Saturday, October 28, 2006

timelessness of humor in "Great Pumpkin"

I was flipping through the channels, saw "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown", and to my surprise, watched almost the entire thing. Apparently, the annual showing of this special is not a fluke. It's good.

You may be thinking, "No, ArtVandalay, you're just easily amused by animation". And, well...I guess my three volumes of Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs would agree. Still, I don't watch cheap, crappy animation, unless it has excellent writing. C'mon, you can't sit there and say that having a cartoon character remark "Pronoun trouble" and having it make sense is only intended for kids.

Back to my main point. The only way a special that originally aired in 1966 could keep my attention would be if the humor is timeless. I'll expound on this if I can just switch into Hyper-Analytic mode...(grinding gears) (clunk). There. Here is how the humor is timeless, aside from the mere fact that it's Peanuts:
  • Humor of repetition. One of the rules of comedy is that if you can find something that makes people laugh, you may as well try repeating it. Don't repeat jokes that primarily rely on surprise; it won't work, and you'll appear to be trying too hard. Most people have a finite tolerance for nonlinear humor. For instance, Aqua Teen Hunger Force cartoons start to annoy me after a couple of minutes. Charlie Brown getting a rock at each house, on the other hand, works so well that the four words "I got a rock" are now funny even out of context. Breaking up the repetitions with other kids exclaiming what they got (not rocks) effectively makes Charlie Brown's repetition stand out more.
  • Visual humor. It pretty much goes without saying that references to current events can be mined for funny lines or even skits. Just as obviously, such references aren't funny out of context. Jokes about current events become jokes about historical events in an alarmingly short time. Actually, any jokes that rely on a shared cultural context don't even make sense in other cultures in the same time period. However, humor based on what the audience is seeing seems to be more universal. Dancing Snoopy, other children using Charlie Brown's head as a pumpkin model, or Charlie Brown having trouble with the scissors doesn't require anything from the audience except the capability to react to sounds and sights. This also means that visual humor can amuse people of any intelligence level.
  • Tragic humor. Anyone with a shred of empathy probably feels some guilt about enjoying someone else's misfortune. If you want a fun word for this, you can refer to it as "schadenfreude", although "ferklempt" remains my personal favorite word borrowing from another language. The pettiness inside every person snickers whenever someone else endures tragedy. I think there's also some of this humor in "I got a rock". Charlie Brown is overjoyed after receiving a party invitation. Lucy explains that his name must have been on the wrong list. Linus persists in his rather self-destructive belief in the Great Pumpkin, so everyone else can make jokes at his expense. On a lighter note, Charlie Brown's recurring attempt to kick the football always seems to result in him falling on his back. Seeing people punished for false hope somehow just never gets old--ha ha, what a fool! Peanuts has to be the most depressing comic strip to ever hit the big time. Those who say that real kids aren't that cruel haven't seen enough groups of kids.
  • Humor about childhood. Kids don't think things through logically, and therefore stumble naturally into comical situations. Even better, they think they know more than they do. Having Linus say "I didn't know you were going to kill it!" when Lucy slices into their pumpkin is a childish thing to say (given how deeply Linus thinks on other occasions, I think there's some inconsistency here). Not necessarily because the pumpkin wasn't a living thing (it was), but because once the pumpkin is out of the patch, it's already dead, and in any case it doesn't experience pain. Jumping into a pile of leaves while eating sticky candy falls in the same category. Lucy's overreaction to accidentally kissing Snoopy also is a case of unwarranted childhood zeal. Snoopy's vivid journey into his own imagination is another childhood trait. This humor doesn't appeal to me as much as it might to others, seeing as how I didn't relate to kids even when I technically was one, but it's certainly timeless, at least in parts of the world where a peaceful childhood is still possible and until the damn dirty apes take over.
  • Reapplying old sayings. This kind of humor seems to be one of the identifying characteristics of Peanuts. For me at least, an overused saying is an overused saying, and none of the instances of this humor provoke more than a momentary smirk from me. It's even somewhat eerie to hear a kid say statements similar to "clearly, we are separated by denominational differences" or "the fury of a woman scorned is nothing compared to the fury of a woman has been cheated out of tricks-or-treats". Hearing kids complain about Christmas being too commercial, in another famous holiday special, also smacks of turning little kids into mouthpieces for adults. Creeeepy.
Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I have deep respect for any humor that manages to be timeless, in any medium. We can do far worse than introducing such works to future generations. Should probably wait until they reach a certain age before showing them Some Like It Hot, though.

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