Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Special: The Great Pumpkin

It’s time for a little sacrilege. I have a like-hate relationship with Peanuts. Like most people, I have fond memories of the images created by Charles Schulz, such as Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. And I fondly remember the holiday specials as being part of my childhood. But at the same time, there is much to dislike about Peanuts. The kids are cruel, the humor is sparse, and the whole thing has the cynical defeatist quality that crept into so much produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” falls into that.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” is the Peanuts Halloween holiday special. The story begins with Linus van Pelt writing his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, the Great Pumpkin is a bit like Santa Claus who “will rise out of the pumpkin patch that is most sincere. He flies through the air and brings toys to all the children of the world.”

For having this belief, Linus is ridiculed. Charlie Brown disbelieves him, though he isn’t rude enough to make fun of him (until the end, when he essentially calls him stupid). Snoopy, however, laughs. Patty condescendingly assures us that the Pumpkin is fake. Lucy threatens Linus with violence if he doesn’t stop talking about the Pumpkin and then refuses to help him mail his letter. Linus eventually convinces Sally to stay with him in the pumpkin patch because she’s stupid and is easily influenced by her attraction to Linus. She will eventually abandon and angrily denounce him when he mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets her hopes up.
Of course, nothing happens because Linus is wrong.


So the Peanuts kids are assholes. They show nothing but contempt for their friend and his beliefs. In fact, Lucy even threatens to violently suppress his beliefs. Sally is shown to be shallow and stupid and ultimate hypocritical. Even Charlie Brown, who is himself constantly ridiculed by others, fails to support his friend. These are horrible characters and a horrible lesson to teach kids.

Moreover, the fact that the Pumpkin never does show up essentially makes Linus’ vigil a joke. Some have said this is a parody of Evangelical Christianity, though Schulz denies it. I can see that, though I personally see it more as a cynical adult mocking children who uncritically believe in Santa, particularly with the specific mention of the Great Pumpkin being drawn by “sincerity” and by the rest of the story being just as cynical.

Indeed, while Linus is engaged in his quest, the other kids go trick-or-treating. They receive an assortment of goodies, except for Charlie Brown, who somehow gets nothing but rocks. The reason, it is implied, is because Charlie Brown’s ghost costume is poorly done. What is the message of this? It’s either the cynical message that life simply craps on some people and, no matter what you do, you will fail if you are one of these people – a great thing to tell kids. Alternatively, this reeks of some sort of quasi-socialist message about the horrible way the poor are treated compared to everyone else.
The kids then go to Violet’s Halloween party. When Lucy hears that Charlie Brown has been invited, she informs him that this must have been a mistake:
“Charlie Brown, if you got an invitation, it was a mistake. There were two lists, Charlie Brown: one to invite, and one not to invite. You must have been put on the wrong list.”
Again, this is pointless cruelty as there is no lesson that comes from this. Violet doesn’t admit her mistake and end up thankful that Charlie Brown arrived. The other kids don’t mention their outrage at the exclusion of their friend. Essentially, this is just more of the same message that you will be excluded if you are unpopular and that’s ok with everyone else... tough luck kid.

This is what bothers me about the whole Charlie Brown empire. Snoopy is drawn quite cutely and he merchandizes well, but the stories and characters themselves are cruel, unpleasant and uncaring. For the handful of good lessons, such as at the end of the Christmas special, there are dozens of nasty, discouraging messages.

In fact, one of the tests to really see what is going on in a cartoon is to substitute adults into the roles to remove the “cute factor” and then to ask yourself how the show would be perceived. If you put adults into these roles, I think people would at best view this as a dark comedy, but would more likely simply dismiss it as a cruel, unfunny, offensive film like The Invention of Lying.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take on the Peanuts gang, Andrew. I remember watching this as a bid and finding out that Linus was wrong the whole time was a letdown and something felt wrong about it. Seeing all the cynicism and cruelty you pointed out again helps explain why. With this in mind it's definitely ironic that this show is used on pumpkin bins to promote their sales at places like Walmart. Regardless, it's a good analysis that brings to mind things people don't often think of.

- Daniel

AndrewPrice said...

Daniel, Thanks. In my opinion, there has always been a disconnect between the actual substance of Charlie Brown and how it's viewed by the public. People seem to think it's this funny cartoon with great lessons. They remember images like Snoopy dancing, the kids singing around Charlie's Christmas tree, and the such. They remember the story as "Charlie gets beat down, but then rises up and everyone comes together to affirm their friendship."

But that's not what happens. Instead, there is little humor. They fight and do cruel things to each other. The "good guys" are stupid or wrong throughout. And in the end, they mainly continue to crap on Charlie. The one exception is the Christmas Special and even in that one, there is this strange transition to a play-like environment when they all suddenly decide Charlie's tree is good enough, i.e. it's like they are acting.

Ultimately, all of these specials (and the cartoon) give off this constant message that everyone just craps on everyone and that's life. There are very few positive moments. And even as a child, that left me kind of uneasy about the show. It definitely wasn't my favorite cartoon, even if I did like some of the moments. But the more I look at it in hindsight, the more I really dislike it.

Rob S. Rice said...

I suppose that as a child I myself always expected other children to be thoughtless and cruel--and I was seldom disappointed! In that rather grim weltanschaung, the Charlie Brown specials--and there were many--resonated. To quote the incomparable 'Calvin and Hobbes,' anyone nostalgic for childhood was obviously never a child.

AndrewPrice said...

Rob, That's true by and large, but not of close friends. Childhood friends tend to be extremely loyal -- something no one in the Charlie Brown universe is.

"Calvin and Hobbes" was an amazing comic strip. I still remember hundreds of those today and I haven't read it since he stopped

Dave Olson said...

But you have to admit that it is rather touching when Lucy wakes up at 4:00 (why the hell would any kid have their alarm set to such an ungodly hour?), realizes that Linus is still in the pumpkin patch, and takes him home to put him to bed. No lectures, no calling her little brother a blockhead, just a tender moment of sibling love. "Hey kid, you may have wasted the night and risked hypothermia by sleeping in a pumpkin patch, but your big sister still has your back." As the younger brother to an older sister, that scene always makes me smile wistfully.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, Sure, there are some nice moments here and there in each of these, but a few nice moments doesn't really counteract the constant tone and stream of negativity. Even a show like Dexter gave you touching moments where you thought, "Gee, he can be a nice father/brother/friend." But it didn't offset the rest.

Ultimately, if you were going to use Charlie Brown to tell your kids, "This is how you act" or "this is what you expect from those around you," it would be a pretty ugly world that results.

Dave Olson said...

Oh, what I would give to have had a "Calvin and Hobbes" Halloween Special.

tryanmax said...

I think the error is that Peanuts wasn't really meant for kids. If it's devoid of redeeming lessons, it's because it wasn't ever meant to convey any. It's just wry social commentary made palatable because it is delivered by children of ambiguous age. But you sell a lot more of anything if you package it for kids, and so...

KRS said...

I absolutely LOVED Peanuts as a kid and still do, so I'm going to joust with you a wee bit, Andrew. I'm one of the kids who actually had a childhood with aspects of Charlie Brown. Seeing Charlie Brown take it all right in the kisser and keep moving forward was kinda inspirational. The character is tougher than he appears. Made me feel a little less alone.

Linus as an idealist is, of course, doomed to disillusion, but as long as he has blanket in hand, he's secure - and potentially deadly. He acquires more victories, usually because he really is the smartest kid in the group, than Charlie Brown does and the two of them have a loyal friendship that is only occasionally tested - as it is in the Great Pumpkin story.

In fact, I always thought the whole point of the troubles Charlie Brown and Linus got through was to encourage kids to see more in life than what's around them and to keep faith in what's important. Linus receives the compassion of his big sister and the credits roll over him shouting his faith to the world. And in the Christmas special. Charlie Brown, through his example alone, persuades the Peanuts gang to commit to his vision.

A rose among throns is most appreciated when there are a whole lotta thorns.

Shakespeare this ain't, and I don't know how much of it is deliberate messaging or ridicule. But if ridicule it is, they utterly failed with my family and me.

I'll give you this, Andrew, the rocks in the sack was a bridge too far. As I kid, I always exected adults to be wise and caring. This image screwed with that world view and it remains a sour note for me.

Btw, it is such a shame that Gervais had to be the one to come up with the concept for the Invention of Lying - in the hands of another, that could have been such an inspirational movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Krs, joust away! That's why I write them - to get people talking. :)
I'll respond as soon as I can. I'm out doing the doctor thing this morning.

djskit said...

I do believe tryanmax nailed it. Not originally intended (primarily) for kids, but in the ensuing years, the money potential was just too great not to try and push it on kids.

tryanmax said...

BTW, I do appreciate how completely cynical my earlier comment was.

djskit said...

You obviously grew up watching/reading too much Peanuts...

AndrewPrice said...

I'm back. Long day. tryanmax, I think you're right. I suspect that Peanuts was meant as a bit of adult satire that ended up appealing to children because of the drawing style, which they then exploited heavily for merchandizing. But ultimately, there's little in these stories that is really aimed at children.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, A Calvin and Hobbes Halloween special would have been fantastic. In fact, a Calvin and Hobbes anything would have been great. He certainly went out on a high note, but he simultaneously left us wanting a lot more.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, As I said, always feel free to disagree. :D

I do agree that there are very wonderful moments in the Charlie Brown series. For kids, the animation and situations are funny enough and Snoopy is always popular. For parents, there are moments that they probably connect with where they say, "That's my kid!" And at points, there are good messages sent -- like Lucy taking Linus home and Linus standing up for what he believes despite all the doubters.

But I do think that when you look at these overall, there is a tremendous amount of negativity and the "messages" are more often cynical and depressing rather than positive. As I said above, if we used these shows to design our society, then we would have a pretty nasty world.

On the adults, the adults have always bothered me in these. They never seem to intervene and put an end to misconduct, they are absent as parents (e.g. why didn't Linus's parents come get him?), and they tend to just reinforce that Charlie Brown is a loser.

So I do see the nice moments, but to me, they are the exception in an otherwise rather nasty series of cartoons.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I can't confirm this, but I would bet that the whole Peanuts "property" has probably been exploited to a greater degree than anything Disney has done. Money is clearly a driving factor behind the enterprise.

Tennessee Jed said...

So why do you think they are so popular?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that Peanuts straddles some lines very well.

First, it fit in well with the 1960s counter-culture crowd because of its message. At the same time, the seeming simplicity of it appealed to the nostalgia within conservative boomers who were looking back to Rockwell America. So that got it its shot on television at a time when 1/3 of the nation was guaranteed to watch whatever it was. That cemented it in childhood memories for several generations... just like the Rankin Bass stuff.

Then you add the MASSIVE marketing/merchandising machine which made the characters iconic, just like Ronald McDonald.

What you end up with is a cultural icon which everyone remembers vaguely and fondly from their youths -- memories always grow more fondly over time and most people won't actually watch these again after becoming teens to confirm their memory. At the same time, a tremendous amount of goodwill has been built up by seeing all the products that use these characters to advertise.

So in effect, people are buying into a nostalgia trip that is supported by a massive amount of current marketing which is intended to appeal to them.

That's my guess.

Anonymous said...

I never got into or understood the lover for Peanuts, maybe the reasons you list just turned me off. I never really gave it that much thought one way or the other.


AndrewPrice said...

Threadjack: If you're looking for a cookie cookbook, my mother just put one on Amazon...


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I watched it as a kid and I recall liking Snoopy a lot and lots of the Snoopy stuff we had, but the specials were always a little flat to me. Thinking about it now, I see why.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, thinking about it part of it was back then cartoons were meant to be funny and or voilent and Peanuts to me didn't fit either of those. Now days cartoons are just another form of story telling which can fit any genre of stories.

Plus add in the facts that I only saw the show every now and then so it wasn't a regular thing for me like with other cartoons.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, When I grew up, it was on every year on one of the big networks. So everyone watched it. I wonder if there is a generation difference actually since all the whippersnappers in this here country probably didn't see it as an event like we did.

KRS said...

I think the books should be near center stage in this discussion because much of the way we perceived the shows came from the extensive knowledge we had of each character going in. There were hardships - such as Lucy and the football - but also victories. The comic strip was clever and more upbeat.

Keeping the adults out of it all is a critical feature of the strip and the reason they all sound like plastic trombones when they speak in the shows. I think Shultz would not have handled adults with the same flair as we see in Calvin and Hobbes, but Peanuts was innovative for its time.

I'm not saying the strip didn't have cruel moments but the better side of the characters was well developed, and it was no more cruel than BC, Pvt Bailey, Andy Capp, etc. As a kid, I acquired and still have books from all these strips.

Btw, Charlie Brown was the pitcher and manager of the baseball team. How did he accomplish that?

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I agree. The comic strip had a very different tone than the specials and I don't get nearly the same cynical feeling from them (if any).

I wonder if part of this is a matter of tone and part of it is the limited exposure in any one strip. Basically, when you see a strip, you get a very isolated look into their world and you can assign it whatever tone you want. Since it's apparently meant to be funny, presumably, we would fill in with something funny. But then the television specials filled all of that in for us, and they really took (in my opinion) a very depressed tone. I would bet that's part of it.

That said, however, I have read the strip for years and I really don't get the same cynical feel from it that I do from the specials. I don't find it to be all that funny, but it doesn't strike me as particularly cruel or angry or depressed. By comparison, the television specials feel really dark to me.

Maybe it was a function of the time period when it was made? I doubt that if they made Peanuts as a television show today that they would use jazz and minimalism... but for the late 1960s, early 1970s, it really did fit the age.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I have no idea how they let Charlie be pitcher and manager (or either frankly), or why they would let him continue with his record. I always figured that none of the others could throw the ball so he was it by default.

PikeBishop said...

Sorry to hijack this thread, but I had to share this:

I love Halloween!

It's the one night a year when you can dress up and go around and give someone a really good scare.

I just got back from a productive night.

I went to the houses of Obama voters dressed like a job.

AndrewPrice said...


KRS said...

Somone out there said he was going out on halloween as Obamacare, but his costume wasn't ready.

KRS said...

You know, for the Peanuts gang, Charlie was the go-to guy to get anything done. Pitcher and manager of the team, director of the Christmas play. As much as they bust his chops, they all count on him in some way. He also keeps true to his principles through all trials. I think Shultz always meant Charlie Brown to be the example for all boys and men. I know he once said Linus was his spiritual self and Linus quotes the Bible in CBXmas.

I think I can find a lot in these examples to inspire my kids.

Btw, the punch line to the very first published Peanuts gag was, "I hate Charlie Brown."

I'm going out and get me a yellow polo with a crooked black stripe.

KRS said...

AND Peppermint Patty thought Charlie Brown was great and she was the coolest boy in the gang!

Okay, I done. Off to bed in the pumpkin patch.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, LOL! And then he should have taken his half-finished costume and had a breakdown every five minutes. :)

Are you questioning Peppermint Patty's uh, sexuality? LOL!

I agree about Charlie Brown. He perseveres and does his best. But to me, he's not actually the problem. It the way he's treated that bothers me.

Good night and good luck in the pumpkin patch!

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, I heard similar criticism of this special from a respected source. It seems Ray Bradbury so disliked this special that he wrote (and ultimately produced and narrated) "The Halloween Tree" as a counter-response to it. But don't take my word for it. Here's the man himself.

Rustbelt said...

Btw, Happy Halloween everybody!

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Interesting. I had no idea. I guess I'm in good company, even if it sounds a bit like he's saying this tongue in cheek. :)

Happy Halloween!

Rob S. Rice said...

I just wish more people had seen 'The Halloween Tree' when I mentioned it in the 'Great Halloween Specials' thread. I had thought to watch for five minutes and spent the whole 90.

Coming out of the Truman and Eisenhower eras, I think Shultz had an idea of a leader as quietly in charge and the universal scapegoat whenever things went wrong, no matter what the cats he was herding were up to. I can still remember a special where the gang shouted, 'LEAD US, CHARLIE BROWN, LEAD US!' as they drifted on an out of control raft helplessly down a river.

My favorite special was the one where Charlie Brown bought an old, cheap, despised mini-bike that overcame every obstacle thrown in its path and outperformed the flashier devices. I own a 1970 Dart. It resonated.

KRS said...

"Somone out there said he was going out on halloween as Obamacare, but his costume wasn't ready. "

It was Albert Brooks. Actual quote: "My Halloween costume won't be ready so I'm going as the health care site."

I always liked that guy.

KRS said...

I'm throwing out my last salute to the Great Charles Schultz.

It's interesting that Calvin and Hobbes came up in this discussion. Bill Watterson gave life to Calvin's immagination - a very cool device. There was a lot of innovative thinking on Watterson's part that set him apart from his contemporaries.
So the comparison to Schultz is apt.

I know Schultz broke a lot of "progressive" ground - having girls on the baseball team, strong - and sometimes violent - female characters. The introduction of black and Hispanic characters (I actually remember my shock as a boy when Franklin appeared - I was probably 7-8 years old).

Charlie Brown is a character that could only have been created by a wounded boy and I'm betting Charles Schultz spent a lot of his childhood in his creation's shoes. I think that is were the darkness in the TV shows emerges and that there realy isn't any covert messaging or fadish cynicsm (fadish, because our greatest cynics are the ones who have the least about which to complain - the Baby Boomers).

In the end, Charlie Brown does prevail over all obstacles; the strip must have made Schultz a multimillionare and the call signs for Apollo 10 were his characters.

God rest his soul.

tryanmax said...

Here's the first Peanuts strip: LINK

I think KRS and Rob Rice have pegged the whole idea of Charlie Brown. If there are any lessons to be taken, they are to be taken almost exclusively from Chuck and no other character. And he really does prove repeatedly to be the most competent of the gang. That does draw a special kind of contempt. If Chuck draws the question, "Why doesn't he just abandon them all?" it can only be answered with the question, "Why don't any of us?"

KRS said...

Thanks, Tryanmax!

And, holy cow, I just had a childhood flashback of a neighborhood girl, Nancy, chasing me through the neighborhood and hitting me with a broom to the merriment of all the other kids. She was laughing at me the whole time, too. I could have taken it away from her, but my Dad had already trained me that there is never an excuse for fighting or even hitting a girl. So my only choice was to run home, with Nancy swatting me all the way.

Good grief!

AndrewPrice said...

Rob, Peanuts the comic strip definitely has a 1950s feel to it,

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, An excellent tribute. :) I suspect that the difference between the special and the comic strip is that Schultz probably had little to do with how the specials turned out. There are so many other people in the mix, and as we've seen time and again, when an author's book get made into a film, they change it -- even when the author is still involved.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Excellent point! So perhaps the lesson is that if you know what you are doing is right, just do it, and ignore(forgive) those are you who will try to drag you down at every opportunity?

PikeBishop said...


Yes, Schulz repeatedly said he WAS Charlie Brown. Bright kid, skipped not one but two grades from second to fourth grade, where he was not the smallest kid in class, eating his lunch alone on the bench, pining for the red haired girl, that he knew he would never be able to talk to. In high school he had some cartoons he had drawn for the yearbook, cut out at the last minute.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen Calvin and Hobbes. The Cincinnati Enquirer,which was the paper we got when I was growing up, never carried it. All hail Bloom County!

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, Calvin and Hobbes was fantastic. As an aside, Watterson actually lives in Ohio.

Bloom County was great for years.

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