RUNNING GAG: A scene from the forthcoming feature film “The Peanuts Movie.” (courtesy of 20th Century Fox and Peanuts Worldwide)

 

CHARLIE BROWN taught me early on that playing football could be psychologically painful. But it wasn’t until I stood right-smack on an NFL sideline, and heard a San Diego Chargers quarterback get blindsided in a crunch of shoulder pads and grunts, did I “feel” the pain just by watching it from mere yards away.

In his beloved “Peanuts” strip, Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz somehow cushioned the blow of Charlie Brown’s falling yet again for Lucy’s pulled-football gag. Something about the flowing motion lines and the exaggerated pratfall, punctuated by a large-type “WHOMP!”, made the “physical” experience bearable, even comedic — even as the ever-determined kicker’s pride was once again sacked.

When this stock “Peanuts” scene first needed to be adapted to the screen, however, whole new challenges entered the game.

“Well, it looked a lot less painful in the comic strip than when it had to be animated ” Lee Mendelson, the longtime Emmy-winning producer of the “Peanuts” TV specials, tells The Post’s Comic Riffs of the gag, which debuted in 1951 (and a year later featured Lucy). Animator “Bill Melendez tried to make it as gentle as possible, but there is still the inevitable crash.”

The first "Peanuts" strip to feature Lucy in the football gag, from Nov. 16, 1952. (courtesy of Peanuts Worldwide/UFS)
The first “Peanuts” strip to feature Lucy in the football gag, from Nov. 16, 1952. (courtesy of Peanuts Worldwide/UFS)

 

One technique was to use the music, and the sound effects, to ease our pain, if not Charlie Brown’s. A little percussion could assuage any worries about a concussion.

“The music always served as a counterpoint to the business, including the football pulls,” Mendelson tells Comic Riffs. “Yes, the gentle West Coast jazz of [Vince] Guaraldi was always a calming influence” — meaning that in animation, at least, perhaps Guaraldi was the true innovator of a “West Coast offense” built on timing and rhythm. (Side note: That’s said with a nod to innovative coach and should-be NFL Hall of Famer Don Coryell, who stalked that Charger sideline the day I was there.)

Another reason the football-pull scenario works so well comedically is the context for which it became, quite literally, a running joke. The dynamics of the build-up and the repeated big moment unfailingly reflect the true natures of Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt (that psychological trickster who — good grief! — forever holds his deflated fate in her hands).

“Many fans were sure that eventually, Charlie Brown was going to kick the football, but he just kept missing it again and again, for over half a century,” says Mendelson, who on Saturday evening received the esteemed Winsor McCay award from his animation peers during the Annie Awards ceremony at UCLA’s Royce Hall. His decades of producing animation specials starring the characters from “Peanuts,” “Cathy” and “Garfield” have yielded him 20 Emmy nominations and five wins.

One of those nods was for 1973’s “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” On Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL will reportedly air the pulled-football scene from that special.

Also during Super Bowl weekend, a new image of a soaring Charlie Brown — having yet again missed the football after nearly 65 years of optimistic run-ups — was released by the filmmakers behind “The Peanuts Movie,” which is due out Nov. 6 (as our hard-luck hero hurtles toward another Thanksgiving effort).

The still from the 3-D CG-animated film — from Paul Feig, Steve Martino and Cornelius Uliano, as well as the strip creator’s next two generations, Craig Schulz and Bryan Schulz — retains the warmth and even the jagged motion lines of the comic.

Also safely channeled in that image is the never-say-die soul of Charlie Brown.

“He was, and is,” says Mendelson, “the ultimate survivor in overcoming bulliness — Lucy or otherwise.”


“WARPED” by MICHAEL CAVNA (2000 United Feature Syndicate / Lew Little Enterprises)

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