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Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

What's the lesson here?
For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her.

The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.  Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The first football gag is quite a bit different from what it would turn into later.  Violet pulls the football away as Charlie Brown comes to kick it, but only because she’s afraid he’ll kick her hand when he kicks the football.  It’s not a mean or malicious act, but it’s still a good gag.

November 14, 1951: the first football gag.
The next year, the gag makes its second appearance, which is the first time Lucy is holding the ball.  A casual reader of the strip might think Lucy just doesn’t know what she’s doing, and that her reactions are simply honest misjudgements.  But regular readers would already know that Lucy loved playing tricks on people, especially Charlie Brown, who always fell for them.

Peanuts, November 16, 1952 - the second football gag, and Lucy’s first.

The gag disappeared for a few years, reappearing in 1956, and again appearing every year (except 1985) until 1999, the strip’s final full year.  Schulz kept bringing it back, and the fans kept expecting it. 

You might think Charlie Brown would learn his lesson, that Lucy is just going to keep pulling the same trick every year.  To his credit, he does realize it.  As the years wore on, the football gag strips usually opened with a jaded Charlie Brown talking about how he’s not going to fall for it this time, that he finally knows better, no matter what Lucy promises.  He always winds up trying anyway.  It’s not that he’s dumb; Schulz never suggests such a thing.  There are two elements that keep the gag working.  One is how persistent and persuasive Lucy is—she has a knack for convincing people to do anything.

The other element that keeps the gag afloat is Charlie Brown’s native trust and optimism.  This theme is basic to his character, and it persists throughout the strip.  Much of what Charlie Brown tries to do in life consistently goes wrong, but we always see him working hard to succeed, and we hear him talking about how he believes that this time, finally, things are going to break his way.  They never do, so he has no evidence that he can succeed, but he believes it anyway.

Peanuts, October 4, 1964 - it’s not like Charlie Brown doesn’t see it coming.

This aspect of Charlie Brown’s character bothered a number of fans of the strip.  Charles Schulz got plenty of letters urging him to let Charlie Brown finally kick the football, finally win a baseball game, finally kiss the little red-haired girl he had a long-standing crush on.  Schulz wouldn’t do it.  It’s not that Schulz’s stand didn’t cause himself any pain.  After Schulz finished drawing the last Peanuts strip in 1999, he expressed some sadness that he’d never done a strip where Charlie Brown kicked the football.  But still he held his ground, saying that if he had, it would have done “a disservice to the character”.  In that way, Charlie Brown ultimately won: he carried the message that no matter how much you might deserve to win, and no matter how many times you try, failure is still going to be possible.  This is a hard truth that might be uncomfortable to embrace, but it does show that if you do succeed, that success was never a foregone conclusion, so trying is worth the pain.  (I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that in the last decade of the strip, Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl, named Peggy Jean, did wind up as a couple, but in the end, true to form, she dumped him.)

The football gag resonated, and continues to resonate, with readers probably because of the way Charlie Brown presses on with his trust and optimism.  It’s this kind of hope that we need to make it through the day, even when have no reason to expect things will go our way.  Schulz doesn’t condescend to us with half measures, suggesting that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  That’s not his point.  His point is that there’s something about hope that makes us human, and that hope will always push through to even the most jaded souls.  It’s certain and it’s guaranteed that this will happen—but success is never guaranteed.

The football gag has been adopted as a metaphor outside the strip.  The reference has made its way into the American vocabulary, even though the last Peanuts strip ran nearly twenty years ago.


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