THERE is a Charles Addams cartoon showing a theater audience in the throes of strong emotions. Tears run down cheeks. Hands are wrung. Eyes stare in grief. And in the center of all this consternation, like a visitor from another planet, sits a man with a round face, a W.C. Fields nose, and a sunny smile on his face, just laughing his happy head off. This could pass as a self-portrait of Addams, a man who found humor in the strangest, darkest places.
By nature and vocation, a cartoonist gets the joke before the rest of the crowd. But the late Charles Samuel Addams stayed more than just one giggling step ahead. Like Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit, he descended his own underground burrow into a whole other world - an Addams never-land - and he led the way so persuasively, so beguilingly, that one had no choice but to follow, gasping with conspiratorial laughter. The things Addams could coax a person to laugh at! - ghouls, monsters, spiders, and alleged children, more weird than any of the above.
From 1935, when his first cartoon appeared, Addams carried on like Edgar Allan Poe in the elegant pages of The New Yorker, making black humor charming. He was, as he said of himself, ``fanciful'' rather than ``sinister.'' If he delighted in children who were definitely not innocent, he balanced the equation by inventing the sweetest monsters.
There is something in the optimistic heart of an American that longs for a holiday from the sunshine, as even the sun-worshipers of Florida may pray for a decent cloud now and then. Addams satisfied the passing whim for a shadow without getting too grim about it. In a recent cartoon, a meter reader peers apprehensively through the trapdoor into an Addams basement, from which a pair of fierce eyes stares up. In another newish drawing an executive, nearly wrapped by a python in his swivel chair, politely asks his secretary, ``Miss Fleming, would you mind dialing 911 for me?''
Pretty mild stuff by comparison with ``Friday the 13th'' (Part 5). Or even Edward Gorey. If Addams was creepy, he was genteel-creepy, like a Boris Karloff version of ``Frankenstein.'' He belonged to a generation that could afford to be a little outrageous, in the confidence that the rest of the world was not.
The first-generation writers of The New Yorker - James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White - have gone. A number of first-generation cartoonists - or, at least, early originals like Addams - have endured. George Price and William Steig - octogenarians both - still appear regularly. Price's crochety couples, with profiles carved out of some senior citizen's Mt. Rushmore, continue to confront each other with raspy little put-downs and daunting requests (Grandmother in her armchair says to Grandfather with his tuba, ``Play `Misty' for me''). Steig's mustachioed gents look more and more as if they had stepped out of a turn-of-the-century barbershop. His recent ``Wandering Minstrel'' depicts a lonely troubadour with mandolin on his back and frayed feather in his cap, strolling through a timeless landscape with trees as stripped down and skinny as he. Another self-portrait?
Maybe not. Still, Addams and his cohorts make their viewers realize, between laughs, how much a cartoonist resembles a novelist as the drawings pile up over the years, creating a world as specific to its author as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Who - except that meter reader - will not miss those dank, weekly trips into the Addams underground?