There’s nothing laugh-out-loud-funny happening in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In fact, except for a couple of wry comments geared toward an adult’s sense of humor (Lucy reneges on her promise not to pull the football away from Charlie Brown by noting that the contract she has signed hasn’t been notarized), there are no jokes in it at all. So when my son laughed while he was watching it, I looked up from my laptop to see what was funny. Charlie Brown and the gang were trick-or-treating in their neighborhood.
I went back to my work and when my son laughed again, louder this time, I asked him, “What’s funny?”
Owen looked up at me, a big grin on his face. “I got a rock!” he said.
“Oh,” I said.
I’ve seen It’s The Great Pumpkin probably twenty times in my life, and I always enjoy it. Many people possess a vague, hazy memory of this holiday cartoon as some sort of heartwarming, uplifting family entertainment. But I’ve seen it enough to know it’s nothing of the kind.
The third time Charlie Brown and his friends huddled on the sidewalk to compare treats, Owen just couldn’t stand it anymore. “I got a rock!” he shrieked. And he fell off the couch laughing.
Now, it doesn’t always pay to closely examine the causes and effects of my six-year-old son’s sense of humor. (He has also recently discovered the phrase “cut the cheese,” which, for a week now, has functioned as a source of inexhaustible hilarity. Just saying “I cut the cheese” will send him into a fit of laughter. It’s funny if he says it and much funnier if I say it.) But what’s funny about I got a rock?
I think I know. It’s the unfairness of it all.
They don’t make cartoons like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown anymore. My kids are accustomed to chirpy, positive cartoons in which all problems are quickly and easily solved. Bad things happen, but they’re always silly bad things, perpetrated by inept and foolish bad guys. From Barney to Dora the Explorer to the Little Mermaid to The Incredibles, it’s always “all’s well that ends well.” Cartoons intended for older kids, like SpongeBob SquarePants and The Penguins of Madagascar ditch the sincerity and “teaching moments” for absurdity, irony, and the gentle lampooning of pop culture icons.
But always, good is good and bad is bad, and no one ever gets less or more than they deserve. So a cartoon like It’s The Great Pumpkin comes as a shock to Owen. Its message—that the world is merciless, that good faith and common decency can go unrewarded, and might even be punished—is an affront to the Rules of the Modern Cartoon Universe.
And so Owen, surprised, laughs. (His response, it seems to me, is very similar to that of the studio audience who could not refrain from laughing and clapping during David Letterman’s pained confession of the serial sexual affairs he’s had with female staffers on his show. The audience simply had no concept of a sincere and remorseful David Letterman, so they treated his confession as a skit.)
At any rate, every time I see It’s The Great Pumpkin, I’m struck by the dour, gloomy worldview of its creator, Charles Schulz. Other comic-strip artists, other entertainers, may strive to flatter and please at every opportunity, but Schulz has other things on his mind.
The taunts and insults Charlie Brown endures are always unusually cruel. When he receives an invitation to Violet’s Halloween party, Lucy is quick to assure him that there were two lists, one for those invited and one for blockheads like Charlie Brown. When they go trick-or-treating, the Peanuts gang’s neighbors give the kids candy and treats. But they toss rocks into Charlie Brown’s bag. Schulz is evidently distressed by ugly pack mentality and ostracism (he references it in all of the “holiday” cartoons), but he rarely offers Charlie Brown any relief from it.
Likewise, Snoopy’s Red Baron adventure has none of the loopy silliness of the Royal Guardsmens’ 1966 novelty hit “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” Instead, he’s shot down and left to creep alone at night through spooky ruins and debris behind enemy lines.
And then there’s Linus’s unrewarded overnight vigil in the pumpkin patch. Schulz is clearly a religious man, but his diety isn’t the soft, fuzzy contemporary one. There are no miracles in the pumpkin patch. Whatever Linus (the spiritual Peanut) is seeking out there is unknowable and unresponsive. His friends taunt and ridicule him; his one true believer, lovestruck Sally, lashes out at him and betrays him. Well after midnight, Linus is left to shiver under his thin blanket in the field, and, as the concluding credits roll, to rant at the unbelievers.
What is Schulz trying to say? His holiday cartoons are part of the canon now, as inescapable as Paul McCartney’s “Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” but underneath the veneer of “Joe Cool” Snoopy gags and Peppermint Patty wisecracks is a hard kernel of cynicism and fatalism that you never encounter in contemporary cartoons.
Usually, my kids are good for at least a couple of re-viewings of cartoons, especially holiday cartoons. But they never ask to see this one twice. Even Owen, tickled by Charlie Brown’s cruel fate, went to bed without a peep when it was over. As I’ve said, I’ll always like It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. But cartoons were different when I was growing up.
Related: The Halloween Economy