Illustrated Man #12 — Charles Addams and joking about “the primitive”

Illustrated Man #12 — Charles Addams and joking about “the primitive”

Ask any Boomer or some of the older Gen X-ers to hum the theme to The Addams Family and you will quickly be rewarded by “Da-nuh nuh-NUH,” followed by an iconic pair of snaps. “They’re creepy and they’re kooky/ Mysterious and spooky…”

Or maybe I’m overselling this generation thing? After all, Daniel Mallory Ortberg did memorialize the kinky chemistry percolating through the early 90s incarnation of Gomez and Morticia Addams, portrayed by Raul Julia and Angelica Huston, in his cheeky “High-Water Marks For Heterosexuality.

Shot in black and white and first aired in 1964, The Addams Family television series originally ran for just two seasons but lived on for many more years in syndication, burrowing its way into the pop imaginary as a symbolic inversion of Norman Rockwell-esque Americana. Later, in the early ’90s, the macabre clan was reintroduced to a new generation of goths and misfits through two wildly popular Hollywood films. There have also been a variety of animated children’s shows and cross-overs with the likes of Scooby-Doo, et al.

Perhaps what makes the Addams Family so enduring is the subversiveness of its premise, a family of freaks living wholesome domestic lives. The comedy comes from the Addams Family’s wildly inappropriate behavior. Given any ordinary social setting Morticia and Gomez, Wednesday and Pugsley, Grandmama and Uncle Fester, Cousin It and Lurch, can all be counted on to act in manner incongruent to the normal people surrounding them. Adding insult to injury, the Addamses are always oblivious to how uncomfortable they make everyone else, their mysterious wealth gives them the autonomy to resist any pressure to conform. Where as audiences might expect the freak to be a character to feel pity for, to mock, or be scandalized by, in the Addams Family the butt of the joke is always the “normal” people who are their neighbors.

The Addams Family are white America in grotesque and a satire of mid-century narratives about the nuclear family as ideal type. This is why the Hollywood feature films were such timely and effective critiques of 1990s pop politics, it wasn’t for nothing that the sequel was titled Addams Family Values.

Long before the movies and TV shows, the Addams Family first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker as one panel gags by cartoonist Charles Addams. A native of New Jersey, his earliest comics were published in the 1930s and he would remain active as a freelance illustrator until his death in 1988.

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about Addams’ illustration work through three collections of his cartoons Addams and Evil (1947), Monster Rally (1950), and Homebodies (1954). To my surprise I found that the titular Addams Family characters only make up a fraction of his overall body of work, however the tone and black humor audiences have come to expect of the Addams Family are prevalent in all of the strips. In the books I read, jokes utilizing “primitive” caricatures and settings were a common theme. In what follows I will elaborate on why I think these racial jokes are, like the Addams Family themselves, not exactly what they seem.

Joking, humor, and laughter are extraordinarily deep topics that touch upon many issues of concern to cultural theorists: power, performance, language, creativity, and what we might refer to as the social and political critiques of organic intellectuals. Anthropology has made many important contributions in this area and against formidable headwinds.

This field presents many challenges to the ethnographer. Humor is very difficult to parse in cross-cultural contexts. There is a high degree of intimacy and trustworthiness one must earn in order to be in the proximity of the joke when it is told. Then there is the sheer linguistic challenge of “getting” a joke originating in another culture, often they require extensive background knowledge permitted only to insiders. This is to say nothing of the authorial challenges of ethnography and reckoning with the invasiveness of re-presenting the joke to an outside audience. It would be fair, too, to point out that thoroughly explaining a joke is essentially to ruin it aesthetically.

In anthropology most of the study of humor and joking falls into one of two camps: (1) ritual theory and notions of play; “the clown” and/or “the trickster” (especially in religious and political contexts); the Carnivalesque and other instances of people in subordinate positions temporarily gifted with the right to make fun of their superiors; the joking moment as a shift in frame analysis, i.e. how one “knows” to take something as a joke; and, (2) joking behavior and speech acts in the context of social relationships; the role of joking in certain kin relations; joking behavior in interactions between men and women; joking within and between ethnic and racial groups.

There’s much more than this, of course, including really creative work in joking and developmental psychology. Like, why are children so silly? Or laughter as physiological response. A universal non-linguistic vocalization similar to screaming and crying laughter is a response produced by human bodies. Who gets to laugh at what, when, and under which circumstances — these are variables that are all culturally constructed. Humor, joking, and laughter truly are rich subjects.

Humor and its relationship to racism in America, and joking behavior in the context of racial situations are topics that, going back as far as my childhood, have motivated my desire to learn from other cultures. After my discovery of anthropology it was one of the earliest independent research projects I took on. But before moving on, I want to acknowledge the privilege inherent in being fascinated by racist jokes. It’s not funny when its you or your people being mocked. In what follows I provide an index of Addams’ cartoons that make use of racial caricatures in their jokes or that utilize “the other” broadly construed, and I would like to take moment to announce the obvious: this stuff isn’t for everyone.

From Addams and Evil (1947)

  • Shows two white characters, a woman is meeting with a male doctor seated at a desk in his office. He is presenting her with a prescription. The caption reads, “Now have this prescription filled and take as directed. Then, two nights after the first full moon, procure the left hind leg of a he-frog and a root of St. John’s-wort…”

  • Six panel gag. A pensive Hindu contortionist paces back and forth, thinking. He takes a rope out of a box, ties a noose around his neck, and throws the opposite end up in the air. The rope levitates in mid-air hanging him. No caption.
  • A White audience at a public lecture looks up on stage where a man in a suit and glasses is speaking, at stage right is seated a man with a comically small head. The caption reads, “Dr. Fairburn is going to tell us about some of this interesting experiences among the head-shrinking tribes of Ecuador.”
  • Depicts four black male characters in grass skirts in a jungle setting. One has fainted and is supported by a concerned second. Kneeling at his side is a third holding a what appears to be a jack-in-the-box that features a comical primitive mask on the Jack, at his side is a box labeled First Aid. In the background a fourth stands and watches the scene. No caption.
  • Two white archaeologists, a man and woman, are seated at a breakfast table in a desert setting. In the background is the excavated entrance to a tomb. At their feet are Rosetta Stone-esque tablets of hieroglyphics. The man is ignoring the woman and reading a tablet and drinking coffee while she frowns disapprovingly. No caption.
  • Interior scene in a hut. There are three black characters, a sick man reclining on a bed, and, standing nearby, a woman (nurse) passing a comical primitive mask to a man (doctor). The caption reads, “Now, this may frighten you just a little bit.”
  • Shows a Chinese opium den. There are six male figures with opium pipes, all incapcitated to various degrees. In the background of their room is a sign that reads: “Occupancy by more than 31 persons is dangerous and unlawful.”
  • A backyard suburban scene, a white mother reclines in a lawn chair with her back turned to a little boy. He is shirtless with a feather in his hair, he is brandishing a knife and has three scalps hanging from is belt. The caption reads: “Well, dear, was it fun playing Indian?”
  • A jungle scene. Two white men in pith helmets are speaking with a black man (doctor) in body paint and a primitive mask. In the background is a hut where the silhouette of a reclining person can just be seen. The caption reads: “This is just a front, you understand. All I do, really, is slip sulfamilamide tablets into his drinking water.”

  • Two black women are kneeling before a pot that they are both stirring, one has a concerned look on her face. In the background is a hut decorated with human skulls. The caption reads: “Do you smell someone burning?”
  • There are three black characters. Seated is a man (doctor) in a primitive mask, he is mixing something with a mortar and pestle. Standing are a mother and child, her face is very concerned. The caption reads, “I’m worried about him, Doctor. He won’t eat anybody.”
  • A cozy interior scene showing a smiling European peasant woman rocking a child in a cradle. The caption reads: “… and so the poor peasant’s daughter liquidated the handsome young prince, set up a people’s government, and lived happily ever after.”
  • A jungle village scene with six black characters. A man is lying on a table while a second man in primitive mask and body paint (doctor) sprinkles dust in his face. Nearby is an attentive woman (nurse) standing before a table of ritual objects. The three remaining characters are seated, watching the proceedings. One is playing a drum. The caption reads, “Dwarf hair, bat wings, powdered black mamba… Quick, Miss Tonka!”
  • Shows three white characters. In the center of the panel a female nurse is speaking with a concerned looking man. To the side a male doctor is wiping his forehead as he exits a room carrying a primitive mask. The caption reads, “You must try not to worry. Dr. Perry is doing everything humanly possible.”
  • A jungle scene. A male gorilla is carrying an unconscious white woman. He is looking over his shoulder and sees a female gorilla and two gorilla children watching him with concerned looks on their faces. The caption reads, “Oh, oh!”

From Monster Rally (1950)

  • An interior scene depicting a recording studio. There are two white men seated at a table with microphones, to the side a gorilla carrying a script can be seen making his way to the exit. At the table one man speaks while the other man waits. The caption reads, “Now for the human side of the news.”
  • In the foreground a man is reclining on a table while another man in body paint and wearing a primitive mask (doctor) dances nearby, he is carrying a skull on the end of a stick. An attentive woman (nurse) stands beside a table, which is really a tree stump, set with various other ritual implements. She is passing him another skull on the end of a stick. In the background we see that the ritual is taking place in something like an operating theater. The audience consists of another ten men (medical students), all in comical primitive masks. No caption.

  • A psychiatrist’s office. A man is reclining on the couch while his doctor stands, pacing about. The patient is an Indian, and this is communicated to the audience by his long hair in pigtails with a headband, otherwise he is dressed as an urban man. The caption reads, “I think we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Great Cloud Shadow. Your neurosis apparently stems from a submerged resentment against your ancestors for disposing of Manhattan Island for only twenty-four dollars.”
  • A jungle village scene. Nine black characters are depicted in various stages of eating soup from a giant cauldron, save for one individual who simply holds his hands in his lap. The caption reads, “Oh, I like missionary, all right, but missionary doesn’t like me.”

  • A jungle village scene. A white man is depicted with five tiny black characters who come only to his waist. He has a look of uncertainty on his face as he holds a woman’s hand while standing in front a man wearing a feather headdress. In the background a tiny old man holds a blow gun pointed at the white man’s head. The caption reads, “Do you, Oliver Jordan III, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”
  • An island scene with palm trees, there are four Oceanic characters wearing flower print wrap skirts. One is kneeling down to make an offering of a basket of food to a carved effigy. The effigy figure depicts a frowning man in a helmet with a whistle on a lanyard around his neck. The figure is adorned with three chevrons similar to an E5 U.S. Army enlisted rank.
  • A jungle village scene. In the background about 18 black characters, some of them carrying spears and one of them drumming, watch the action of the panel unfold. In the foreground are two white men in clerical collars and a black man wearing body paint and a primitive mask. One of the white men has been shrunk to about knee height. The larger white man has a concerned look on his face. The caption reads, “Parker! You’re letting him get the upper hand!”

From Homebodies (1954)

  • Shows a sophisticated urban party, the men are in suits, the women are in gowns. There are four white people standing on a balcony with the lights of skyscrapers behind them. One woman is bragging about her fancy necklace. In the background a character in a comical hat aims a blow gun at her. The caption reads, “There’s an amusing legend connected with it — something about a dreadful curse.”

  • A domestic jungle scene. A black woman kneels before a cauldron on a fire, she is looking over her shoulder scowling at a black man carrying a spear and shield. The caption reads, “Now don’t tell me you had anthropologist for lunch.”
  • Shows the interior of a hut, two black women are sitting together on a mat. The hut is decorated with at least 28 human skulls. The caption reads, “One thing I’ll say for him — he’s always been a good provider.”
  • A scene from a city zoo with nine white characters. A gorilla has reached out through his cage and captured a man, pinning him against the bars. In the foreground a man is kneeling down looking through the view finder of his camera. A third man is rushing up behind him. The caption reads, “What light you giving it?”
  • A jungle village scene with at least twelve black characters. I drummer sits near a patient stretched out on a mat. Nearby is a dancing man in body paint (doctor), but in the place of a primitive mask he is wearing an over sized mask depicting a white doctor. No caption.

  • Depicts a generic Orientalist Middle Eastern interior at night, the room is lit by a single oil lamp. There are two men in turbans, one is showing his guest to his room. The caption reads, “Well, good night, Ahmed. If you need anything, just rub.”
  • Shows a jungle village scene. In the center of the panel are two white men tied to a pole. One has a pith helmet. Around them are twelve threatening black men with spears and shields. On the edge of the panel is a third white man balanced on the limb of a tree with a camera pointed towards the action. The caption reads, “Wouldn’t you know that at a time like this Haley would be off somewhere photographing some damn ritual.”

Like the trickster or the devil, Addams plays with racial situations through cartoons in a way that is both creative and untrustworthy. As Victor Turner writes in Body, Brain, and Culture (1983), “Playfulness is a volatile, sometimes dangerously explosive essence, which cultural institutions seek to bottle or contain in the vials of games of competition, chance, and strength, in modes of simulation such as theatre, and in controlled disorientation, from roller coasters to dervish dancing…” Addams’ New Yorker cartoons are another such vial, particularly when, as with the Addams Family, they bring the order of things into question by inverting the familiar and the unexpected.

My goal here is not to apologize for or recuperate Addams’ racist caricatures. However, if you temporarily consider the joke apart from the illustration — a move that I acknowledged above as a representation of privilege, there are good reasons why you would not want to do this — there is a similar subversive structure at work as in the gendered satire of the Addams Family. I am not going to say that I am “comfortable” taking this risk, but rather impress upon you that in the realm of play one simply must accept some degree of peril. As any prankster can tell you, staying comfortable is to miss the point.

Originally published in The New Yorker, Addams is counting on reaching a educated, White audience with these cartoons. He is using racist caricatures in his jokes because his audience can interpret them. Like with the Addams Family, Addams’ modus operandi as an illustrator is to create jokes out of things that his White audience perceives as “dark”: witch doctors, cannibalism, and savages. He is deliberately trucking in stereotypical imagery because he hopes his audience will react to it, but the joke’s on them because those illustrations are a Trojan horse.

The joke’s set up is a spectacle of difference, like an old time side show huckster Addam’s draws his audience in with the promise of titillation over behavior deemed freakish and weird by mid-century WASPs. However, the punchline is often about a surprising sameness. The audience experiences a momentary dissonance when an underlying congruence reveals the visual difference exploited in the illustration to be superficial. Another common joke structure in these strips is reverse mockery. The witch doctor’s magic really does shrink the missionary, the beautiful jewel in the center of the decadent necklace really is cursed. In these cartoons the White character is revealed to be mistaken and the truth of nonwhite character’s world unexpectedly imposes itself on reality.

Seen in this light, Addams emerges as a liminal figure worthy of the devilish heritage of clowns and tricksters documented in ethnography. Black comedy, where the audience is made to empathize with the victim, can be about discrimination but that is not Addams’ goal here. Similarly, comedy created by minorities can be about relations between groups from diverse points of view, but that’s not what he’s doing here either. Rather, these are racial jokes that work for an audience with the racial knowledge to read them, but with a punchline that regularly subverts their expectations often making the privileged audience of The New Yorker into the butt of the joke.

The cartoons contain much of the wit that made the later incarnations of the Addams Family so memorable. In fact there were several jokes I recognized immediately from the television and movie incarnations. In the Addams Family’s satire of the nuclear family and mockery of traditional gender roles, the freaks are sweet and wholesome, its the normals who are made into matter out of place. Being tickled by the Addams Family’s inversion of gender ideals is lubricated by the audience’s awareness of how those performances are to be done properly. So too with the cartoon strips, Addams’ racial humor works through dialectic to critique itself, using racist packaging to deliver a subversive message.

Not quite an ally, something other than an adversary, Addams structural relationship to race is not unlike that of some anthropologists: removed, romantic, ironic.

One Reply to “Illustrated Man #12 — Charles Addams and joking about “the primitive””