50 years ago in U.S. Catholic: What makes Peanuts run?

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By Martin Jezer

This article appeared in the February 1964 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 29, No. 2, pages 15-18).

Charlie Brown and Violet, Schroeder and Lucy, plus Linus and his blanket—all make up the child’s world of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. A critique of one of America’s most widely read comic strips.

A noted psychiatrist arrived at his office one morning to find a newspaper clipping tacked to his office door. The clipping was the morning’s Peanuts, and scrawled across it was a message from a patient which read: “Dear Dr.______, I have discovered what is wrong with me, and there is no need for me to continue treatment.”

Among its other nosegays, the comic strip Peanuts probably holds the distinction of being clipped out of more newspapers and posted on more bulletin boards, lockers, and walls than any other of its newsprint relatives on the comic page. Perhaps it has not outstripped (no pun intended) the “pin-up girl” in sheer numbers of walls decorated, but it is now as common to see a group of men (and the distaff side as well) ogling a Peanuts pin-up as it is to witness a similar celebration of pulchritude on paper. Peanuts elicits chuckles and the “pin-up gal” a deep breath or two—or perhaps a healthy sigh—yet the two are similar in that they appeal to the psychological needs of their audience of onlookers.

Interestingly enough, the popularity of Peanuts in the crowded comics field is due not to the inherent humor of the strip, but to the manner in which it is interpreted by its readers. Charles M. Schulz, the man behind the Peanuts drawing board, has created a strip which appears to deal—at its simplest level—with a group of ingenious cherubim who say and do things in an innocent, yet adult, way. Each individual strip has its gag or its entertaining punch line, but the psychological overtones of the strip strike a responsive chord only when the characters are taken as a Gestalt and perceived in reference to contemporary American life.

If it were not for a peculiar characteristic of its doting audience, Peanuts would exist solely on the first obvious level of meaning. But it is precisely because a substantial sector of the Peanuts patronage is composed of a better-educated class of people—people who are preoccupied with layman’s psychology—that the strip can be viewed as a psychological reflection of contemporary life. Certainly the plethora of articles in the popular magazines that deal with psychology attest to the extreme interest in that subject. Schulz, of course, is not unaware of this: in a Newsweek interview published in March, 1961, he ventured an opinion as to why the strip is so popular. “Well, it deals in intelligent things—that people have been afraid of,” he declared. “Charlie Brown represents the insecurity in all of us, and our desire to be liked.” Schulz declined to psychoanalyze Snoopy, but did define Lucy as “the dominant one in every family, the little girl who has no doubts about who is going to run the show.” Surely there are several—who knows how many?—thousand Peanuts fans who would be delighted to put Snoopy on the couch, and possibly as many interpretations of his behavior. And, all shaggy dog dogmas aside, it is important that people hunt for and find psychological gems in Peanuts. What is even more important—many of these armchair analysts strike truth in their probes beneath the surface of a lowly comic strip.

The humor in Peanuts, then, has a dimension apart from the obvious gag level. This is because the characters in Peanuts are reflections of ourselves, and we are funnier than any make-believe character could possibly be. By our laughing at Peanuts, we recognize our silly selves. We are, in a sense, part of the strip.

This type of subjective humor is very popular today, and not merely in the comic strip. The comedian of an earlier day expected the audience to do nothing more than react to whatever he said or did. Today, however, we are not only the audience but also the “straightmen.” Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Shelley Berman expect—in fact, count on—the shock of recognition. Their stock in trade is the human race, its foibles and follies, and their success requires our acknowledgment that it is indeed us they are using as the butt for levity. In this manner, a community of interest—albeit self-interest—is established.

This mutual identification is further advanced by an additional role the audience plays in the creation of the modern comedian’s material. The so-called “hip” comedian can exist only because the audience is also “hip” and in-the-know. Credit the mass media for this: the audience knows what is in the news and behind the news and they therefore know what is funny about the news. Thus when Mort Sahl mentioned “Ike,” he had only to add the word “golf” to pull laughter from an audience that was predisposed, or in a psychological state of “set,” to laugh at such a reference. One has only to visit a cabaret where Sahl or one of his brethren is playing to realize that there is a conspiracy between performer and audience: he wants them to laugh and they are already aware of what to laugh at. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

This type of in-group or “hip” humor plays its part in Peanuts as well. An audience already concerned with psychology is only too ready to apply it to any situation in which the Peanuts pee-wees find themselves. Just as Mort Sahl supplied the situation, so does Charles Schulz. In each case, it is the audience which supplies the frame of reference that makes the situation humorous.

Since the beginning of the comic strip medium, there have been many entries based on the antics of children. Peanuts is unique in that it utilizes an adult frame of reference—in a strip where there are no adults—for its true appreciation. The children in Peanuts are not mischief makers, as the comic strip children of yore. They are not even engaged in a war against the adult world, as happens in such a comparatively recent strip as Dennis the Menace. Like the earlier comedians, Dennis is funny for what he does, not why he does it. The humor in Dennis is explicit, and needs not even the tinge of psychology for its success. (Not that it isn’t possible to read into the li’l monster’s motives, just as we wonder—and shudder—at the happy violence of our own children.) Dennis is an extroverted child in a not-as-extroverted world, and the difference between the two is good fun for the reader. Because he works at it—that is, at being a child—Dennis records a high degree of laughs for his efforts.

Now take Charlie Brown. The last thing he would do is work for laughs. He has too much trouble coexisting in a world which, for all ostensible purposes, is composed of kids. Just once he wants to be a winner, but—as the Fates (and Schulz) would have it—he’s a born loser. Accordingly we don’t laugh at what he does, but at why he does what he does (and more often, doesn’t do). Charlie would be a pathetic figure if we didn’t recognize the tinge of Everyman in him. What’s more, he is a great guy for sacrificing himself of a cross of human vanity: seeing Charlie take the third strike for the umpteenth time reminds us that we are not alone in our failures and, what is more, that the embarrassing situations we were ashamed of are, in truth, extremely funny.

Although Charlie Brown is representative of a long tradition of bumbling funnymen, he is portrayed in a new light. Two classic losers were the Charlie Chaplin character and Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. Like Charlie Brown, they were incapable of accomplishing anything but failure, but when we laughed at either Chaplin or Laurel, it was because they gave us security: no matter how badly off we were, here were two characters who made winners out of us, if only by contrast. With Charlie Brown, the humor is far more subjective; we laugh not because we are better off than Mr. Schulz’s Mr. Brown, but because we are that Mr. Brown. Good grief! We have finally found someone who is every bit the bumbling fumbler we might once have been!

An obvious compatriot of Charlie Brown is Jules Feiffer’s Bernard. He, too, is a natural loser. He too, is incapable of coping with the enemy—which, in this case, is called Society. The analogy is further strengthened by the fact that Feiffer has used a number of the same situations to depict Bernard’s penchant for failure as has Schulz in depicting Charlie Brown’s.

One example finds Bernard calling his answering service and telling the operator that he is Nelson Rockefeller… and he wishes to speak to Bernard. The operator, who has been overwrought because no one ever calls Bernard, bursts into tears. As Schulz draws it, Charlie Brown, feeling lonely as usual, calls the operator and asks her to tell him a story. Both Bernard and Charlie, by their actions, communicate the great fear of being alone that characterizes our other-directed society. Bernard is ashamed, because he knows that being alone is somehow wrong. Charlie, not old enough to read Riesman’s “Lonely Crowd,” doesn’t know yet that being alone is almost tantamount to being guilty of a moral wrong. But he feels guilty anyway, because his friends constantly remind him of his plight. That, in Charlie Brown’s world, is what friends are for.

If Charlie Brown’s problem is that he is an inner-directed person in an other-directed society, his failure in life is simply his inability to adjust to that society. Unable to perceive his own predicament (so often the human condition), he constantly recasts himself in one of life’s little dramas where the ending is foretold; no matter how hard he tries or how high his hopes, poor Charlie is going to fall on his face.

Schulz’s visual characterization of Charlie Brown indicates Charlie’s personality. His entire physical appearance can only be described as “bland.” His round, humpty-dumpty face is bland, his clothes are bland, and the few facial expressions he essays are bland. By his very blandness, he is a graphic portrayal of the ciphers who inhabit the world of Whyte’s “Organization Man,” and who have adopted blandness as a positive image.

Yet of all the characters in Peanuts, Charlie Brown is the only one to face life without the benefit of a false crutch of security. Linus has his blanket, Schroeder his toy piano, and the three girls have Charlie Brown. Though Charlie is often tempted to adopt the identities of his peers for security, he quickly gives it up and goes back to his own reliable role as St. George looking for the dragon.

Once Charlie went out and bought himself a blanket of outer-flannel, hopeful that it might give him the same security it does Linus. But what was likely for Linus proved illogical for a loser like Charlie Brown. Similarly, a number of times he has tried to emulate Schroeder by taking up music but, as that eminent pianist explained to him, Beethoven never wrote anything for piano and cigar-box banjo.

Charlie’s friends, an other-directed crew, are all capable of pragmatically adjusting to their ever changing society. Charlie, who answers only to his own muse, continues to act according to his own inner logic (which at least is admirable for its consistency), regardless of what the consequences might be. The outcome: defeat, but not capitulation. Though innumerable fences are marked with the accountings of Lucy’s victories over Charlie in checkers, he continues to play checkers with Lucy—and he continues to lose. We know, Lucy knows, and Charlie Brown knows that he will lose, yet he keeps playing. Charlie has no more chance of winning at checkers than he does of flying his kite, but he refuses to concede that the impossible won’t someday happen—that he will manage to get the kite in the sky, where it belongs, and not in a tree, where neither he nor the kite belongs. Somehow, in the past, the tree has always come between him and the sky, but a Charlie Brown can outlast any tree.

Here we can readily identify with Charlie Brown, because we have all been in situations where repeated failure has made success unlikely. Yet we persist, and we endure, just as Charlie Brown does. Only be such persistence can we someday succeed, and if Charlie puts his kite away in the garage, neither he nor the kite will ever make it. So Charlie keeps flying his old kite, and someday he may just clear that tree… and the next day he will beat Lucy at checkers, Patty at marbles, and have Violet tell him that she loves him. Maybe that’s the day when all men will love each other, and Charlie will belong to that larger community of man, not just to the kids in the neighborhood. Charlie wants that, surely, and so do we all. His persistence in the face of failure mirrors our own hope that man will someday sail his kite in the clearest of skies.

Meanwhile Charlie must pay the stoic. So what if the others talk about him behind his back, plan parties so as not to invite him, and snub him at every opportunity? This is that was it has always been. It’s only when they point out to him that they do not like him that Charlie, reared on Dr. Spock, recognizes how psychologically necessary it is for him to be loved and accepted by his friends. And he has to worry because, according to the experts’ criteria, he is an unhappy child. Perhaps he doesn’t feel like an unhappy child, but that must be due to a shortcoming in his psychological adjustment. Similarly, the Charlie Browns of our adult world too often fret and pout and become neurotic contemplating the neuroses they should have. In both cases, a little knowledge causes a lot of anxiety.

Charlie also has the burden of living in the age of the decline of the American male. In addition to being dominated by females, the American male is constantly being reduced in stature by contrast with the males of other countries who repeatedly surpass him in manliness, gentleness, charm, savoir-faire, and what-not-else. Charlie Brown has to put up with such odious comparisons, but he persists in asserting his masculinity. Once, when Patty and Violet informed him that they could no longer play with him because he was a “roughneck,” he could hardly contain his triumph, on occasion, the worm does have the ability to turn.

Of course, the other girls are small fry, figuratively speaking, when stacked up against Lucy. She is not only the world’s greatest fuss-budget, she is—if I may be so presumptuous—a perfect representation of the modern American female. Worse yet, she has had a touch of education (play school, nursery school, and picnic school), and this acquired superiority predisposes her to the cynicism sui generis to the sophisticate. After reading in a book: “The boy sees a slide. … The boy wants to go down the slide. … The boy is afraid to go down the slide.” Lucy tosses aside the book and declares with great nonchalance: “The boy is a hopeless case.” After all, Lucy knows her psychology. When Patty tells her to stop crying, Lucy yowls: “Waddya mean don’t cry?!! … Why should I deprive myself of an emotional outlet?”

Lucy has all the weapons of womanhood. When she can’t have her way, Lucy doesn’t hesitate to throw a temper tantrum. Another play is the slow sulk, and the Ultimate Weapon is an extremely loud voice that causes all the other characters, victims of an irrepressible force, to perform reverse somersaults whenever Lucy unleashes her vocal chords. If guile and sophistication won’t work, Lucy reasons, it doesn’t hurt to have the lungs of a top sergeant.

Lucy has but one weakness—her infatuation for Schroeder. And of course Schroeder is infatuated with Beethoven and will have no truck with less intellectual pursuits. “Sigh,” Lucy moans as Schroeder rejects her, “I’ll probably never get married. …”

Schroeder, then, is the answer to an otherwise female-dominated society. Included in the cast of leading ladies, in addition to Lucy, are Patty, Frieda, and Violet. Violet is the cutest and most feminine, so naturally Charlie Brown develops a crush on her. Alas, poor Charlie Brown—he cannot even compete with Snoopy the dog, upon whom Violet showers all her affection. But Charlie doesn’t demur on a crush that easily. In one particularly touching scene, he prepares to present a Valentine to his Violet. After rehearsing what he is going to say to her, Charlie finally musters the courage to make the actual presentation. Handing the Valentine to Violet, he says: “This is for you. Violet … Merry Christmas.”

This delightful, yet poignant, episode illustrates the essential difference between the humor of Peanuts and the humor of Charlie Chaplin. As Al Capp noted in his fine essay on Chaplin some years ago, the hobo always fails to win the girl because he is nothing more than a hobo, and therefore not good enough for her. We are also better than a hobo, and we might very well have succeeded in winning the pretty girl. Secure that we are better off than Chaplin’s hobo, we are able to laugh at him. In contrast, we laugh at Charlie Brown’s failure to win the pretty girl because we can remember a time when, like Charlie, we became flustered in the presence of a girl we liked and did something embarrassing. We laugh at Charlie because he reminds us that we are not alone.

Though each has his weaknesses, Linus and Schroeder are greater successes in the game of life than Charlie is. Linus has his security fetish all right, but he occasionally proves himself by tossing the ball into the basket (after Charlie, of course, has missed), and by building a house of playing cards (after Charlie has created chaos from the same cards). Linus also puts his blanket to some practical use. Killing a fly with the flick of his blanket, he pronounces himself “the fastest blanket in the West.” But don’t expect Linus to let go of that blanket, for he is aware that children need security for their psychological well-being, and Linus wants to keep security well in hand.

Ironically enough, Schroeder was introduced to the toy piano by Charlie Brown, who explained that although it is a difficult instrument, it is possible to play simple songs on it. Schroeder then proceeded to sit down and play Beethoven despite the fact that, as Charlie pointed out, “the black keys are painted on.” Schroeder panics, however, when confronted with a real piano—the number of keys at his disposal proves too much for him. And don’t think that this doesn’t provide grist for the gristmill of psychiatry the country is over.

Whatever his failings at the keyboard, Schroeder is the pride of all the music lovers who read Peanuts. An important annual event in the strip is the celebration of Beethoven’s birthday, and the custom has spread to more than a few college campuses. Taken symbolically, Schroeder is the representation of the modern creative artist, and his problems are the problems of the creative artist in a mass society. When Lucy asks him to play Three Blind Mice for her brother, Schroeder’s retort is: “Only three years old and already I’m forced to go commercial.” Wise young Schroeder knows his Philistines.

The humor in the microcosmic world of Peanuts is the humor of the human race. Because it is far easier to laugh at comic strip characters than at ourselves, we esteem Charlie Brown—in his case, all the world loves a loser. In an earlier day, when we could escape to a wide open frontier of opportunism, a figure like Horatio Alger was symbolic of the times. Today, when there is no place to run to, and we must adjust inward rather than escape outward, our ideal symbol is Charlie Brown.

So people from all walks of life tack Peanuts to walls of their offices and classrooms. And together with their coworkers and schoolmates, they share a sense of security: they are not alone in the world. Scientists, professional people, and creative talents can find something even more personal in the image of Charlie Brown. It is not unlikely that, in following their own paths to success in their chosen fields, they were often unable to adjust to the society of their childhood companions. While others played, they studied, and like Charlie they were outcasts. Since they eventually proved their worth to society, so might Charlie Brown. In one particularly engaging sequence, Schulz has Charlie build a snowman built by children. It is Charlie Brown’s own abstract expressionistic version of a snowman. It is unique. Underneath Charlie’s bland exterior some talent may exist. At least there is hope…

This article appeared in the February 1964 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 29, No. 2, pages 15-18). Mr. Jezer's article first appeared in The Funnies: An American Idiom, published by The Free Press of Glencoe.

Image: Wikimedia cc by Mk2010

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