Good Grief: How Lucy Pulling the Football Away from Charlie Brown Became a Signature ‘Peanuts’ Gag
Not surprisingly, one very famous name went uncalled during this week’s NFL Draft: that of that blockhead Charlie Brown. For one thing, he’s more than 70 years old, but more importantly, the star of the Peanuts comic strip is terrible at football.
Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip ran from October 2, 1950 until February 13, 2000. While the final strip was created weeks prior, Schulz died the day before its publication. In his final entry, Schulz announced his retirement and shared a collage of some of his favorite cartoons. This, of course, included an image of Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown — among the most enduring running jokes of the entire series.
The acerbic, sometimes bullying Lucy is usually the character most associated with the joke, yet she wasn’t the only one to victimize Charlie Brown in this way — in fact, she wasn’t even the first.
The dark-haired girl in the above strip may look like Lucy, but it’s actually Violet, a far less defined character who predated Lucy by more than a year. On November 14, 1951, the original incarnation of the football gag was published with Violet holding the ball. Violet, however, didn’t yank it away like Lucy later would. Instead, she got scared of Charlie Brown’s incoming kick and ran away just before he made contact. Nonetheless, Charlie Brown fell on his backside anyways.
The next time the gag appeared was a year later, now with Lucy holding the ball. But this strip wasn’t exactly the same formula everyone knows either. As Benjamin L. Clark, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in California, explains, “The first time Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown was November 16, 1952. That was extremely early, as Lucy had only debuted in March of that year. She doesn’t actually pull the football though. She’s holding it really tight and he trips on it.”
The first time Lucy performed the gag was four years later on December 16, 1956. She volunteered to hold the ball for Charlie Brown, and although she never pulled it away before, he was still inherently skeptical. She finally talked him into it by promising him a hundred million dollars if she pulled it away. He agreed, she pulled the ball away anyway, he fell and she welched on the bet.
“After that, it occurred almost annually until the strip concluded,” Clark says. Each time there was a slight variation on Lucy’s empty promises, but sometimes Schulz would use the gag — and Lucy’s outspoken ways — to say something more significant. For example, on September 1, 1963, Schulz had Lucy shake Charlie Brown’s hand, promising she wouldn’t pull the football. After she reneged on the bet once again, though, she was sure to inform him, “A woman’s handshake is not legally binding!”
“Back then, women couldn’t even take out a credit card in their own name, so this was Schulz’s way of commenting on that injustice,” Clark explains. “That’s also why Lucy took on a more feminist stance over time.”
Little more than a decade later, a particularly funny Sunday strip featured Lucy telling Charlie Brown exactly what she was going to do: “When you come running up to kick it, I’m going to pull it away.” Charlie Brown, not listening, tried anyway, and when Lucy delivered on her word, she chided him with, “Men never really listen to what women are saying, do they?”
Per Clark, the reason why Schulz returned to this formula over and over again was because the fans loved it — including the most famous ones. “Some time in the 1970s, (Schulz) met then-Governor Ronald Reagan and presented him with the original art for a baseball strip — baseball was Schulz’s favorite sport. Reagan thanked him and told Schulz what a fan he was and also mentioned how much he loved the football gag. After that, Schulz said, ‘Well I have to think of another one, the Governor likes it,’” Clark tells me.
The last time Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown — if you don’t include the various “non-canon” movies and cartoon shows — was on November 15, 1998. Whereas Charlie Brown usually had to be talked into trying to kick the ball, he readily agreed this time around, touting a new outlook on life. But like always, the joke was on him.
On October 24, 1999, the football gag made one final appearance. Lucy was teeing up Charlie Brown again when her little brother Rerun told her that their mom wanted her to go eat lunch right away. Lucy instructed Rerun to take her place, and she went inside. At the end of the strip, Lucy asked Rerun if he pulled the ball away from Charlie Brown, as she would have done. Rerun, much to Lucy’s chagrin, responded with, “You’ll never know.” His words still hold true as Schulz never again did the football gag.
While it’s nice to believe that, off-panel, Charlie Brown finally got a kick in after five decades of whiffing, it also would have been out-of-character for him to have gotten the W. After all, as Clark points out, “All of his baseball games were lost and all of his love went unrequited.”
And so, it would have been much more appropriate for him to fall for the gag one last time — just like a blockhead is supposed to do.