Every year since 1966, Halloween has begun with the same 10 words of indignation: “You didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!”
But the fact is, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” has indeed been killing it annually, every October. Your grandmother knows every word; your father has been watching it since he had a black-and-white TV; you can download it off iTunes, rent it or watch illegally on who knows how many websites. So, how does a 49-year-old hand-drawn animation special still top the ratings every year, year after year?
One simple reason: Everyone loves it. But no matter how many times you’ve watched Lucy pull the football away, Pig-Pen trick-or-treat in his dirty sheet and Snoopy go bobbing for apples, you may still be hungry for more. With that in mind, Zap2it presents a most sincere list of 10 Things You Don’t Know About “Great Pumpkin” — alongside the eternal hope that this year, at last, Linus will finally get his pumpkin patch picked.
No love for ‘Peanuts’
Charles M. Schulz spent 50 years writing “Peanuts,” and pretty much every day of that time hating the name. When the young artist sold his idea about precocious kids and a beagle to United Features Syndicate, a production manager submitted Schulz’s work alongside nine possible titles he had come up with: The last one, Peanuts, was chosen. “I don’t even like the word,” Schulz said in an interview years later, while constantly trying to get UPI to drop the name. “It’s not a nice word. It’s totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing, and has no dignity. And I think my humor has dignity.” As a result of his distaste, not a single animated special has the name Peanuts anywhere near it.
The Great Pumpkin
An all-powerful pumpkin that exists as Halloween’s equivalent of Santa Claus, The Great Pumpkin was first mentioned by Linus in a 1959 “Peanuts” strip. Over the next seven years, Schulz would tinker with the notion, using the Pumpkin as a way to joke about the frustrating, perhaps foolish nature of unconditional faith. Some interpreted the Pumpkin as a commentary on Christianity, Atheism or even existentialism, but Schulz was content to simply depict Linus’ comedic attempts to get his friends to come out with him and sing pumpkin carols.
Ciao, Charlie Brown!
In Italy, Halloween was largely an unknown holiday when Schulz introduced the Great Pumpkin concept. And so, the translations changed the character into something the Italians could more firmly grasp … a watermelon? For decades over there, Linus has been obsessed with Il Grande Cocomero, and it entered their pop culture to such a degree that in 1993 a filmmaker named Francesca Archibugi made a dramatic film with that title.
Want to see what Linus looks like nowadays? Earlier this year, “Great Pumpkin” producer Lee Mendelson received a lifetime achievement award in animation — presented by his sons Jason and Glenn — the latter of whom voiced Linus in “Pumpkin” and other early Charlie Brown specials. As Glenn introduces Linus, a new voiceover is placed on the famous “lights please?” scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The clip is as touching as it is fun to watch — keep your eyes peeled for the Fergie cameo.
Imitation is the sincerest flattery
All the big pop-culture-cartoons of the last several decades have seemingly paid tribute to Linus, Snoopy and the gang. “The Simpsons” used their 20th season “Treehouse of Horrors” to give viewers “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Milhouse!” with Lisa as Sally, Bart as Charlie Brown, Homer as Snoopy and of course, Milhouse as Linus. Seth Green’s “Robot Chicken” had a far more demented take on the animated classic, with the Great Pumpkin finally showing up and then eating the kids; the skit ended in a fiery hell with the gang doing their signature dance moves among flames.
A home run for Charlie Brown
Major League Baseball player Dan Johnson is a career .236 hitter who has bounced between eight teams and even spent some time in Japan; this past August, he was demoted to AAA. But Johnson is primarily known for his bright orange-red beard and his tendency to hit clutch home runs as the season changes to autumn. And so, he earned himself a nickname: The Great Pumpkin.
Keeping the pattern
Although “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was the third Peanuts special, it was the first to use the “Something something, Charlie Brown” title pattern. The show was such an immediate hit (drawing a 31.6 Nielsen rating) that producer/animator Bill Melendez and his team decided not to mess with perfection — and virtually every special afterwards from the obscure (“It’s the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown”) to the beloved (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) kept the titular pattern.
I got a rock!
In 1985, CBS aired a special called “It’s Your 20th Television Anniversary, Charlie Brown,” looking back on the success of the specials. Schulz said in an interview that when “Pumpkin” first aired people felt bad for Charlie Brown’s bad luck while trick-or-treating. In the weeks that followed, candy came in from all over the world “just for Charlie Brown.”
Lucy the TV star
How many times have you watched this special? Now, answer this question: After Linus writes his letter to the Great Pumpkin and walks into the living room, have you ever noticed who is on the cover of the TV Guide that Lucy is reading? It’s Lucy herself! Mind = Blown.
We Try Harder
If you’re under the age of 60, there’s a good chance that Linus’ “Perhaps you try harder” line flies right over your head like Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel. But in the ’60s, that joke killed — because audiences were quite familiar with an Avis rent-a-car campaign insisting that although they might not be as big as Hertz, their determination made up for it. The slogan hung on with diminishing returns for another few decades before being phased out in 2012.