The Munsters premiered on CBS the night before my fourth birthday. I don’t remember if we watched it from the beginning. I’m fairly certain we didn’t watch it the first season because the first few months it was up against the Flintstones, and then Jonny Quest moved to that time slot. I suspect we did watch it a few times, and for a while during season two, until Batman! premiered with its twice-a-week format one of which was against the Munsters.
Like a lot of other genre-related shows, The Munsters went into syndication fairly quickly after being canceled, and promptly gained loyal audiences outside of primetime. I suspect most of my memories of the show are from this era…
The Munsters was a spoof of both Universal Studios’ classic horror films as well as the television family comedy. The open title sequence was almost a frame-for-frame copy of the Donna Reed Show, for goodness sake! Universal Studios had enjoyed enormous success with their monster franchises: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1930s through the 1940s. The theatrical success of the sequels began to fall off in the late 40s, prompting the studio to re-release a few of the classics as double-features, and to begin a series of movies teaming-up the various monsters with the comedy team of Abbot and Costello.
By the 60s, having milked more income from their vast library of old films through the Shock Theatre syndication packages, it occurred to someone to try this spoof. Fred Gwynn played Herman Munster, who looked almost exactly like the version of Frankenstein’s monster as seen in the old Universal films. But while he looked like an inarticulate brute, his personality was a very goofy clueless suburban dad. Yvonne De Carlo played Herman’s wife, Lily, who was depicted as a vampire. Al Lewis played Lily’s father, Grandpa, who wasn’t explicitly called Dracula, but it was rather heavily implied. Grandpa also had mad scientist characteristics and a bit of sorcery thrown in as well. Butch Patrick was Herman and Lily’s son, Eddie, whose make up was very vampiric, though when he did exhibit any supernatural tendencies it was more along the lines of a werewolf. Finally, Beverley Owen and Pat Priest played cousin Marilyn, who was apparently completely unsupernatural. She was a pretty blond and the running joke was that she and all of her family thought of her as very plain and unappealing because of it.
Beverley Owen was a classically trained actress who only accepted the role in the unaired pilot as a favor to one of the producers. She never expected the whacky idea to be picked up by the network, and was very unhappy that her contract obligated her to do so. She was let out of her contract less than halfway through the first season, replaced with Pat Priest with absolutely no explanation in-show for her change in appearance.
Being a spoof, the show was even less concerned with continuity than a typical sitcom. Many times during the show various gags and lines of dialog indicated that Herman had been assembled from corpses and given life by Grandpa. Yet, there was one episode where an old friend of the family, Victor Frankenstein IV, came to visit, bringing with him Herman’s cousin. Gwynne played the cousin as an unspeaking creature exactly like Boris Karloff’s portrayal in the original Universal films. In yet another episode, Herman’s twin brother arrives in town. The twin, also played by Gwynne, is unlike Herman in that he was extremely smart, suave, and an extremely successful con artist.
While the show was played for laughs, to me it had a serious theme. You could sum it up as monsters are people, too. Or don’t judge people by their appearances. Or even the difference between monster and good neighbor might be nothing more than a difference of perspective. However you looked at it, seeing someone as strange and scary as Herman being awkward and misunderstood, while being sweet and loveable underneath the monstrous exterior was a very welcome idea for a queer kid who didn’t feel as if I belonged.
And it was fun to watch scary monsters try to navigate PTA meetings and neighborhood parties.
The first season was a moderate hit, making it into the top 20 in ratings. The drop in ratings for the second season was attributed to many things, including the fact that midway through it was up against the new smash hit, Batman. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Batman was killing it in the ratings because Batman was in color, while the Munsters (like much of the rest of CBS’s primetime fare) was still in black and white. That’s part of the reason that immediately after cancelation, the studio filmed a feature length movie, Munster Go Home! in color, and released it into theatres. They hoped to either launch a comedy franchise, or maybe convince one of the networks to pick-up a new season of the show in color.
It didn’t do terribly well in theatres. I always thought it was because the script was more than a bit schizophrenic. Part fish-out-of-water comedy, part spoof of a mystery, and part thriller. If they had stuck to one main plot instead of the three, it might have done better.
The show was popular enough in syndication that a few more TV movies and specials were made, not to mention a couple of spin-offs or reboots some years later. But they never quite recaptured the original magic.
The show was good in no small part to the goofy, clumsy, kind-hearted lunk that Fred Gwynne portrayed so well. And I don’t think the writers/producers who tackled the spin-offs, or some of the actors who tried their hand at the role, quite understood it.
Fortunately, we have 70 episodes of the original silliness to revisit when we need a good laugh, and a reminder that even monsters can be loveable and loved.