fred Gwynne reportedly was delighted when he got the news that his popular TV show, The Munsters, had been cancelled at the end of its second season. His relief was two-fold: no longer was he required to spend hours and hours in the makeup chair being transformed into doltish Frankensteinian Herman Munster, whose rubber appliances and heavy padding worked like a emergency weight-loss treatment under the hot studio lights, but also he and others in the cast felt that the show had run its course and then some. In its first season, The Munsters was primarily a satire about middle-class suburban life which, at its best, cleverly and indirectly spoofed racial and religious intolerance in modern America. By the start of the 1965-66 season, however, The Munsters had become a victim of its own success, especially with its monster kid generation of followers, and shows de-evolved into genre parodies and standard sitcom slapstick that, while entertaining on its own terms, deviated far from the show's original concept. The most notable change was in the characterization of Herman himself, from standard '50s sitcom dad in the first year to infantile boob in the second, from a funny character to one that was merely silly.
In its second season especially, The Munsters is like two shows at once. One is a straight monster parody, about a typical and very Kennedy-era sitcom family who just happen to be monsters. Herman (Gwynne) is married to corpse-like Lily (Yvonne De Carlo); her father, "Grandpa" (Al Lewis), a Count Dracula-type vampire/mad scientist; the Munsters' son Eddie (Butch Patrick), a werewolf; and "unfortunate" cousin Marilyn (Pat Priest), a pretty college student. This part of the program abounds in repetitive but still funny gags referencing their monster world, which in their eyes appears perfectly average and indistinguishable from the rest of Middle America.
The one-joke show began running out of ideas about halfway through the first season, and a second, more standard sitcom began to emerge with Herman transformed into a dense patsy, something on the order of Jerry Lewis' Kid, who becomes entangled in all sorts of genre parodies. He's mistaken for a CIA agent in "Herman, the Master Spy," an expert rider in "Bronco-Bustin' Herman," and gets mixed up with bank robbers in "Herman Munster, Shutterbug." Each of these stories requires Herman to be incredibly stupid and naive, immature and childish. This was essentially imperceptible to show's devoted following of children, but it had the effect of turning off more general audiences that may have enjoyed the earliest episodes.
And despite these problems, The Munsters is still pretty funny here and there, full of eye candy for kids in the form of wildly imaginative sets, props, and monster makeup. The show's slapstick is by TV standards quite elaborate, and the wild sight gags pay off more often than not.
By the middle of the show's second year, some prime episodes managed to sneak in, by far the best being "Zombo," an unusually touching and clever show in which Eddie's hero-like worship of TV horror movie host Zombo (Louis Nye) is shattered when he realizes that he's just an ordinary man wearing makeup. Also good in Season Two is "A Visit from Johann," with guest star John Abbott a delight as Herman's creator, who has brought along Herman's less-articulate prototype (also Gwynne); and "The Treasure of Mockingbird Heights," which like many of the best episodes pairs Gwynne and Lewis in the best classic comedy team tradition.
The season does boast many fine guest stars and character actors, including Don "Red" Barry, Herbie Faye, Robert Cornthwaite, Naom Pitlik, Don Keefer, Bill Quinn, Jackie Coogan (a surprise considering he was concurrently appearing as Uncle Fester on rival The Addams Family), Charlie Ruggles, Barton MacLane, Dom DeLuise, Jackie Joseph, Charles Lane, Jane Withers, John Carradine, Harvey Korman, Frank Gorshin, Ken Osmond, and Jerome Cowan.
Video & Audio
Once again, The Munsters looks very good on DVD, in transfers that reveal far more detail than it ever did in syndication. The 32 episodes are complete and not time-compressed, and unlike other Universal pressings this review encountered none of the playing problems that wreaked havoc on other Uni titles like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is likewise clear for what it is.
There are four mini-documentaries in this package, all culled from Image Entertainment's aborted The Munsters - America's First Family of Fright. The four A&E Biography shows, one on the series and one each on Gwynne, Lewis, and De Carlo, are reviewed at the link above. The other extras on the cancelled Image disc are sadly not included here, nor are there any other extras that might have been available at Universal, or new interviews. Still, it's better than nothing.
Perhaps the best testament to The Munsters' unending popularity is the long list of failed attempts to revive it, to recapture the unrecaptureable. TV movies and short-lived series were made in 1981, 1988, 1995, and 1996, and all were met with loud yawns. An upcoming theatrical film from the Wayans brothers appears doomed from the get-go. No, The Munsters was very much a show of its time, with a specific look and cast and style never to be repeated, however nostalgic audiences might be.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.