Search Term Friday: Good Ol Charlie Brown How I Hate Him

I get a lot of Charlie Brown search terms bringing people to the blog. This is due to the series I wrote in 2008 The Theology of Peanuts.

Recently, this search term brought someone to the Theology of Peanuts series:

good ol charlie brown how i hate him

If you've read my Peanuts series you'll recall that this is the punch line of the very first Peanuts comic strip:

Charlie Brown is walking by and a boy and a girl are sitting watching him pass. And the boy, seeing Charlie Brown walk by, offers a running commentary:
"Well! Here comes Ol' Charlie Brown! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...Yes, Sir! Good Ol' Charlie Brown...(pause)...How I hate him!"
The punch line is a meanness and hostility that erupts from beneath the surface of polite social conversation. The strip exposes a darkness lurking beneath smiling civility. And that such darkness, cynicism and meanness comes from the mouths of cute little children makes it all the more incongruous, startling and, thus, funny.

Or is it just mean? That's the question I posed at the very start of the Theology of Peanuts series. Is Peanuts funny?

Well, of course Peanuts is funny. But the question helps remind us that the humor of Peanuts, particularly in its early years, was rooted in meanness and melancholia. The meanness is seen right away in the very first strip. And think of Lucy. Meanness is the way she operates.

And the melancholia? The sadness of Peanuts is rooted in the depressive protagonist Charlie Brown.

Where does this meanness come from? Umberto Eco, in his introductory essay to the first Peanuts book published in Italian, offered this analysis:
The children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: They are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of the modern industrial civilization...In [these children] we find everything: Freud, mass-cult, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. [Peanuts is an] encyclopedia of contemporary weakness.
Charles Schulz himself declared that "maybe I have the cruelest strip going." Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, agreed. No other comic strip, he felt, "presented a world so relentlessly cruel and heartless."

Love does not come easy in Peanuts. As David Michaelis, Schulz's biographer, has noted,
In [Schulz's] work, indifference would be the dominant response to love. When his characters attempt to love, they are met not just by rejection but by ongoing cold, even brutal, indifference, manifested either as insensitivity or as deeply fatalistic acceptance.
And beyond the meanness there is the melancholia. Peanuts is a prolonged meditation on the multifarious sources of human pain and suffering. As Chip Kidd notes in The Art of Peanuts:
[In Peanuts] all the loves are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.
Charlie Brown's signature gag-line in Peanuts is often just a sigh. Which is puzzling. How can a comic strip be funny if the gag-line is a sigh?

Mort Walker, the creator of the comic Beetle Baily, expressed this sentiment about that iconic gag line:
[Schulz] was doing something different, and it was hard to understand. I'd read Peanuts some days and at the end it was just 'Sigh.' I'd think, 'That's not a gag line. What's he doing?"
All that to say, a lot of young people, when they think of Peanuts, think of Snoopy doing silly things. But in the early years of Peanuts, when it was at its cultural peak, it was very dark and existential.  As Eco noted, Peanuts was a "version of the human condition." 

Peanuts is a great theological text because, in a very real sense, Peanuts often isn't funny. We often laugh with Peanuts because we identify with it. We encounter the shock of pain in Peanuts and recognize it. And that intimate familiarity with our deepest pains, longings and insecurities makes us smile. And even laugh. We have been understood. And this comforts us.

And yet, Peanuts isn't all gloom and tragedy. In Peanuts there is companionship, joy, endurance, and heroism.

The protagonist of Peanuts is Charlie Brown. Eco describes Charlie Brown as the "Jeremiah of the strip-Bible." Charlie Brown earns this recognition because we watch him endure pain, loneliness, rejection, meanness, humiliation, and failure of every kind.

And yet, in his Sisyphisian persistence Charlie Brown becomes noble and heroic. Somehow, despite his chronic existential angst, Charlie Brown never loses faith. As Michaelis writes,
Charlie Brown handles without self-pity insults that would push real children to the breaking point...Schulz's characters reminded people of the never-ceasing struggle to confront one's vulnerabilities with dignity. Humanity was created to be strong; yet, to be strong and still to fail is one of the universally identifying human experiences. Charlie Brown never quits...
And beyond Charlie Brown's humanity-in-vulnerability we also encounter in Peanuts the spirituality and kindness of Linus and the joy, enchantment and eros of Snoopy.

Eros? Snoopy, we should note, is the only one who kisses in Peanuts.

And he loves to kiss, of all people, Lucy.

Such are the theological themes and tensions explored in the world Peanuts.

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: Good Ol Charlie Brown How I Hate Him”

  1. I can remember as a pre-schooler being absolutely infatuated with Charley Brown and Lucy--even had a couple of dolls. Of course, at the time I had no comprehension of the tensions...

  2. From my observation, men really like Charlie Brown, simply because he lives with a condition that is hardly noticed, let alone sympathized with...depression. We see him in and out of the daily lives of his friends, yet his melancholia makes no announcements . Yet, many men, like him, find a faith that accepts the day and those whom the day brings them. However, the irony is that they endure the loneliness of depression because their faith saves them from the visible debilitating affects of the disease.

    Winston Churchill spoke of his depression as the "Black Dog". Men who have read this regarding his life can relate to feeling hounded by it as they go about their daily responsibilities. But most of us do not have the opportunities to become national heroes and receive the adulation that comes from working bravely through our "weakness". What we are successful at doing though, like Charlie Brown, is living with the care for those around us, so much so that they often look at us and see just a regular guy. They either forgive us for the sickly looking Christmas tree, or they become annoyed; and we sometimes ride that roller coaster hanging on until our knuckles turn white. In the mean time, we accept the fact that we do not express our melancholia very skillfully, simply because we have not had good practice. But we do practice it much...and well...with God.

  3. Charles Shulz's risky decison to go with Jazz, Vince Guaraldi's piano (especially "Christmas Time is Here") - the meloncholy beautifully conveyed, Linus' reading of Luke (reverberated in an empty auditorium), Charlie Brown looking at the star with vunerability and wonder, then walking with a subtle skip in his step - makes me (a man in his 50s) cry to this day.

  4. Man - I'm Sorry (went "Block Head") - Charles Schulz (not Shulz)

  5. This is lovely, thank you. Two thoughts: 1) I loved Peanuts growing up, but not because it was funny to me. It never was. But it was comforting and - if this is possible for an 8 or 9 year-old - highly nostalgic somehow. Perhaps related to that, 2) The "humor" of Peanuts is reflective of the sensibilities of the Builder generation. I was partly raised by my grandparents, who did think Peanuts was funny, and whose "jokes" were always a bit harsh and, in retrospect, often mean-spirited at times. Even upbeat animated cartoons from their era routinely trade in humorous depictions of ruinous alcoholism, homelessness, and extreme poverty. When my kids (currently ages 13-21) see these cartoons, they're baffled. This all strikes me as simply a reflection of the builder generation, which bore a weight of sorrow and hardship that my own generation (Gen X), and certainly my children's generation, have never endured. I think the genius of Peanuts is that Schulz took all that sorrow and anxiety and placed it in the more hopeful and innocent setting of children's lives. I wonder if the strip itself reflected the hopefulness of that generation for a future that, while still burdened with existential concerns, might at least enjoy the blessing of a relatively stable and uneventful life.

  6. Mercy, this is holy ground, especially that last paragraph.

    Holy ground for a youth basketball coach who is daily haunted by the juxtaposition of (a) his utter cluelessness about the Xs and Os of basketball, and therefore his sub-.500 winning percentage, and (b) his desperate love of and jealousy for the 11 boys under his care, some of whom live in what might be thought of as abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family situations. Not all, but some.

    Must ponder what the Mystic has written here some more.

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