In 1963 the television scene was already a vast and diverse place. There were sitcoms like What’s Happening! and Till Death Us Do Part, comic series like Hot Mink and full-blown dramas like The French Connection and Peyton Place. There was also the odd obscure sitcom from around the world, The Look of Silence and The Hornet’s Nest, as well as a whole catalogue of middling variety shows, game shows and science shows.
This diverse wave brought with it a whole lot of unpolished shows. Happily, the ’60s gave us a new breed of TV sitcom: crisp, surreal and amateurish, The Munsters was proof that there was a viable market for cutesy parody of families of different backgrounds.
Series creator Dick Wolf was still in his teens and writing for Dick Van Dyke, but The Munsters wasn’t his first television creation. He had already worked on a modest children’s series called The Legends Of Adventures of Me, a gentle and charming mix of gender politics and animal sensitivity. Given Wolf’s background, The Munsters was a stroke of genius: the series tried to take deadpan comedy and voice-over acting to new levels.
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In the show, aspiring actor Herman Munster – hirsute, studious and obsessed with the law – lives in a home filled with relatives and neighbour-squabbling yet funny; he and his wife Lily (Monica Potter) look into families’ lives and make them funny.
Dick’s other creations created a similar atmosphere to The Munsters. Over his long career Wolf has given us hit shows like Law & Order and Chicago Fire (and, if we’re being honest, a large number of crappy shows), but what made his shows stand out from the crowd were the independent spirit behind them. It was humour in service of something deeper, rather than in order to wring every laugh out of the listener.
At a glance, some of these shows might look awkward or stilted, but being a part of this youthful wave was a liberating experience. Dick, and other writers and showrunners like David Chase, David E Kelley and Stephen Bochco, were afforded the freedoms of being an incredibly young showrunner, sometimes two shows a week, and rarely having to compromise on plot.
In 1965 The Munsters began airing on NBC, a network that was brimming with already established shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Star Trek and The Monkees. At a time when most primetime television was unremittingly serious and even a little regressive, the ’60s had a subversive quality and there was plenty of room for The Munsters to do its own thing.
Although more focused on odd moments between characters, music was hugely important to The Munsters. In almost every episode, Herman’s dad and his brother arrive at Grandma’s house with a box full of musical instruments. Musicians from around the country would eventually play on the show in memorable roles: leading man Milton – played by Masters of Horror regular John Astin – used his avant-garde talent as a musician, while Herman’s brother Jimmy (Ned Beatty) found comedy glory when outfitted as an absurdist flute player.