Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and the Football

One of the longest, and arguably, most infuriating, running gags in Charles Schulz's otherwise brilliant Peanuts comic strip, is where Lucy promises to hold a football for Charlie Brown and then pulls it away at the last minute, causing Charlie Brown to fall flat on his back. A typical strip looks like this:

Source: Go Comics

The gag is one of the darker themes in the strip. It works on the concept that every year, Lucy promises to hold a football for Charlie Brown. Every year, Charlie Brown is initially filled with doubt but is eventually pushed on by a kind of optimism that perhaps, this time, Lucy might just let him kick it after all. As a metaphor for life, it is pretty simple. It talks of the moments when we choose to put our trust in people who have let us down only to be taken by surprise when they let us down, again. Lucy is, arguably, one of the crueller characters in the comic. Described as crabby by the other characters, she is often selfish, takes delight in wilfully hurting others, particularly Charlie Brown and her younger brother, Linus, and rarely expresses any kind of guilt for her actions. Lucy is a classic antagonist, though Schulz doesn't let her completely get away with it. Her feelings for Schroder don't just go unreturned, she remains steadfastly oblivious when he gives her an outright no. She is often taunted by Snoopy, who uses kindness as a means of harassment, and in the baseball strips, she is one of the few characters who is even worse at the game than Charlie Brown, often relegated to the part of their suburban block where her lack of sporting prowess can do the least amount of harm.

And despite this, the Lucy football comics still bug me more than any of the other running gags.

I think this is because we've all been there. We've all been Charlie Brown at one point or another, putting faith in the idea that people are intrinsically good, that we're not being set up, even when the evidence points to the opposite. The final panel in the strip always perfectly showcases Lucy's glee at Charlie Brown's humiliation. It is at this moment that I really feel for the poor guy. (You know, in spite of the fact that he is a mere comic book character and not an actual human in front of me.) And it probably has something to do with the fact that humiliation is one of the hardest emotions for people to process and deal with. And not only in the comic are we seeing a character suffering through that experience, we're also seeing another gain joy from inflicting that pain on another. And we're seeing it played out in a comic that is fairly innocent in its meditations on various parts of philosophy and spirituality, contains no adult characters and is often read and enjoyed by children. There's a sting in there. On the other hand, by virtue of the fact that we've all been Charlie Brown, we also find a kind of salvation in the comic, in the knowledge that if someone out there not only took the time to put pen to paper, but to create a whole running gag about an innocent kid being humiliated by someone who gets away with it, then chances are, humiliation is a fairly universal experience. And by Lucy repeatedly pulling the football away, again and again, we are reminded that we are not alone.


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