My son Max rested his head on my shoulder and told me he was “really glad” I had asked him to lie there on our couch and watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”
I was happy to be there too.
We were cozy beneath a fleece blanket on a Sunday evening when the breath of the coming winter was heavy on the air.
Max is 8, which means for him the cadre of cartoon characters created by Charles M. Schulz, who died in 2000, are historical artifacts.
But the world of “Peanuts” is also timeless, the greatest testament, I think, to Schulz’s genius.
And so Max giggled at Snoopy’s antics, and at Charlie Brown’s clumsy attempt to cut two eyeholes in his bedsheet ghost costume, with the same carefree glee that I’m sure I displayed when I was his age.
I can’t think of a legacy to which I aspire more than Schulz’s — to conceive characters that delight each generation in its turn, that allow a father to see his own childhood reflected, briefly and poignantly, in his son’s smile.
To belabor the weather analogy, when I see the Peanuts gang on my TV, and I hear the jaunty jazzy melodies of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack, I feel as comforted and as reassured as when I step inside my house on a frigid night and am instantly enveloped by its warmth and its light.
I recognize this, of course, as nostalgia.
This is not always a reliable emotion — which is to say, we sometimes recall distant events with much greater fondness than we felt while they were happening.
But in the case of the “Peanuts” television specials I have no such reservations. My affinity for these programs is the genuine article, neither embellished nor, more importantly, diminished by the passage of years.
There are more than half a dozen of these but to me the collection is defined by a classic trio, two of which predate my birth — “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which originally aired on Dec. 9, 1965, and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” which premiered on Oct. 27, 1966.
The third, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” debuted on Nov. 20, 1973, a couple months after my third birthday.
These are the shows we watched every fall as I was growing up, their sequence as reliable as the shifting colors of the leaves, each as integral to its holiday as the soft, mouth-watering thud of a miniature candy bar tossed into a plastic pumpkin, or the glinting of colored twinkle lights on glass Christmas tree ornaments.
As an adult I haven’t watched all three specials every year.
But most autumns, it seems to me, on at least one evening I ended up with a remote control in hand, sifting through the digital menu and seeing “Charlie Brown” and feeling the same little thrill as I do when I come across a friend whose face I see only occasionally but always with relish.
Such was the case on the Sunday before Halloween when I shared a sofa cushion with Max.
As we watched, it struck me how prescient Schulz was to recognize that cartoons, a genre that traditionally appealed largely if not solely to children, needn’t have so limited an audience.
When I was Max’s age I cherished these shows for their simple humor — a beagle as court jester (and World War I flying ace), a boy who clutches a blue blanket wherever he goes, a bossy older sister, a perpetually dirty kid accompanied always by his personal sandstorm.
But as an adult I recognize the sophistication of the script written by Schulz.
He understood, it seems to me, that adults would appreciate more sophisticated dialogue in the shows their kids insist on watching repeatedly. This approach has been ubiquitous in animated feature films over the past couple decades, crammed with jokes of the “kids won’t get it but adults will chuckle” variety.
But Schulz also instinctively realized that writers need not talk down to younger readers, or viewers.
His scripts for the Charlie Brown TV specials remind me, at least in this respect, of the similarly beloved novels of E.B. White — “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”
These are often described as “children’s novels” as though this renders them less serious works than novels which stand on their own, absent the adjective.
I think this is unfortunate, and not a little misleading.
White, who died in 1985, is far better known for that trio of novels than for his hundreds of essays published in the New Yorker and other magazines.
I’ve read most of White’s essays, and it’s a compilation of prose that to my ear is unmatched in quality. I’ve also read the three aforementioned novels, and I see (and hear) in them the same inimitable quality that marks White’s nonfiction work.
Schulz demonstrates the same respect for his audience, no matter its average age.
I could cite examples from each of the three classic programs, but a couple from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” illustrate my point.
In an early scene, when Lucy is trying as always to cajole Charlie Brown into kicking a football she’s holding, Charlie, certain she’s going to yank the ball away at the last second, muses, in a very adult way but also one that younger viewers can intuit, that “I don’t mind your dishonesty half as much as I mind your opinion of me. You must think I’m stupid.”
Later, as she dons a witch mask, Lucy, who is known for her rather domineering personality, says, with the obvious sincerity of someone who doesn’t recognize her own foibles (which is to say, most of us): “A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality.”
I don’t know that Max quite grasped the joke; he didn’t remark on the scene, anyway.
But I appreciated the humor, and the quality of the writing that permeates the program and ensures its enduring relevance more than half a century on.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.