In 2016, audiences were treated to another solid Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Tom Hanks. Within this episode, the delightfully weird “Haunted Elevator” sketch was born, introducing the world to David S. Pumpkins. Based around a bunch of anticlimaxes, non-sequiturs and an all-in, grin-crazy performance from Hanks, the skit was a roaring success. Now it’s a year later, and while Mr. Pumpkins has only appeared in one other random skit, his presence has captured enough attention to warrant a half-hour Halloween special.
This is not a unique situation for SNL. Producer Lorne Michaels has always been happy to strike while the iron is hot or at least maintaining its warmth. Plenty of movies have come from popular skits and reoccurring characters. Some have yielded fun results (MacGruber!). Others (most) are just awful. In today’s GIF and meme-heavy culture, the spread of viral videos means getting a barrage of repeated concepts done worse than the source of inspiration. In the case of David S. Pumpkins…well, I guess we could just be happy that Hanks was so game to play along.
The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special is about as magical as it sounds. It takes a concept and hammers it into the ground, but because the character throttles the line between annoying and bizarrely fantastic, it’s hard to not get a level of enjoyment out of him. I haven’t tired of his antics, but it is easy to see when the limits of a character can be reached.
Not hurting is the presence of the sketch’s original writers, Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell. Also responsible for the sketches the introduced the world to Larry David’s Kevin Roberts (who makes a visual cameo here) and Peter Dinklage’s Space Pants, this group certainly has a knack for characters and concept so harmlessly goofy and nonsensical. While a full-on Halloween special certainly stretches the idea thin, it is somewhat funny to think SNL was going to tap into an audience that would see this program as a staple for the holiday.
Perhaps they didn’t, but the TV-PG rating and kid-friendly design certainly suggests it was made for families to gather around the television and enjoy. That’s part of the problem though. David S. Pumpkins is going to be an obscure reference pretty quickly, and the character isn’t doing anything all that adorable for kids, let alone relevant to how they operate on Halloween.
Parents are less inclined to repeatedly visit something like this, as it’s easier just to watch the original 4-minute sketch. Based on Vulture’s oral history concerning the sketch, it is made even more apparent that the sketch mainly worked because of its brevity. So again, was there a long shelf-life in mind for this or was it just the sort of wacky experiment that was supposed to be watched by many, late on a Saturday night?
To its credit, this Halloween special tries to add value to the character’s existence in its own subversive way. Styled after old Peanuts animated specials and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this special tells a story of a brother and sister who learn about the spirit of Halloween by way of an odd man and his skeleton lackeys. Space Pants himself, Dinklage, provides the rhyming narration for the story, playing an adult version of the brother, who recounts his fond and odd memories of the night he met David Pumpkins.
The animation is crude and the build-up to Pumpkins is almost insufferable, aside from a line or two (“I’m a toot toot boy” should be the next big thing), but once this thing gets going, one can see the writers had plenty of fun trying to make this work. Hanks is back as Pumpkins and he ramps up the character’s nonsense attitude, while the special finds ways to incorporate all the hallmarks of the original sketch. It can feel a bit lazy in some spots, but other lines feel applied at just the right time (“I’m so in the weeds with David Pumpkins). The kids do fine in balancing the grounded nature of those not acting wacky, though the presence of someone like Keenan Thompson in the original sketch to balance both sides is missed.
Having written over 900 words on The David S. Pumpkins Halloween Special, it is not lost on me how fruitless it is to recount my thoughts on a wacky special that only happened by chance, thanks to the popularity of a random sketch from a year ago. However, if SNL is going to bring in composer and Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh to put together a score and some musical numbers for this thing, I guess we should be treating this with some level of seriousness. I only wonder what the plan is for the future with this special. David Pumpkins is such a lightning-in-a-bottle type of success, I can’t imagine anything else being done with him. So I guess we just hope the writers find some other odd character that becomes an overnight success to eventually get an animated special.
Credit goes to Hanks and the rest of the team for having whatever level of respect that they do for this whole affair. Everyone committed to making this big, weird Halloween special and it’s not without its fun. I mean, I do like this thing overall, as the David Pumpkins gags had a level of randomness to it that I could appreciate. Between the strawberry shaped Pumpkin-mobile and a musical number purposely devoid of lyrics, there was just enough strangeness to make me smile. Whether or not that means repeated watches in the years to come, it’s at least clear that David Pumpkins really is his own thing.