One of my college professors came into class one day and asked us what we thought about Charlie Brown—or rather she asked so that she could tell us what she thought about Charlie Brown. She wondered why they never had an adult actually speak in the cartoons, but instead have a trombone in place of a voice. She accused Schulz of undercutting the authority of adults, suggesting that kids shouldn’t listen to their parents. At first, I was frustrated and vexed how she could get that out of Schulz’s classic and got defensive like a starving artist exhibiting pieces for snooty critics. But then I thought about it more: she was absolutely right. Charles Schulz meant to say we shouldn’t listen to our parents.
A defining characteristic of Charlie Brown is the music Schulz used for his cartoons, jazz from a musician named Vince Guaraldi, whose theme song is rated as one of the most recognized melodies in all of music history. It’s easy to see how unique a choice this is when you think about how many other cartoons have jazz playing throughout: slim to none.
To me, jazz is the expression of originality in response to the struggles of daily life and the historical legacies that shape our identities. It’s steeped in the personal pain of the blues and strives for a reinvention of the world. Vince Guaraldi and the jazz backdrop to Charlie Brown express a twist on conventional songs and locate themselves in this blues tradition. The message seems to say: things were bad then, are bad now, but could be so much better tomorrow.
Charlie Brown’s sad condition within his group of “friends” reflects Guaraldi’s jazz impulse as Chuck weathers days of loneliness and constant disparagement with brief, but hopeful moments of optimism for the future. I truly feel for him and hope that he’s going to get a valentine on Valentine’s Day or he’s going to succeed in directing the Christmas play, but I’m always struck by how adult his plight comes across.
Charles Schultz’s cartoon takes children and gives them the knowledge of adulthood to create comedic irony similar to those “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” shows, but it also works as a poignant reminder how easily we lose the wonderment of life we felt as children and become jaded. We hear Lucy spouting brutal realism to her brother Linus and we feel the hot rush of anger directed at Charlie Brown, the blockhead who bought such a puny tree for Christmas, and we feel sad that these kids can’t just enjoy the little things.
This is Schulz’s main theme through all of his cartoon classics: the world of adults is buried in responsibility and consumerism, a rat race to be the first to reach some imaginary block of cheese at the end of the maze, while there is wonder and beauty under our noses going unnoticed. This is why we never hear an adult voice in his cartoons, but rather the drone of a muted trombone; he doesn’t want to taint the world of children with the cynicism of adulthood.
So, yes, my professor was right. Charlie Brown intentionally excludes adults from its story in order to say, “Don’t change too fast, don’t let life make you too jaded and always try to catch the first snowflake of the year on your tongue—even if it needs sugar.”