Ever since I was a kid, something in Charles Schulz’s It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has spoken to me. No kid cares to explore that kind of nuance. For Bob-Back-Then, “I like it because” was enough to pour Coca-Cola in my milk or rush to the TV in time for the piano soundtrack and the velvety-voiced guy making sure everybody knew the show was brought to us by Dolly Madison snack cakes.
So for Bob-Now, what’s the charm years later?
“Because” has become a mature take, the sort that emerges after you realize Coke and milk together isn’t the best beverage combination. The simple answer: The Great Pumpkin is hilarious. Charlie Brown gets rocks instead of candy. Lucy has a five-alarm freak-out after Snoopy plants one on her. Little Sally is torn–but not all that torn–over Halloween as a candy grift.
Even that is too simple to explain how a cartoon endures. After all, I’m not still watching the Laff Olympics. The staying power, like all great humor, lies in what’s below the punch lines. In this case, Schulz’s genius: he speaks straight to the poignancies and universalities so clear in his world. Both growing up and as grown-ups, one way or another, we all have our Red Barons to fight. We all get rocks thrown in our bags.
Shultz presents characters who struggle with their belief systems, often in the face of active derision. Charlie Brown wants to belong–somewhere, anywhere; Sally weighs competing wants, wanting both easy candy and the harder path of true love; and Linus wants the mystical Great Pumpkin to arise and his emotional investment be affirmed.
Ah, Linus. Well, there The Great Pumpkin shines brightest.
Strip the cartoon to its bones. Strip away the jokes, the playful jazz piano, the Red Baron subplots, and what is the main story thread? Linus prepping for the Great Pumpkin and the reactions his ideology/blockheadism provokes. Strip away all but his inner conflict, and here is the enduring question no kid swilling coke and milk would care to ponder.
I don’t mean in religious terms, but as humans in humanity.
“Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”
— Linus Van Pelt
I love the writing skill on display here. The lines build as Linus tries to will the Great Pumpkin to life until it’s damn clear he doesn’t want the Great Pumpkin nearly as much as he craves a sincere and truthful world. And to paraphrase a different special, “that, Charlie Brown, is what The Great Pumpkin is all about.”
With hopeless romance, each ignores cynics and danger signs to pursue the apparent object of their faith. Charlie Brown, desperate to go along if it means getting along, looks past his inner authenticity and past the retracted accidental party invite and lets Lucy dupe him, against all experience, into another field-goal turned butt-plant (“this year I’m really going to kick the football!”). His dream Halloween ends in a bag full of rocks. Sally watches the others clean up trick-or-treating while her night devolves, bringing her neither indoctrination nor love (nor candy). Everyone, including the beagle, ridicules poor Linus, but like Quixote he presses on anyway. Eventually, abandoned and alone, he’s found shivering amid mere pumpkins.
The next morning finds Charlie Brown and Sally empty-handed and more jaded than ever. But then they allowed greed and candy to taint their beliefs. Linus fails too, predictably, but only partially. His sister tucks him in, a tacit acceptance, and by morning he wakes still the purest and most authentic of believers. After all, no proof rose from the pumpkin patch, but unlike the Browns, neither was he disproved.
Faith survives for another year.
So here’s why The Great Pumpkin speaks to Bob-At-Any-Age: its deep and enduring questions presented in an entertaining, even innocent package. I root for them all now as hard as then because, in life, all of us are looking for just the right patch to call home.