My dad gave me a book of essays analyzing (and in some cases psychoanalyzing) Peanuts for Christmas last year. Some heavy-hitters, like Umberto Eco, contributed. Needless to say… it was kind of a slog to get through.
That’s not to say it was all bad. Some I enjoyed very much. But a lot of the essayists seemed to come at it from completely the wrong direction. More than half, for instance, insisted that Peanuts comics are not funny.
The worst offender called Schultz a “nihilist” and accused people who laugh at Charlie Brown and his friends of being “horrible.”
Of course insulting your audience is always a terrific idea, but I’ll rebut anyway.
To use the example of good ol’ Charlie Brown being the only person in his class not a receive a Valentine from the ephemeral Little Red-Haired Girl– I’d argue that the humor there doesn’t purely arise from Charlie’s pain or Schultz’s talent for drawing exaggerated, melodramatic expressions, but from empathy.
In some way, we’ve all experienced it. And not necessarily from a romantic disappointment. My most similar experience stemmed from being the only student out of four classes worth of archers not to receive some sort of prize. I was the only one out of forty who could not hit the bulls-eye (the requirement for a ribbon), and I was so embarrassed and jealous of my classmates. So I identify with Charlie Brown’s crooked, sad smile as the paper bag of Valentines is crumpled up and thrown away.
I would probably chuckle at my own expression, if I traveled back in time to that moment.
That being said, for all the recognizable in Peanuts, there is a healthy dose of the absurd in its humor. And it isn’t necessarily just Snoopy using his ears to fly around like a helicopter. Excuse me, a whirlydog.
Anyway, take school. The gang are all in kindergarten to 2nd grade, yet they are expected to read and report on books like War and Peace and Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a gag used by other cartoonists (Bill Watterson springs to mind), but more for STEM-related assignments than literature, these days.
Or, you could just argue Aristotle’s line about comedy representing people as worse than they are, for Peanuts doesn’t shy away from the darkness of children’s personalities.
But it is more than that. I go to Peanuts for the laughs, most of the time, but I also identify with the characters, varying from day to day. Some days I feel like Linus, especially when I’m anxious. Or Schroeder, when I feel like I don’t have enough time to write, draw, or otherwise practice my arts. And sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown, with the universe and myself against me.
And this is where I have to return to that nihilism nonsense. Even though Charlie Brown fails in his own right, or is kicked down by some other force, he always gets up again. Even if it is “offstage,” so to speak. He doesn’t reject everyone and everything around him. He lays on his pitcher’s mound in shame after he lets another run go, and the opposing team wins, but the next day he’s back in time to feed Snoopy, because he recognizes his obligations. And in spite of everything, he has hope, which is why he keeps trying to kick that football.
And if you think that letting a kid hope he’ll one day succeed in life is a bad thing, well… good grief!