Look, there’s no reason why this couldn’t have worked.
Sure, the history of Saturday Night Live sketches being expanded into longer-form entertainment has traditionally not been the most fruitful of concepts. (And this is from someone who thinks Stuart Saves His Family is actually a pretty good movie.) But a short-form goof of an animated special to be aired on an SNL off week? Based on a blessedly weird conceptual sketch that caught one of those unpredictable waves of viral popularity? Complete with a returning vocal (and briefly live-action) appearance from the beloved SNL host and mega-star of the sketch, plus a big added assist from another major TV luminary? Plus, Lorne Michaels can peg the whole thing to a holiday, thus guaranteeing even more seasonal replay value? And all that not mentioning a return appearance from a recently departed (not dead, just on CBS) cast member and an original score from Mark Mothersbaugh? These are not inconsiderable factors—both creative and commercial—that pretty much made the birth of The David S. Pumpkins Animated Halloween Special at least theoretically not the worst idea. (It’s Pat. It’s Pat was the worst idea.)
In practice, well, it’s not the worst idea, although the half-hour we get here is, like its cheerfully ugly animation, awfully inert. The original sketch worked as well as it did thanks to the comedy of anticlimax. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon’s haunted house customers want to be scared by David Pumpkins, but just can’t get past the conceptual oddity. Yes, David Pumpkins is wearing a jack-o’-lantern-patterned suit, and is accompanied by two skeleton pals. But his inexplicable confidence in his own rightness just spins the guests’ heads too much in how wrong—or at least bafflingly incomplete—his whole thing seems. Hanks does a funny turn as Pumpkins, holding a preternaturally overjoyed smile on his face, even when fielding questions about why his skeletons do frenetic dances to bubbly techno music, whether he’s supposed to be “from something” (“Like a local commercial?,” ventures McKinnon), and, basically, what’s the freaking deal with David S. Pumpkins? (Also, why does he suddenly pick up that middle initial midway through his repeated appearances? And what’s with all the ass-slapping?)
It’s brief, it’s weird, and it’s undeniably funny. (Although, sure, some people point to its suspicious similarity in concept to a particular Larry David-starring sketch.) And, to Saturday Night Live’s credit, DSP has only ever appeared once more on the show, and that as an insert gag in another, unrelated sketch. So the idea of crafting an independent, 30-minute-minus-commercials special around the same character, while fraught with the same pitfalls of, say, a feature film version of the Coneheads (not that anyone would do such a thing), could work if it partook of the same deliberate randomness. And, to the credit of writers Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell (who all wrote the original sketch), The David S. Pumpkins Animated Halloween Special makes the temptation to fill out this weirdo’s character and backstory part of the joke. With his eccentric coat of many (well, two) colors, a benevolently chaotic home invasion, and his TARDIS-like elevator vehicle, Pumpkins is like The Doctor crossed with the Cat in the Hat, except he resolutely refuses to reveal any sense behind his grinning madness. It’s just that, stretched to four times the original’s length or so, there’s just not enough inspiration or enough snap to the jokes to prevent the whole thing from feeling saggy and gassy. You know, like a rotting jack-o’-lantern!
That’s where David S. Pumpkins resides, according to the special—under the lousiest pumpkin in a random Halloween pumpkin patch which, when loved in spite of itself by one special little kid, releases... whatever the hell David S. Pumpkins is. Taking the form of a doggerel-rhyme reminiscence of an unpredictably irascible grownup, Kevin (Peter Dinklage), the special goes for a Dr. Seuss vibe, even as the magical events unfold to a series of familiarly puncturing queries from the young Kevin and his adorable little sister Dottie. And pretty much everyone else who sees him, including the mean little trio of neighborhood bully brothers who steal everyone’s trick or treat candy while impersonating the infamous town boogeyman, the Raincoat Man. (With his demonic modulated voice and angular, shadowy, slashed, and blood-spattered slicker, the Raincoat Man is the one visually impressive character design here.)
There are funny jokes in the spirit of the original sketch, like the dramatic reveal that DSP’s vaunted “Pumpkinmobile” turns out to be shaped like an enormous strawberry. Or when one of the brat brothers, menaced by Pumpkins once their ruse has been detected, can’t help but confide to his brothers, “I am so in the weeds with this guy.” (It’s one of Bennett’s lines from the sketch, but its specificity still works to get the laugh.) Hanks is game as ever, imbuing Pumpkins’ irrepressibly beaming responses with the complete confidence that he is blowing everyone’s minds with his impeccable mystical wonders and not by just weirding everyone out. And there are even some solid non-Pumpkins’ touches with Kevin and Dottie, as Kevin’s attempts to act cool in front of his school crush see him, instead, blurting out the panicked, “I’m a little toot-toot boy!” Also, little Spencer Moss makes Dottie Pixar-adorable instead of insufferable-adorable, as she excitedly dons her half-Lincoln/half-taco costume for the evening.
But if part of the joke is that David S. Pumpkins’ brow-furrowing oddness is infecting a traditional kids’ holiday special, The David S. Pumpkins Animated Halloween Special deflates long before its running time is up. There’s been an oral history of the creation of the sketch (because of course there has) where it’s abundantly clear that the sketch wasn’t going to work until it was pared down to its final, tight four-and-a-half minutes. In Moynihan, Day, and Seidell’s original conception, there are funny lines that dilute the premise. Here, there just aren’t enough good ideas to extend a premise that worked as a gradual reveal. There, once the joke was introduced, the sketch embroidered it skillfully until its effectively abrupt end-scare/laugh. (Rewatching it asserts the value of getting out when the getting is good.) Here, the joke is fleshed out with less focus.
Since kids’ specials all have to have musical numbers, this one screws with the form cleverly enough. DSP’s introductory song threatens to over-explain just what this guy’s thing (or “own thing”) is, only for Hanks’ Pumpkins’ to reveal the most meaninglessly generic facts about himself, ending with a self-satisfied, “Your questions have been answered!” “Definitely not,” responds Kevin, still very confused. (It is a mistake to have Pumpkins be winded after the song—David S. Pumpkins doesn’t drop his unshakeable, teeth-baring confidence for anything or anyone.) The gag of the second number is better, with Pumpkins’ spooky song to the bullies never actually getting to the lyrics. (“The music is building to the point where he should sing,” explains one of the rattled bullies.) The opening live-action introduction sees Pumpkins toning down his “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you!” to a more kid-friendly “heck out of you,” which, again, nods to the special’s in-jokey takedown of more traditional holiday fare.
Unfortunately, what’s we do get is very much a neither-nor proposition. Watching the thing, I was constantly asking myself just who The David S. Pumpkins Animated Holiday Special is for? The animation isn’t noteworthy, and neither is the poetry. (Dinklage’s one funny touch is the adult Kevin’s fury at himself for not sticking the landing with that one final rhyme he’s been building toward.) It’s too weird and meta for kids to actually plug it into the perennial Halloween rotation, and not clever enough to stand on its own. Coming as it did before the de rigeur, hour-long SNL Halloween clip show tonight gives the biggest clue to its eventual fate as a mildly diverting plug-in for an October off week, a trifling Saturday Night Live curio that will only become more irrelevant with the passing years.
- Since Dinklage is involved, and since tempting fate is fun, I’d suggest a different sketch for the expansion treatment.
- Don’t sleep on Kenan Thompson’s contribution to the original sketch as Mark, the gamely unflappable elevator operator.