When Charles Schulz first devised his running holiday gags involving an eager child’s confused blending of Halloween and Christmas in October 1959, he never dreamed that the myth of the Great Pumpkin would become one of the most beloved and amusing elements of the Fall holidays. Like so many landmark Peanuts routines, what began as a simple joke about a seemingly quaint misunderstanding would eventually grow to sizable proportions throughout the decades, producing a number of memorable antics as well as some particularly pointed commentary on the values and risks of personal perseverance and popular scorn.
Five of the first seven “Great Pumpkin” strips reveal Linus Van Pelt spreading the joyful gospel that will eventually leave him humiliated as “a victim of false doctrine.”
From then on, Schulz deftly milked the joke every season, focusing mainly on Linus’ unsinkable faith in his own personal legend of a charitable pumpkin-claus who brings toys and treats to good little kiddos awaiting his arrival in the truest, most earnest, and sincere pumpkin patch nestled somewhere in the Great American breadbasket. Playing harbinger to his Halloween hero, Linus’ tone could shift from zealous and prophetic to desperate and dejected, but still he spoke his truth and believed always in his misfit vision of the holiday. Now his legend is ours as well.
Of course the 1966 TV special, one of many award-winning adaptations that launched Schulz’s Peanuts gang to worldwide fame, would provide the most resonant and popular of all Great Pumpkin routines. Culled largely from the comic strips, and lovingly tweaked for television by Schulz himself and long-time producer, Bill Melendez, the CBS special, like its Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter counterparts, became a seminal element of American holiday media, and its yearly broadcast remains a beloved tradition shared by generations of viewers and fans. It’s safe to say that, ironically, much of the media-driven world now sits eagerly each year with Linus in his pumpkin patch.
Like Schulz’s tree-eating kite, Charlie Brown and Lucy’s perennial football foibles, and the poor Peanuts kids’ eternal inability to win baseball games – Linus’ yearly disappointment after the Great Pumpkin’s failure to appear makes grand, operatic comedy of frustration and regret. Linus’ agony over another year wasted, his sister’s disgust at her little brother’s unshakable delusion, Snoopy’s perpetual knack for appearing at just the right time to give the poor languishing martyr some hope, and especially smitten Sally’s endless threats of litigation and restitution for a night’s worth of lost candy all frame the Great Pumpkin as a fairly piquant allegory of the complexities of faith, fun, and friendship in America.
“Get your cape on, and let’s take flight! We can be who we like!” – DC Super Hero Girls theme song.
My daughter is a Caped Crusader.
Even in her toddler phase, she always preferred colorful costumes and cataclysmic combat over Barbification or Dora-mania. Yet, as far as we can tell from her second grade peers and pals, she is not a “geek” or a “mean girl.” She’s not a tomboy either, since prim princesses and personified ponies and adamantly American Girls and absolutely anything related to Alex Morgan all fill a good quotient of her 8-year old day. She does quite well in school, just completed her First Communion, plays two sports with aplomb, and has recently survived her first ear piercings, not to mention a fairly brutal soccer-smashed fibula.
Yet, when she really wants to cut loose and get her missy mojo working, she always turns to cosplay. Over the years, she has done turns as Super-girl, Maleficent, Frozen‘s Queen Elsa (Elsa is, ironically, her actual name!) and Leia Organa, but her more recent repertoire includes Batgirl, the Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and most especially of late, Cat Woman and Agent Carter.
She is hardly alone among her age group in her inclinations toward super-couture, and believe it or not, neither Mom nor I have had much influence on her passionate attraction to wonder-duds. In fact, there isn’t much superhero merch about the house beyond my basement hobbit hole of a Media Studies library. Nor are we a particularly super-duper family, aside from fond memories of the original Super Friends and the occasional spontaneous viewings of The Incredibles or Big Hero 6. For further proof, just ask my 10 year-old son, who completely skipped over all of the superhero genres and contexts that fascinated many of his friends. From his earlest safaris around our home, he has always favored scouts, birding, tennis, and baseball. So super-stuff abides in our lives, but it does not beckon, inundate, or restrict our offspring’s access to other forms of generally pleasant and genuinely good-hearted American middle class fun. Still, on her own time and in her own mind, my daughter is definitely a Super Hero Girl.
In his 19 February review of Tim Miller’s Deadpool, Entertainment Weekly critic, Chris Nashawaty likens Hollywood’s current love affair with comic-book franchises to a “superhero-industrial complex.” Though the first adaptations of comic-book dash and drama had great promise, the entire enterprise has become “so monolithic and profitable” and flatly predictable that even die-hard fans of caped crusaders and marvelous mutants now shudder when expanded cross-overs, bloated sequels, and generic spin-offs are announced at Comic Con, the newly anointed Official Corporate Sphincter of mainstream Pop-aganda.
Eight years earlier, in the prescient and personal “Why I Hate Superheroes,” Nashawaty himself warned of the coming deluge of masked miscreants in his fond homage to pre-blockbuster “Nerdvana,” an earlier, innocent age when “no one had heard of Comic-Con yet and there were movies for everyone” during the season of big, brash air-conditioned escapism. That cogent, cautionary tale warned of the cultural fallout from the phenomenal success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and its “endless 121 minutes” of “F/X eye candy” which “couldn’t have looked more bogus.” Nashawaty well knew, as did many others, that the prepackaged, high concept gloss of comic-book properties would soon admit ravenous Hollywood wolves into the fairly cultish, sheltered shires that were home to quaint communities of comics, cards, cosplay, and role playing fans: “It felt like every studio head in town, itching to wet his or her beak with Spider-Man’s box office backwash, was trotting out any half-baked comic-book flick that had been pitched across their desks: even the ones with C-list avengers like Daredevil, The Punisher, and Ghost Rider. No superhero was too minor or crappy to be pulled out of the mothballs, tarted up, slapped on the ass, and turned into a bloated summer movie.” In the annals of American culture, few harbingers have been as accurate in their dire predictions.
Now, in 2016, what the New York Times conceives as an “incessantly expanding comic book movie universe” shows absolutely no signs of slowing down its quantum mechanics. Some trends are truly exciting, especially in terms of comedy and humor. James Gunn’s goofy space oddity, Guardians of the Galaxy , ABC’s Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. , and even the CW’s Arrow and The Flash, Fox’s Gotham, and CBS’ Supergirl all offer a variety of fairly rewarding courses in caped comedy. Even dour concepts like Daredevil and the Punisher have been resuscitated and paired into one of the most anticipated Netflix series yet. Both Ant-Man and Aqua-man, hilariously satirized as fairly ridiculous properties by Nasthawaty in 2008, are well on their way to crowd-pleasing marquee magnetism, and we are bracing for the arrival of hordes of new super-flicks and costume-centered franchises well beyond 2018.
“If something is really important, keep it in your underpants.” -Mindy Thomas, aka Absolutely Mindy, on Kids Place Live, Sirius XM
With all of the hyper-political parody and cunning satire currently churning through every jaded channel of irate idiot boxes and addled adult podcasts, perhaps its time to take a moment to appreciate a very different kind of humor that has been quietly, but quickly reshaping the way that many American kids and their families laugh, learn, and listen to the world around them.
Meet Mindy Thomas, the magnetic maestro behind Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live programming and the utterly enchanting spirit of early morning mayhem. As Absolutely Mindy, she helms the largely under-recognized Backseat Breakfast Club morning show on Sirius Channel 78.
The satellite radio industry has raised its fair share of eyebrows in recent years, with subscription fees, corporate mergers, and complex debates about markets and musical rights all tied to a medium that once represented the technological equivalent of free public speech. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, a number of exciting new outlets for all sorts of humor have arisen on a variety of satellite channels.
Among the most innovative and enjoyable of these forums is Kids Place Live, a channel devoted to family-friendly, G-rated kids programming that continues to surprise and delight with its frequently clever and often hilarious cast of affable characters and personalities.
More importantly, Kids Place Live has almost single-handedly inspired an explosion of diverse, dynamic children’s entertainment that rips through established genres and conventions with astonishing force. In fact, Kids Place Live has brought safe, fun, and rewarding radio back to children in ways that other interests, from Disney to NPR, could never quite muster. Not since the fabled days of The Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and Let’s Pretend has kids’ radio been so fun, loud, and different.
Mindy Thomas, Sirius’ perky princess of screwiness, is a revelation of light-hearted, pixie-dusted glee and her affable address to both kids and adults is laced with a beaming, witty joy that captures both the thrilling wonder and the insistent anarchy of childhood.
Billed on the Sirius website as “a carousel of non-stop nuttiness,” Mindy’s Backseat Breakfast Club has inspired a newly imagined community of young listeners and bemused parents nationwide. Beginning at 7 am, carloads of freshly caffeinated drivers and briskly brushed offspring tune in to Mindy, sharing those last precious minutes of freedom and frolic before harsh institutional realities come crashing down with the dreaded school drop-off or deadlocked morning commute.
Not all parents are fans, and that’s just fine, but there is no denying Mindy’s intimate understanding of what makes children smile. More often than not, she takes her kooky cues from kids’ own tastes and preferences. Potty humor and “Grosser than Gross” routines are common, but so are lengthy interviews with musicians, poets, and artists. Among her audience favorites are the outrageous “Birthday Missions” announced each morning in tandem with the Mission:Impossible theme and the “Breakfast Blasts Newscasts” featuring hilarious but relevant commentary from NPR’s Guy Raz. Frequent guest appearances by her own kids, tall tales about her mobile home loving parents, and outrageous tales of the misadventures of devoted hubby, Absolutely Mister, are all loaded with mirth and mayhem. To balance out the bedlam, the Absolutely Mindy Show also features its fair share of routine “healthy lifestyle” advice done up in wacky wrapping. These include Kira Willey’s “Seatbelt Yoga Breaks” and the always astute book reviews by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author of the early readers’ Lunchlady graphic novel series.
Most importantly, though, Mindy and her media celebrate one primary theme: the limitless fun of Play. Calling on all listeners to mess around with everyday life as imaginatively and enthusiastically as possible, Absolutely Mindy constantly celebrates the multitude of benefits, inventions, and discoveries that arise from enjoying the world around us. She urges callers of all ages and listeners of every region to try new things, share wild adventures, and, even more frequently, admit to embarrassing fears, failures, and mistakes that may somehow limit their fun. Many of the most amusing stories from excited callers are accompanied by a background of adult groans, chuckles, and gasps. Of course, similar themes of fun and frantic comedy run through the shows hosted by Mindy’s collaborators, including Jack Forman’s Monkey House and Kenny Curtis’ neurotic menagerie, the Animal Farm. In fact, Lorenzo the haphephobic llama has become something of a super-star equal to Bugs Bunny, Sponge Bob, or Rainbow Dash in the eyes of my own children and their friends.
Music itself has changed thanks to Mindy and her maniacal crew. Screwball songs like Mike Phirman’s hilarious “Who Makes the Breakfast?”, Joe McDermott’s “Kitty Fight,” and Andrew & Polly’s ridiculously catchy “Grapes” are now as familiar and famous among the playgroup set as Katy Perry hits or Disney tunes.
Sure, Frozen‘s “Let it Go!” and Vanilla Ice’s tepid Teenage Turtle anthem are constantly reiterated to the delight of gazillions of kid listeners, but so are charming tracks like Kristin Andreassen’s little known marvel, “Crayola Doesn’t Make a Color for Your Eyes” and Chris Rice’s “Billy Joe MacGuffrey.” Longtime star of the children’s charts, Laurie Berkner has hosted her own Kids Place Live feature as have the Aussie imports, the Wiggles. Dozens of wonderful new bands, acts, and comedians have found broad and eager new audiences through Kids Place Live’s lollapalooza of songs, games, and skits including the popular Story Pirates, who ‘steal” the concepts for their zany plays from submissions by child listeners. Among the most engaging musical offerings are bands like Lunch Money, The Pop Ups, Mista Cookie Jar, Jazzy Ash, and Joanie Leeds. Most importantly for my own family, though, Absolutely Mindy’s marvelous mixture of the eclectic and the iconic brought us all in touch with the remarkably fresh and environmentally empowering, Grammy-winning songs of the Okee Dokee Brothers, a goofy Bluegrass comedy duo whose rich folksy anthems have forever sealed our family’s commitment to getting outside and explore the natural wonders of the nation.
Mindy’s circus of sound, speech, and song on Kids Place Live might not delight every parent with its raucous address. The Backseat Breakfast Club will not speak to those adults who are too entwined within the sour spin machine of Bill Maher/Jamie Oliver/Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart, or whatever splendorous smarm Andy Cohen and Jimmy Fallon hover over at the moment. What it does do, however, is keep us interested in the endless potential of childhood fun, wonder, and happiness. When so much contemporary comedy is as factional, contentious, and combative as can be, the Absolutely Mindy Show is alive with mischievous innocence and family-focused frenzy. Now, that’s magic well worth keeping in your underpants!
Somewhere amidst all of the Superbowl spectacle, Valentine’s spooning, St Patrick’s Day carousing, Passover reflection, V-Day agitation, and Lenten abstention, a strange and somewhat sleazy new trend reached its zenith, crested, and then settled down to a steady, new buzz within our national pysche. This slightly awkward, insistently uncomfortable climax was, of course, the highly engorged premiere, ritual critical circumcision, and premature box office depletion of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Hollywood adaptation of the opening rounds of E.L James’ titillating trilogy of triage, 50 Shades of Grey.
Though the film opened to sold-out shows on that raciest of all holiday weekends, The Guardian has more or less summed up its econo-sexual stamina down the stretch: “Dramatic plunges from its opening weekend – -73% in the US (one of the largest falls on record) and -57% overseas – suggest that it has already exhausted its core audience, the EL James faithful, let alone any casuals pulled in by the furor… Prospects-wise, Fifty Shades is no Avatar, which did a game-changing six consecutive $100+ overseas weekends – this is strict box-office wham-bam-thank-you-sir.” In short, Fifty Shades will probably come to signify the most high profile case in a very familiar syndrome that plagues America’s reactions to the uses of explicit sexuality and erotica in entertainments of all sorts.
The fact that 50 Shades – a sadomasochistic fantasy rooted in the “therapeutic” cruelty of an enigmatic, aloof tycoon and his sweet, little ingenue-cum-whipping post – has commanded such attention in all of its forms is fascinating, sensational, and like most such phenomena, a little bit sad.
Now, please don’t grab the ball-gag yet. It’s not that I disapprove of anything as exciting as a randy trilogy of explicit sexcapades that has somehow infiltrated the shelves of every major warehouse store, supermarket, airport stationer, and nightstand in the nation. Quite to the contrary, as Leslie Bennetts observes in her Entertainment Weekly feature on the 50 Shades phenomenon, “None of us will ever know how many orgasms Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired, or how much marital boredom it’s enlivened with vaginal balls and riding crops, but its impact is incalculable far beyond the bedroom.” Far be it from me to poo-poo anything that has so vehemently and profitably fueled the free world’s sex drive. Again, Bennetts provides us with some startling numbers: “Since the first volume of E L James’ S&M trilogy was published in 2011, the books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages. From the Bible to the Harry Potter series, only a handful of books have ever racked up such numbers, and no previous work of pornography has captured the erotic imagination of so many women.”
There has been more than enough curmudgeonly commentary, critique, and conflict revolving around both James’ pseudo-Sado-fiction and Taylor-Johnson’s darkly lit film. Quite honestly, the segments I read from James’ work do their job as adequately as any other artifact of arousal probably should. If you push the right narrative buttons involving suggestion, anticipation, and seduction, in nearly any order, the usual explosive results are pretty much inevitable. Or as as EW’s Lisa Schwartzbaum observes, “James may not be much of a prose stylist, but she can write an effectively dirty, hot, easy-to-read, complicated-to-accessorize sex scene when she puts her mind to it. James throws in descriptions of bondage, submission, foreplay, cosmic orgasms, private helicopters, and fine white wine. And minus the boring bits about private helicopters and tedious wine -sipping, it’s all tatty, arousing fun.” I also admit that I have not yet seen the now largely panned film adaptation, though I will probably give it a go eons after its original shock have faded through Sisyphean runs on late night cable.
I have no qualm or quarrel with the book that launched a tsunami of coital clashes, or the movie that looks like it does its best to somehow make romance out of punishing, joyless, sexual violence. No, my gripe has nothing to do with 50 Shades‘ explicitness, triteness, or brutality, though I generally prefer more actual pleasure in my private reading and personal media consumption. I am more disappointed in the simple fact that every authorized rendition of the dirty dalliances of Mr. Grey and Ms. Steele seems to lack any iota of (intentional) humor, joy, or playfulness. With all of that role play, kinky couture, and so very many scandalous props and toys, shouldn’t there be at least one non-literal gag to enjoy? Wouldn’t some part of James’ great teasing Trilogy of Tight-Knottedness celebrate the incredibly transgressive, inscrutable, unstoppable FUN of sexual experiment and erotic excitement?
Where are the farcical phallic jokes? The sloppy puns? The slippery entendres and sassy pillow talks? Where, for heaven’s sake, is the great comedy of busy bodies falling across each other in exciting ridiculous ways? We don’t really seem to mind what’s missing either. Instead of getting hot and bothered by great sex between good people, readers and audiences are more entranced by a stiff (groaning pun intended) and icy erotic aesthetic that might be best classified as “Brain Dead Sexy.” Where is the sex farce and satyr play? Where are the May Day mummers and hot-blooded courtesans? Couldn’t Anastasia find better, more vibrant, and more virile company at Ridgemont High and wouldn’t Sob Sister Christian find riskier business during a quick power lunch at Porky’s? More importantly, wouldn’t we all?
For the time being, 50 Shades of Grey has brought sexually intimate fiction, erotically charged art, and “pervy” non-normative forms of sexual activity and exploration into the mainstream. If there is any greater “good” that could arise from Mr. Grey’s holsters, harnesses, and harangues, it is probably the widespread lessening of our national provincialism, righteous rigidity, and pervasive hypocrisy concerning the role that sexual pleasure, erotic performance, and perverse fetishes may have in our culture and our lives. But shouldn’t humor play a leading part in that voluptuous victory of good clean vice over venal virtue? Don’t we need the aggression and anarchy of comedy to satisfy our healthy sexual hungers? Whither wag our winsome willies and why do we seem to prefer them when they are locked away in Castle Greyskull or grimly sheathed in Steele? Wouldn’t it be more fun for everyone involved to just share the warmth of some good old fashioned American cherry, apple, or banana cream pie?
Je suis Charlie Hebdo, et aussi Michel Brown, et aussi Darren Wilson et aussi… As Teresa Prados-Torreira recently observed in this space, the last month has seen an international slurry of reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre from outraged officials, scampering journalists, erstwhile academics, dedicated peace-keepers, and, of course, the international community of artists, cartoonists, and satirists. Prados-Torreira astutely summarizes in her 20 January post, “at first glance, it seems obvious that the answer to this dilemma should be a wholehearted affirmation of the need to stand in solidarity with the French magazine, with the murdered cartoonists, and in support of free speech. But the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, their irreverent depiction of Mohammed and Muslims, have resulted in a cascade of critical essays online and elsewhere.”
Many have since noted that, for interpreters within and beyond French culture, the magazine’s scabrous treatment of all things sacred and sanctified could be labelled either courageous or irresponsible depending upon personal preference. One thing is certain, though, Charlie Hebdo was rarely, if ever, about discretion. Even more interestingly, a new angle on the extensive media coverage of the attacks has taken shape that inquires as to why the tragic murder of several talented artists has become, either incidentally or on purpose, a larger global issue and a much more public and popular rallying point than the rampant cruelties taking place in Nigeria involving Boko Haram?
Even more interestingly, we have to admit that slander, satire, and ridicule of Arabs, Muslims, and Islam are hardly rare in America mainstream culture. Consider the skirmishes that erupted over the years surrounding Johnny Hart’s abuse of Islamic and Judaic symbols in several episodes of his comic strip, B.C., especially the “potty humor” episode that fused the sacred icons of Islam with the half-moon of an outhouse door. Is this not Charlie Hebdo territory? With the rhetorical avalanche surrounding Charlie Hebdo just beginning to settle, we might wonder if any more discussion could possibly serve to alleviate the tension, fear, and uncertainty that has seemingly spread across an outraged global public.
It’s a very fair question, but instead, I would like use the terror attacks in France, and their subsequent influence, to explore a few more local and personal concerns about the deploying of satire, the power of cartoons, and the often unexpected inaccuracies of visual wit. Since the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several inspiring statements of solidarity and strength in support of free speech and equal opportunity insult, most notably including the great public demonstrations in Paris, throughout France, and across the world.
Can there ever be a more heartening and honest sign that humor – especially in its most relentless, hostile form – deserves our attention, respect, and scrutiny? There have also been a wide variety of high profile reactions and commentaries throughout the intellectual honeycomb of bloggers, critics, and scholars. Much has been made of Joe Sacco’s somewhat disappointing Guardian catechism “On Satire.” Important statements have also arisen from doyens of provocative comics including Art Spiegelman, Keith Knight (who produced two suitably irreverent texts from very different perspectives), and Steve Benson, among many, many others. Scholars also have contributed valuable and sometimes revelatory insight into the complex legacy of French cartooning and its contribution to both Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies and the violent reactions that it frequently instigated. Bart Beaty and Mark McKinney have offered reasoned and informative assessments that went largely ignored in the media frenzy following the attacks. Even richer and more comprehensive studies of the violent potential of editorial cartooning have also arisen from astute historians like Paul Tumey and Jeffrey Trexler. Cartoonists, of course, have been at the vanguard of the fight for freedom of speech, recognition, and reaction. From the very moment that news of the attack broke in France, powerful responses like this one were quickly finding their way around the world’s webs.
As the first snows of December drift across my South St Louis windows, and the last shards of Thanksgiving turkey find their way into the requisite casseroles, cold cuts, and cauldrons of stock, I find myself harkening back to early Advent Sundays of yore.
My childhood, like so many others, was loaded with the humor of the holidays, but one of my family’s favorite traditions always tended in a more marsupial direction. So if you’ie got some time between mixing tubs of “Tom and Jerry” and trimming the tree, I’d like to share one of many meaningful excursions through the absurd quadrants of kiddie Christmas culture.
As I boy growing up in Detroit in the 1970s, I loved watching my mother collapse the last of her gargantuan Thanksgiving feast into a few impossibly crammed Tupperware containers and stuff the serving platters, gravy boats, and silver-plate cutlery away for their long sleep through the seasons until the following November.
While my father wrestled with the Christmas tree and cursed our cat as it grinned Cheshire-style from the upper branches, my mother would softly sing carols to herself or hum along to the holiday classics on the kitchen radio. My family loved Christmas for many reasons – togetherness, food, faith, and even frantic shopping – but mostly we adored the way it gave rise to an unusual number of opportunities for great stories and copious laughter. Those post-Thanksgiving radio carols were our first inklings that more manic Christmas cheer would soon come rolling in on an eggnog tsunami of tinsel, gingerbread, Grinches, and Good Old Charlie Brown holiday specials.
Every year, though, one particular tune ran a bit askew of the more traditional standards. My mother was hardly a musical person. She could never carry a tune and she famously celebrated the destruction of our family piano, relishing the thought that she had saved her son from the miserable lessons she detested as a child. Yet, she loved Christmas music of all stripes, and one particularly eclectic ditty above all else.