The Addams FamilyA
Analysis of a Trans-media Text
couple of semesters back, one of my professors introduced the concept of a trans-media text to my class. Basically, a trans-media text is when something starts off as a single thing (as in, a single book, or a single television series) and grows until it becomes recognizable as a number of things. I guess the best example of this is Star Trek and Star Wars, where the basic idea of the franchises have expanded into pretty much an entire industry unto themselves.
This is a really interesting thing to ponder, especially if you are a sociological nerd like me. It is also highly beneficial for marketers, since turning a franchise into a brand name requires the transformation of a single-media text into a multimedia one. Take Batman, for example. What started off as a single one-shot story in a comic book printed in the late 1920s has turned into a multi-billion dollar a year licensing juggernaut. We ride Batman themed roller coasters, play Batman themed video games, drink soda out of Batman themed glasses and have dropped billions upon billions of dollars into the film series. And to think, a franchise that is more lucrative than 90 percent of the world's economies started off as a half-hearted, throwaway page filler two years before the Great Depression kicked off!
As such, I decided to do a little research paper on a trans-media text. There are literally thousands upon thousands of examples out there, so I racked my brain trying to find one that no one has really focused on. Let s face it, fan tributes to Spider Man, Nintendo and The Simpsons have been done to death at this point, so a little outside the box thinking would not hurt us, would it?
After doing some Wikipedia scouring, it dawned upon me the absolute PERFECT subject for my analysis. What is a franchise that everybody knows, that has existed in sundry forms over the 20th century and has a definite starting point to gauge its evolution as a trans-media text (and just for kicks and giggles, something a little kooky since its almost Halloween time)?
In my best Raul Julia voice, Marvelous.
The Addams Family is a pretty weird intellectual property, and not just because it is about America's most famous family of Goths. The franchise has been through a lot of twists and turns, and a number of re-imaginings in just about every conceivable form of media, from print and TV to the silver screen and video games. I think the Addams Family is one of those franchises that everyone seems to be neutral on. You really do not run into super-dedicated Addams Family fans, but I do not think I have ever ran into someone that utterly despised the franchise, either. Most texts are polarizing, and The Addams Family seems to be one of the few moderates as far as multimedia franchises go.
The Addams Family started off as the creation of Charles Addams (yes, he was egotistical enough to name the family after himself). The Addams Family made its first appearances in, of all things, the New Yorker magazine as a series of one panel comic strips in the late 1940s. Addams says that the Family was created as something of a satire of the American aristocracy (essentially, privileged, upper class America post World War II), and that the whole point of the series was to poke fun at the pseudo elitist nature of the upper crust. Addams also said that he was greatly inspired by his hometown scenery, which consisted of gloomy looking Victorian haunts and graveyards, so maybe the Addams Family also exists as sort of a throwback to its creator's days of childhood remembrance?
In the 1960s, The Addams Family was turned into a situation comedy series on TV. In the late 50s and early 60s, sitcoms were basically the reality TV shows of their day, as everybody tried their damnedest to get SOMETHING out there that resembled the winning formula as set by The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. This, of course, led to some pretty off the wall concepts getting green lit, including shows about Martians, prehistoric cartoon families, talking horses, and yes, a certain morbid brood as seen in the New Yorker.
The Addams Family TV series is probably the most recognized form of the text, and most people have no idea that the franchise actually started off in comic strip form. Oddly enough, it is also the incarnation of the franchise that I have had the least personal experience with, proving just how out of touch with the mainstream culture I am. To this day, I do not believe I have ever seen a full episode of the series, which is extremely peculiar, because I used to adore The Munsters. One would ASSUME that I would at least have something of an interest in the show, but, no, that is not the case. Regardless, this is considered the primary template for the text, and the media cornerstone for which all future media interpretations of the franchise would reference.
The 1970s and early 80s was really a dead zone for the franchise. Sure, there were a couple of cartoons and an appearance on Scooby Doo every now and then, but for the most part, the Addams Family fell into obscurity during the timeframe, which ironically, served as perhaps the saving grace for what would have been an otherwise forgotten text. Sound a little oxymoronic? Let me explain.
It was around this point that syndication became a very prominent aspect in television. A lot of local affiliates had a surplus of time to fill, and rather than create original properties (yeah, imagine THAT), most TV stations chose to re-air old, cancelled TV shows that required next to ZERO royalty fees to cover dead air. A lot of TV series form the 50s, 60s and 70s became rather popular due to this display of laziness (I mean, conservative business practice), and The Addams Family once again became a pretty notable and prevalent feature of the TV landscape.
Turning somewhat forgotten franchises into frugal opportunities for profit was not just a common practice of the TV industry in the 80s, as the fledgling video game market held the same practice as virtue. Though syndication made the Addams Family somewhat popular at the time, there is no denying that the text was not a major license circa 1988, which makes the Hudson Soft NES title Fester s Quest all the more befuddling. Odds are, the game was originally designed as an original title, and since Hudson feared that an unproven title would not sell when competing against the Ninja Turtles and Marios of the world, they probably snatched up the licensing rights to an Addams Family game because the fees were, relatively, cheap. After slapping an Uncle Fester sprite over the main character, you had yourself a game that most NES fans at least rented out of curiosity once. And in case you were wondering, yeah, the game was HORRIBLE.
For my generation, The Addams Family is defined by the film series of the early 1990s. The Orion film, starring Raul Julia, Anjelica Huston and Christopher Lloyd, was really one of the better cash grabs of the decade, and a movie that was FAR superior to most TV-to-Movie adaptations that littered cinemas throughout the Clinton Years.
The first film was pretty enjoyable, with a number of good scenes. I mean, how can you hate a movie featuring gratuitous product placement for Tombstone Pizza, Raul Julia wearing a wife beater and an opening scene in which Christmas carolers are scalded with boiling oil? It also led to a movie tie-in rap single featuring MC Hammer, which, yeah, was about as bad as it sounds. Oddly, Orion pictures did not learn from that mistake, as the sequel was also promoted by YET ANOTHER rap debacle, this time, a special Addams Family themed remix of Whoomp, There It Is by Tag-Team.
As good as the original film was, I think the sequel was WAY better. With a better plot and more memorable one liners, Addams Family Values is one of the more underrated family comedy films of the decade. Hey, it is WORLDS better than Problem Child 2 and Angus, that is for sure.
Following the release of the first film, a glut of Addams Family themed media hit the market. There was a new cartoon series (That no one watched), and a deluge of tie-in video games, released for pretty much every console under the sun. The first Addams Family game (based on the first film), was basically another platform game, and really unremarkable, all things considered. This was followed up by Puggsley s Scavenger Hunt, which on the NES, was the EXACT SAME game as the first Addams Family title, only with the sprite of Gomez switched out for one of Puggsley. Addams Family Values on the SNES and Genesis, however, may just be one of the most shockingly GOOD games on either system, as both versions play out in a top down, Zelda like action adventure. If you ever wanted to play a GOOD version of the SNES Jurassic Park game, then I definitely think Addams Family Values is a title worth hunting down.
With the sudden death of Raul Julia in 1994, it was pretty much determined that the film series would not continue. As such, the popularity of the franchise began to wane, and it was not until 1998 that another big-time shot at recreating the Addams Family came to fruition.
The New Addams Family was, in a word, TERRIBLE. A daily show on the up start ABC Family channel (which had some good programming, by and large), the show replaced the legendary title theme with this weird ass Calypso beat, and the humor just was not there. If you want to talk about how forgettable the show was, consider this: I remember eating a bag of Oreos with the show insignia plastered on the package, but I cannot recall a SINGLE episode of the series. Needless to say, it did not last very long, even though it did result in at least one video game (a Game Boy Color release that even an aficionado of the obscure such as myself has never heard of).
Since, there have been a couple of attempts to revive the series, mainly in the form of straight to video movies and the occasional TV special. Regardless, nothing released since has really stuck, and the franchise seems to be stuck in limbo yet again, anxiously awaiting another opportunity to be reinvented, repackaged or re-established.
As a trans-media text, perhaps the longest lasting impact of the Addams Family franchise is, obviously, the opening theme. People that have never seen a single episode of the original television series, seen a single Charles Addams cartoon or seen any of the movies knows at least the first couple of lines to the theme song, and the trademark finger snap has become an iconic meme within American culture. Likewise, the characters within the show have become somewhat emblematic figures, as Cousin Itt, Morticia, and Lurch (not to mention Thing) are all highly recognizable aspects of popular culture.
With all of the Addams Family history examined, I believe that it is more than interesting that whenever I think about the text, I think of, of all things, two coin operated forms of amusement.
In 2000, I ran across my first Uncle Fester electro-shock arcade cabinet. Some of you will know EXACTLY what I am talking about, and others of you will be left in the dark. Ultimately, this was an Addams Family themed coin op cabinet in which you put in your money (a dollar, I believe), and the idea was to see how long you could hold on to two metal stubs sticking out of the device. Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, not so much, because those two stubs? THEY WERE ELECTRIFIED. I cannot remember the sordid details of the mechanism, but each time you cleared a level, you received a higher voltage shock, and in case you were wondering, yes, it was a game utilizing REAL ELECTRICITY. It was actually a pretty popular attraction, because as we all know, there is nothing funnier than watching your friends incur physical pain, so I am assuming that whoever manufactured the units had to be cleaning up at some joints. Knowing what we know about the franchise now, I wonder if Charles Addams EVER thought that one day, his humdrum little cartoons would turn into an amusement attraction in which people PAID to get electrocuted?
Ultimately, whenever I think about the Addams Family, I do not think about the movies, or the TV series, or the video games, or any of the characters. Instead, when I hear the franchise uttered, the VERY first thing that pops into my mind is, of course, the 1992 pinball game.
Yes, THE pinball game, a sight that was pretty much ubiquitous in the 90s. The Addams Family pinball game is actually the best selling pinball game EVER made, and who knows how many millions of dollars (in quarters, no less!) the machine must've made in the decade. This truly is one of the greatest pinball titles ever, and a machine that totally took advantage of the license and then some. The Addams Family pinball game was among the first to make use of digitized audio, magnetic playing fields (which made ball movement TRULY unpredictable), LCD game play and playing field obstacles that served more as playing INTEGRATIONS than obstructions. I really cannot tell you how much time I spent playing this in my youth, and to this day, I do not think I have ever been able to nail the multiplier that causes Thing to pop out of his box situated at the top of the unit. Hell, this was a unit that was fun to just WATCH, as sometimes I would kind of gaze at it in demonstration mode, waiting for the pinball flippers to do the trademark finger snap in tune with the Addams Family theme. License holders, take note: THIS is how you integrate a hot property into your product. S
o, what does The Addams Family tell us about trans-media texts? Well, it certainly says a lot about how certain ideas come into their own, and how original notions often find themselves turning into things that NO ONE could have ever predicted. The Addams Family began life in an upscale magazine, become a part of the popular culture via a campy TV show, resulted in two pretty damn good movies and a litany of cartoons, toys, video games and coin op attractions. Certainly, the first time Charles Addams drew Gomez, I doubt that I thought he'd just begun the first step to producing the highest grossing pinball game of all time, so who knows what today s creations will transition into tomorrow?
James Swift is a freelance writer currently living in the Metro Atlanta area. His new book, Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks, is now available from iUniverse Publishing. Call him weird, but he still thinks Anjelica Huston is kind of hot.