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HOLLYWOOD FIRST PERSON : Let’s Get Real: The Addams Family Is Us

<i> Screenwriter and playwright Paul Rudnick wrote "Addams Family Values" as well as the play "Jeffrey," currently playing in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. </i>

America loves the Addams Family, just as it cherishes Hannibal Lecter, Stephen King and any tabloid TV show where premature burial or lethal injection are used as alternatives to divorce.

So when I doctored the screenplay for the first “Addams Family” movie, and wrote the script for its sequel, “Addams Family Values” (which opens Friday), I tried to obey the primary commandment of giddy American gloom: Don’t try anything wholesome. The Addamses are not allowed to smile, picnic or tan, and above all: no sunshine.

I grew up on both the original Charles Addams cartoons and the subsequent TV series; I was always aware that the Addamses were the irresistibly fiendish antidote to the Cleavers, the Nelsons, the Bradys and any other small-screen family in which Mom wore a shirtwaist and pearls, especially when packing lunch boxes; Dad carried a Father’s Day pipe in the pocket of his golf cardigan, and everyone was always learning something.

The Addamses are the American id: irreverent, unsentimental and deeply perverse, a clan that celebrates Christmas Eve by gathering on the roof of their dilapidated mansion to pour boiling oil on the cheery Up-With-People carolers below.

The Addamses are the family whom fundamentalists always predict will move in next door, if the school board doesn’t take steps. Jesse Helms would actually pose little threat to Gomez, Morticia and their kin, for not only are they far more stylish than Jesse, they might eat him.

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Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of both “Addams” films, insists that the Addamses are the ideal family--the only genuinely functional group on the planet (Barry has also suggested that various Addams mutants are modeled on members of his own Long Island dynasty). Gomez, the deranged, passionately mustachioed dad, and Morticia, the morgue-pale matriarch poured into black lace, are perfect parents, sexy, elegant and permissive. They are not whimpering mid-lifers or fossilized PTA stalwarts; they are the only Ma and Pa who would never embarrass their children, they are wildly romantic adults, Nick and Nora Charles with a penchant for leather.

Wednesday and Pugsley are their demonic preteens; they are deadpan and powerful, the least childish children imaginable. They make punk and grunge seem like merit badges. Discipline is never an issue in the Addams household, it’s a fetish.

“Addams Family Values” also introduces a new leafless limb to the family tree: a baby, a little bundle of horror named Pubert. Pubert is the name Charles Addams had originally intended for Pugsley, but the New Yorker, where the cartoons first ran, had objected. I pounced on the name, bestowing it on a newborn with jet-black hair and his father’s mustache, who teethes on Havana cigars.

Outlying family members also live at home; Uncle Fester, Gomez’s blurting, sunken-eyed brother, and Granny, Morticia’s Jurassic mother, are treated with near-Japanese reverence. (Granny keeps active by preparing hexes and Hannibal Lecter menus.) The servants are also included in the family unit: Lurch, the towering, mute butler, and Thing, the helpful disembodied hand, are accorded the inner circle status of Ann B. Davis, Nell Carter and Hazel. The Addamses enjoy an Old World ease, a noblesse devoid of snobbery; they express a benign pity for anyone in pastels. They gleefully embrace most of our standard fears: They revel in death, highway dismemberment and unvacuumed corners. They are deliciously evil and neurosis-free, satanic yet gracious. They are, above all else, a relief: We never have to worry about using the Addamses as role models.

Think of the scrubbed, ecologically minded, dimple-heavy folks on “Growing Pains,” “Full House” or “The Cosby Show"--who among us could ever be that chipper, and who would want to be? All of those blindingly lit sitcom kitchens, filled with shiny copper cookware, dried floral arrangements and cozy family chats can only make us feel inadequate, or nauseated.

The Addamses assure us that strange is good and that cobwebs trounce multivitamins any day. Morticia might get on with Roseanne, and Fester might share a trip to the crypt with Howard Stern, but the Addamses would feel only raw disbelief at the sight of Meredith Baxter dishing up granola on her French Country kitchen island, and they’d wince at Alan Thicke offering a little manly advice on dating to Kirk Cameron during some one-on-one basketball in the driveway.

Most appealing, the Addamses never whine: Morticia would never sob over her delinquent offspring on Oprah or Sally Jessy, although Gomez would certainly relish a guest shot on “America’s Most Wanted.”

Most American heroes are not only too good to be true, they’re too good to be interesting. Barbie is lots more fun once she’s been beheaded, and Benji and Beethoven would be far more cuddly if housebroken by Cruella DeVille.

After the Reagans, the notion of First Family perfection became a joke; they were the Borgias with publishing deals. Bill and Hillary Clinton seem more co-workers than mates; they come across as earnest, troubled fortysomethings, exhausted by twin careers and an only child.

Dan Quayle harped on family values, preaching vague morality to a pre-nuptial, deadbeat-Dad nation--who was he to scold? Nobody buys the Brady Bunch myth anymore, especially since the actor who played young Greg, Barry Williams, confessed in his tell-all autobiography, to dating his TV mom.

We’ve all finally caught up with the Addams family; they now seem almost quaint. In an era where the kinky Tim Burton works for Disney and even Steven Spielberg sends his dinosaurs out to brunch on attorneys, we’re all Addamses. No one’s a natural blond, and perhaps no one ever was. Nowadays, unnatural feels like home.


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