While Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” characters were well-known from the newspaper comic strip, there were fears among the creative team that the characters would not translate well to television. They’d created a pitch once before, a pilot for television recounting the story of the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown — and all three major networks rejected it.
The Schulz team hoped this time would be different. Luckily for everyone, they didn’t have much time to ponder their earlier failure: They had only three months to create a working script, record voices, get a soundtrack together, and create more than 30,000 animation cells from scratch — and this was back in the days before computers.
As things ended up, the network was not pleased with the final product. The first big complaint was the lack of a laugh track, something unimaginable in 1960s television. Schulz thought the audience should be able to enjoy the show without being cued on when to laugh. CBS created a version of the program with a laugh track added anyway, just in case Schulz changed his mind.
That seems a bit bizarre to me; I’ve watched it every year I could since it first ran, and I don’t really remember ever laughing out loud at it. There are funny bits, of course, and the whole thing is light-hearted and amusing. But it’s not really something I ever thought of as a comedy, somehow. And the annoying distraction of a laugh track getting in the way would have been…well, awful.
The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program, that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more … well, young.
They also thought the show plodded along, that it was too slow. There wasn’t enough action, went the thinking, in a show dedicated to children.
Last but not least, the executives didn’t like how Linus recited the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The scene was too long, too literal. The media orthodoxy of the time assumed Americans wouldn’t want to sit through a long spoken passage from the King James Bible.
“They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special,” explained Melendez. “They basically wrote it off, like, ‘Hey, this just isn’t going to be interesting to anyone, and it’s just going to be like a big tax write-off.'”
Thereby demonstrating that being completely clueless about the beliefs and lifestyles of normal Americans is by no means anything new for the high muckety-mucks running the entertainment biz. You see that same disconnect today in all sorts of places, as they labor mightily to push the masses in the direction they want them to go: ambiguous war flicks with the American soldiers portrayed as deeply flawed or corrupt in some way, fighting for motives that are dubious at best, or confused and deceived by the soulless commanders who are manipulating them for their own malign purposes. Or in commercials or sitcoms wherein Dad is either a helpless, hapless, incompetent buffoon whose blunders the rest of the family patiently endure; a stupid drunk who lives only to watch sports, hooting like a gibbon with his fellow boors; or an emasculated, biddable nebbish eager to be led around by the nose by his far more capable and authoritative wife.
And that’s when the family is even still intact, rather than consisting of a courageous, gutsy single mom and a couple of plucky, extremely well-adjusted kids, all abandoned for selfish reasons by a scurrilous douchebag, Mom struggling nobly to give the kids a proper upbringing without a moment’s support from the irresponsible cad who barely even appears in the show at all, and whom nobody is glad to see if he does.
If ever they do present a more traditional-type American family, Dad is a rigid, aloof tyrant, Mom is miserable and unfulfilled, and the kids are either intimidated or destructively rebellious, depending on their ages. Never do you see a well-adjusted, happy family with parents taking on traditional roles as part of a coherent plan to assist each other in the ways they’re most suited, sharing the load to everybody’s benefit: respectful of each other; appreciative of one another’s contribution; affectionate and warm towards each other; courteous and thoughtful; firm, but supportive and loving with the kids, who are mannerly and considerate, if a little rambunctious or uncooperative sometimes, as kids will be. No, none of them were perfect at all times and in all circumstances. All anybody expected was honest effort, and expected their own effort to be rewarded appropriately—which, in the main, it was.
I grew up in just such a family, and lived in a neighborhood, a town, a county, and a region surrounded by many others. It was not at all a grim, suffocating colony of undifferentiated zombies, everyone thinking and looking and acting exactly alike in a cookie-cutter nightmare where creativity was stifled, initiative was discouraged, independence was a serious transgression, and a joyless conformity was ruthlessly enforced—a place where there was no laughter, no honesty, no humanity, and above all, no sex. None. Ever.
Discipline was maintained in part via weekly attendance at a hate-filled, bigoted, narrow-minded church, through scorching, condemning harangues from the sour prude behind the pulpit. Everyone absolutely hated it. Well, except the preacher, who enjoyed having his fearful parishioners in his thrall and exercising his power over them like any other cheap dictator would.
Most of the zombies coped with this wretched existence through strictly-closeted reliance on alcohol or prescription drugs, infidelity, or habitual brutality to the kids, the wife, or the family pet, which was also kept well-hidden, discussed only in whispers by those in the know. Anyone different or odd suffered a life of sadistic torment at the hands of the other drones, until he or she either suicided or fled to the more welcoming, tolerant environs of New York, San Francisco, or LA.
Y’know, like the Fifties, duuuude.
If all you had to go by was TV and movies from about, say, 1970 on, you’d never know such a thing as a happy traditional family ever existed at all. Yet it was the norm in most of this country until fairly recently, and worked well for most families (and for society itself) despite life’s inevitable setbacks and unpleasant surprises, or the occasional human failing of one partner or the other. Certainly our culture as a whole was by far the better for it.
Which I’m confident that Schultz himself knew quite well, thanks.
Schulz, a Sunday school teacher, pushed back against everyone. He had many doubts in his life, but few about his characters and his storytelling skills. He also had the benefit of a very tight production schedule. The suits at the network, the advertising agency — and the show’s sponsor, Coca-Cola — had invested in this program and promoted it in TV Guide. Schulz knew he had leverage, and he wasn’t about to acquiesce on any of the creative elements — especially the Bible reading.
The network executives capitulated and aired the special as Schulz intended it. And that’s why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He knew his own country and the things Americans cared (and care) about, the things that meant something to them. He also knew — really knew — that the Bible reading was the most important part of the whole show.
As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair while trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, an unlikely character quietly saves the day. Linus walks to the center of the stage where the “Peanuts” characters have gathered, and under a narrow spotlight, quotes the second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, verses 8 through 14:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will towards men.
After Linus finishes the beautiful reading, he walks across the stage and says these words: “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
And so it is—no matter what those coastal elite types might or might not believe, in spite of their own hostility to Christianity and Christians…and their mistaken assumption that normal, decent people share it, particularly back in 1965. Even disregarding that, the Bible passage is central to the story; the whole damned thing depends on it. It isn’t just what Christmas is all about—it’s what A Charlie Brown Christmas is all about, too.
I dunno, maybe they’d be closer to correct about that assumption today. In fact, it’s difficult to even imagine such a thing making it to the airwaves now at all. Which says more about us than about them, and is not a happy thought. Thankfully, Schultz stood his ground; as Habeeb winds up:
Thank God the Grinch-like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965. If it had been left to their gut instincts, we would have one fewer national treasure to cherish come Christmastime.
Yep. I watched it myself the other night, as I do every year. It’s held up a heck of a lot better than a lot of things those Hollywood and New York types would have imagined to be “timeless,” and has probably had far more impact than many things they’d consider “important,” too.