In one of Charles Addams’ most famous drawings, the recurring cast of characters that would come to be known as “The Addams Family”—a name given to them by television agents in the 1960s—stands huddled on the roof of their creepy Victorian mansion, looking on with glee as a band of carolers sings at their front door. They have a vat of boiling oil, which is just about tipping to the brim and aimed at the merry intruders. It is a gruesome image, and yet viewers immediately root for the caricatures, realizing that at one point or another the thought of eradicating unwanted holiday guests has felt particularly delicious. Morticia, Gomez, Fester, Pugsley, and Wednesday may be a twisted family but they are as tight-knit as any Norman Rockwell clan.
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Though most people only know Addams for his famous family—born over several years in The New Yorker—nearly all of his 2,000 drawings packed the same twisted visual punch lines; taking a familiar scene (walking down a city street, a husband and wife eating dinner, an office meeting), and throwing in a curveball, like a smoking gun or a giant alien, showing how easily such scenes could crumble and become absurd. Hundreds of those original drawings are now on view in Charles Addams’ New York, at the Museum of the City of New York through May 16.
The MCNY acquired its first Charles Addams piece in 1948, says Sarah Henry, the museum’s chief curator. “It was a cartoon that referenced the sale of Manhattan Island. Our founding curator of prints wrote to Addams asking him for the drawing for the collection and he wrote back and said, ‘It pays to be impertinent.’”
“The city that Addams depicts is populated out of the 1950s culture, the men are in suits and ties, the women are housewives and secretaries,” Henry continues. “It’s the New York we think we know, but they show the abnormality embedded within us. Addams is so distinctive as a Gothic artist because there is something sweet and whimsical about his work. The family lives in this big house, they love each other, and do things together, but the things they do are bizarre. They are off-kilter, but in a gentle way.”
Though Addams himself died in 1988, at 76, the entertainment/licensing machine has never stopped chugging, including the Addams Family TV show (which he reluctantly agreed to in 1964; he was banned from ever running the characters in The New Yorker again, lest he debase the magazine) and two high-grossing films (Tim Burton also recently announced his plan to make a new Addams Family movie in 3-D). And now his work is being reimagined in an even glitzier way—on Broadway. The Addams Family: The Musical opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on April 8, with Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane as bewitching Morticia and suave Gomez. The show was the year’s most anticipated—early reviews from a trial run in Chicago were glowing, and although Ben Brantley called the production a “collapsing tomb” it has smashed box-office records, selling $851,000 in its first weekend. If Addams was still alive today, some might call this “his year.”
“The demand for dark humor within a society such as ours has become is as strong, if not stronger, than it was for the two preceding generations,” says Kevin Miserocchi, the executive director of the Tea and Charles Addams Foundation, who just published The Addams Family: An Evilution, a look back at Addams‘ body of work to time with the musical. “It is timeless because it reflects the sensibilities and nuances of the underlying existence in human behavior.”
He continues: “The Addams oeuvre speaks to everyone and it is genuinely funny. Much of his work is extremely painterly, as well. He was not just a cartoonist—he was an artist.”
Rachel Syme is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast and now writes regularly about the arts.