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Roz Chast on Charles Addams: Laughter, Tears, and Boiling Oil
May 19, 2009

Roz Chast

Renowned New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast was the fourth and final speaker in this year's American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series and often had the crowded auditorium in stitches. Like many people, I came to love Chast's work through the pages of The New Yorker and came to marvel at her eccentric and neurotic cast of characters. (Why, it's just like family!) Before Chast got to talking about Charles Addams and his cartoon Boiling Oil, she took us on a tour of her childhood, which included a strong attachment to the Merck medical manual. A self-portrait commissioned by O Magazine shows Chast at the age of nine, curled up in bed with a copy of "The Big Book of Horrible Rare Diseases." That's about the age when she first discovered the slightly skewered work of Charles Addams, "the first real art love of my life."

Boiling Oil is quintessentially Addams. It depicts the ghoulish house and cast of characters that would later inspire the Addams Family TV show of the 1960s. A few of the residents (whom we would come to know as Morticia and Gomez) are on the roof and about to tip a cauldron of boiling oil onto holiday carolers below. Ouch. It's funny and it's not funny, which may be one of the hallmarks of Addams' work. He touches the dark side, but he does it with love. Chast calls it a "beautiful and sophisticated drawing. They're just about to get covered with boiling oil. I like it a lot."

At this point in the talk, Chast showed us a pie chart she created based on asking people what they really thought was in the cauldron. A few of the answers: 16% of the people responded hot buttered rum; 19% said mulled wine; and 4% said lava. That last group must have a little Addams in their blood.

But how did the cartoon come about? According to Chast, in 1946, Harold Ross, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, didn't have a Christmas cover for the magazine and asked Addams to come up with one. He and writer Peter De Vries brainstormed, and after staying up all night, came up with the idea for Boiling Oil. Apparently Ross was so appalled and felt that there was no way he could put it on the cover. "The drawing almost died, and it ran inside the magazine," Chast said. But, lo and behold, the drawing became very popular, and Addams got hundreds of requests from readers who wanted to use the image on their own Christmas cards. "He knew that other people shared his view," Chast added.

Boiling Oil goes against the American grain and the cliche of the white picket fence. "I'm glad that somebody is saying it," Chast said, referring to the darker side of life. In the same vein, Chast made connections between Addams, his friend Alfred Hitchcock, and painter Edward Hopper, whose light she finds, "melancholy, kind of creepy." It's interesting to think about the cartoonist, the director, and the painter, who were often drawn to the same kind of gothic houses and inspired by the same moody light.

And if you had any thoughts about serenading Chast during the holiday season, forget it. She's with Addams on that one. "Caroling is fine," she told us, "but don't come to my house to do it."

Posted by Howard on May 19, 2009 in Lectures on American Art


My husband and I just ADORE Addams. I had a student subscription to the New Yorker years ago just so I wouldn't miss the cartoons. When the movie came out, they used this cartoon at the very beginning. It was wonderful. We have a big paperback of selected Addams cartoons. Every once in a while I pull it out and enjoy. Many of his cartoons are actually very subtle. He must have been someone you would enjoy talking with.

Charles Adams, Roz Chast, the Adams Family - all favorites of mine! It sounds like such a great lecture and something I'm sorry to have missed. Your review brings many of the fun details to those of us not fortunate enough to have attended. Thank you!

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