David S. Pumpkins’ Continued Popularity Proves We’ll Always Love Zany Tom Hanks the Most
Tom Hanks has won two Oscars and been nominated for four others. He’s been one of Hollywood’s most consistently compelling dramatic actors. If there’s a current Mount Rushmore of America’s Most Trusted Celebrities, he’d be on it. And yet, despite all the acclaim he’s accrued over the years and the memorable roles he’s given us, in recent years, there’s one character that’s beloved above all others.
David S. Pumpkins.
Last night on Saturday Night Live, the bizarre, not-scary-at-all horror figure made his return, greeted by raucous cheering from the studio audience. This was actually Pumpkins’ third appearance on SNL — he previously popped up in a prerecorded skit in 2017 called “Rap Song,” in which he’s one of the invited guest MCs on a hip-hop track — but last night’s sketch was very similar to the original, which aired in October 2016. Once again, some people are doing a Halloween-themed spooky ride, only to be bewildered by the appearance of someone calling himself David S. Pumpkins. They have so many questions: Why is Pumpkins supposed to be terrifying? What’s his whole deal? And why does he say he’s from Spain if he doesn’t have an accent?
As with most SNL recurring characters, David S. Pumpkins was an inspired bit of comic weirdness the first time out, but by this point it’s lost a lot of its novelty. (And don’t forget the utterly mid animated special NBC put together in 2017 to cash in on Pumpkins’ popularity.) Still, there remains something endearingly goofy about the whole thing — and that something is Tom Hanks. The man is 66 years old. He is a movie legend. He does not need to be doing dumb stuff like David S. Pumpkins at this stage of his life and career. But his giddy enthusiasm — his utter commitment to the bit — is what makes the whole thing work so well. David S. Pumpkins thinks he’s as horrifying as Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, even if no one else does, which makes the character both profoundly delusional and also kinda lovable. And Hanks sells it so well.
Gen-Zers and younger millennials who love David S. Pumpkins didn’t grow up with the same Tom Hanks that his older fans did. It’s practically ancient history now, but there was a time when Hanks was known exclusively as the wild-and-crazy sitcom star of Bosom Buddies. (It was about two straight male buddies pretending to be women so they could afford a cheap apartment in a complex that only rents to ladies.) In the 1980s, Hanks was silly and zany — except for that one serious episode of Family Ties where he played the alcoholic uncle, of course — and it seemed like that’s where he’d always reside, going on to making broad big-screen comedies like Splash, Bachelor Party, Volunteers and The Money Pit. Sure, Hanks occasionally tried to do something a little more sentimental — like Nothing in Common — but it wasn’t really until Big that he established himself as someone with abilities beyond goofy slapstick fare.
Not that there’s anything wrong with goofy slapstick fare, but the films he pursued in the early 1990s — namely, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump — announced him as an actor who wanted to do heftier dramatic work. Even when he did romantic comedies, like Sleepless in Seattle, there was a grownup quality to them. Soon, it wasn’t a shock to see him in a brutal World War II drama (Saving Private Ryan) or playing a mournful hitman (Road to Perdition). We accepted him as Fred Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) or Sully Sullenberger (Sully). Some comic stars really have to strain to be taken seriously, but Hanks’ transformation was seamless. You just bought him in dramas.
Hanks hasn’t lost his sense of humor along the way, though: It’s very possible that his most iconic role is that of Woody in the Toy Story movies, which like all great Pixar movies mix adult themes with terrific jokes. And he’s always been willing to skewer his image as Revered Hollywood Icon Tom Hanks, playing himself in everything from 30 Rock to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Even more remarkable than his jump from sitcoms to Oscar-winning prestige pictures is his refusal to become a joyless drip in the process — he’s held onto his unpretentious manner no matter how many accolades he’s received. We all know Hanks is a great actor, but we also know he’s fun — the one movie star you might actually want to hang out with. (And if you’re lucky, maybe he’ll crash your wedding.)
Because Hanks comes across as so unjaded and so not full of himself, even his weird indulgences and missteps don’t feel like that big of a deal. Your mileage may vary, but I love him in Cloud Atlas, where he’s playing all types of extreme characters over different centuries, some of them with incredibly awful accents, although I don’t feel nearly as charitable about his Colonel Tom Parker in this year’s Elvis, in which he makes Presley’s manager seem like a tiresome cartoon. (Still, I’d take Elvis over Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio: Hanks’ Geppetto, like everything also about that movie, absolutely stinks.) In other words, Hanks is a star who has duds on his résumé, like anyone else. But his duds always seem to come from a good place — he’s always trying. And when he does get eccentric in a role, it often brings out his impish side, which is like a happy reunion with an old friend.
This is why I think David S. Pumpkins remains such a hit. Of his recent zany roles, it’s the one that’s the most successful, in part because it only has to be funny for the length of an SNL sketch. Pumpkins is a little jolt of oddball insanity — Hanks doesn’t have to worry about sustaining it like he did in, say, Elvis. Plus, Hanks never acts like he’s above David S. Pumpkins — he never winks at the camera to let us know that he knows he’s Tom Hanks slumming it on a past-its-prime network comedy show. From his 1980s comedies to his later Oscar-worthy films, Hanks has never phoned it in — a sincerity of purpose has always been his thing — and even as Pumpkins, he’s giving 110 percent.
Which is perfect for Pumpkins because the character is himself always giving 110 percent. Pumpkins doesn’t care if you don’t know who he is: He’s inordinately (and unreasonably) confident in his ability to scare people. Even the way Hanks delivers Pumpkins’ catchphrase — “Any questionssss?” — is genius because, every single time, Hanks/Pumpkins thinks it’s just a killer line. That it isn’t at all makes it all the funnier.
If you want to see Hanks at the top of his game, I’d recommend Bridge of Spies or A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or The Post. He’s still doing incredible work. But those are examples of the older, more serious Hanks — the one who shows up at the Academy Awards. He’s never going to do another Money Pit or a Dragnet — even his upcoming film A Man Called Otto looks more like a sentimental comedy than a raucous return to his 1980s mode. (That said, who wouldn’t be interested in seeing what he does in next year’s Asteroid City, his first pairing with Wes Anderson?)
But if you want to see modern-day zany Tom Hanks, that’s harder to come by. Often, when comic actors become serious actors, their attempts to reconnect with their earlier, funnier self is painful to watch. They lose their chops, their timing, their sense of lightness — all that dramatic weightiness drains them of their playful spirit. Blessedly, this hasn’t happened to Hanks. David S. Pumpkins is hardly the best thing he’s done, but it’s kinda amazing that he pulls it off so well. We all admire his dramatic roles — my god, have you seen Captain Phillips? — but, deep down, wacky Tom Hanks may be the Tom Hanks we’ll always hold closest to our heart.
He doesn’t come out much anymore, but it’s gratifying to know it’s still in there.