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December 9, 2005 2:13 AM   Subscribe

Dec. 9, 1965: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" [Realmedia] [More inside]
posted by ScottMorris (29 comments total)
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 good 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, good will toward men.

-Luke 2:8-14
Forty years ago today, television audiences first laid eyes on A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first Peanuts special. Since then it has aired annually every December and had an enduring presence in the culture surrounding the Christmas season. It is widely regarded as not only one of the greatest Christmas specials put to film, but as a testament to the true meaning of Christmas.

Yet network executives were skeptical of the special for four reasons: They did not follow jokes with a laugh track. Children were used to act out the roles, some of them so young they couldn't yet read the script. There were explicit references to the Bible and the Nativity. And the usual bustling but colorless cartoon soundtracks of the time were absent in favor of a subtle and nuanced jazz track. They were convinced the special would be a total flop.

Executives are proven wrong every day. I believe that we are all fortunate that creator Charles Schulz, along with his collaborators Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, fought so diligently for creative control so that at least once every holiday season Linus steps out to center stage to explain the true meaning of Christmas.
posted by ScottMorris at 2:17 AM on December 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

wow, blogiarism.
posted by Hat Maui at 2:48 AM on December 9, 2005

When a 20K+ does it, it's GYOB to the max.

I say: LUF.
posted by lodurr at 5:09 AM on December 9, 2005

Violet was such a bitch....
posted by Durwood at 5:27 AM on December 9, 2005

Was there anything more perfect than this?
posted by eriko at 5:46 AM on December 9, 2005

Like Chuck Jones's original Grinch, it's something that can't be duplicated or precisely equalled because it would be spoiled by the mere touch of a traditional marketing person.
posted by lodurr at 6:20 AM on December 9, 2005

Linus, pretty cool. But Schroeder? Coolest.
posted by Miko at 6:42 AM on December 9, 2005

I wasn't aware it's the 40th anniversary. Thanks for the post ScottMorris, although the more personal part of the commentary might make a good first comment next time.

I still remember the years my family went to pick out a live tree and how we'd insist on having one with character.
posted by mikeh at 6:43 AM on December 9, 2005

I just watched this the other night. Surprised its still on every year, but it does make me glad, since I was a big peanuts fan when I was young.
posted by SirOmega at 7:22 AM on December 9, 2005

Surprised its still on every year

Me too, and thankful. But it still seems odd not to have the same ol' "Peter Paul Mounds" and "York Peppermint Patty" commercials that I remember from the annual watching ritual in the 70s.
posted by Miko at 8:14 AM on December 9, 2005

The Vince Guaraldi soundtrack is one of our favorite Christmas albums. My six year old does the Snoopy dance sometimes.

(Gramschmidt, what is your point--that this post is for some reason unworthy, and Scott should get his own blog? Or that he made the same post on his won blog? Either way, you should take it to MeTa.)
posted by LarryC at 8:18 AM on December 9, 2005

I watched this a couple days ago (downloaded a copy), and I was kind of surprised at how depressing the peanuts were. I mean, I remember charlie brown got shit on every 10 seconds in the old cartoons, but I guess I forgot how it's like a story of a depressed kid surrounded by a couple kids that make his life a living hell.
posted by mathowie at 8:28 AM on December 9, 2005

I guess I forgot how it's like a story of a depressed kid surrounded by a couple kids that make his life a living hell.

I think that's why the strip was considered so groundbreaking and shocking at the time. The general attitude toward Peanuts was that it just wasn't funny, and that the kids acted like neurotic adults and not children. Schult's depiction of childhood as not completely idyllic really offended the popular sensibilities of the mid-20th century.

Snoopy's a breath of fresh air for that reason. Youth of the 60s and 70s adopted him as a flagship character because he embodied an alternative way of being -- shrugging off the weirdness of society, living in a creative and imaginary world, displaying a vibrant, quicky changing, and directly expressed emotional life.
posted by Miko at 8:33 AM on December 9, 2005

Good points all around Miko. I used to identify with snoopy as well when I was a kid (he seemed the most kid-like). As a 33 year old watching it for the first time in 20 years though, I immediately identified with Charlie Brown this time around and wondered "why did I used to like these cartoons again?"
posted by mathowie at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2005

The sheer surreal nature of the strip was breathtaking in its day. Putting a dog in goggles and a helmet on top of his doghouse and pitting him against the Red Baron? That really was out there in the 60s, especially for a mainstream, family newspaper comic.

I watched Tuesday night. Despite the poor animation (even for that day), bad child actors, and the really nasty nature of some of those characters (Lucy, Violet personified every mean little girl in my class), it still works. And that soundtrack! Play "Linus & Lucy" for any boomer and you will see the biggest grin cross their face as some as that piano riff rolls out. Here's to the Charlie Brown Christmas, may it live on for another 40 years.
posted by Ber at 8:55 AM on December 9, 2005

It probably says more than I ought to reveal about me that I used to identify strongly with Charlie Brown when I was a kid. (Though sometimes I thought I was Linus.) But then, I used to identify with the Coyote, too.
posted by lodurr at 9:13 AM on December 9, 2005

bad child actors

That's one of the things I actually love about this show -- real, unpolished children. The awkward, stilted dialogue is awesome. I didn't even see it yet this year, but I can still hear Sally struggling to get out the line "All I want is -- what I have coming to me! All I want is my fair share!"

It's a nice change of pace from glib, scrubbed-up child stars. Or adult voice-overs.
posted by Miko at 9:24 AM on December 9, 2005

"Schult's depiction of childhood as not completely idyllic really offended the popular sensibilities of the mid-20th century."

Hmmm.. I am not an historian, but this sounds like bullshit to me. I thought that Peanuts was insanely popular almost from the beggining. And that it was famous, in the same way that calvin and hobbes was, for its universal appeal.

Not trying to start a fight, just think you are wrong about this.
posted by vronsky at 9:42 AM on December 9, 2005

I don't have a source nailed down at the moment, but the strip was not wildly popular from the beginning at all. It was originally intended as a "space-saver" strip, so that the panels could be reduced to no bigger than postage stamps while still remaining legible. The overexaggerated drawing style was useful for this. Schulz built his audience for most of the next decade until he really started to reach the height of his popularity in the 60s.
posted by ScottMorris at 10:48 AM on December 9, 2005

Vronsky, my comments come from my knowledge of the history (a field in which I am employed). To be sure my assertions were valid, I checked my memory against a few sources, and they're cited below. I'm not suggesting that Peanuts wasn't hugely popular by the mid-60s and early 70s - it was, of course - but that it was not an instant hit, not universally adored at first, and definitely not 'insanely popular' in the years following its debut. It was new, weird, sometimes unsettling, and people weren't quite sure what to make of it.

Peanuts was rejected by several major syndicates (and completely cancelled once) on the grounds that it didn't seem funny to many people. Editors didn't know how to evaluate such a strange and original style, especially when compared to popular comics of the time, which were of either the slapstick or domestic comedy variety (Snuffy Smith, Blondie, Alley Oop, Gasoline Alley), the soap opera variety (Mary Worth, Rex Morgan MD), or the adventure variety. (Prince Valiant, Tarzan, Terry and the Pirates). You'll notice that comics with child characters were rare at the time.

United Press began publishing Peanuts in 1950 in just 7 of its papers. For its first few years, it was carried in under 50 papers and was what we'd now call a 'sleeper'. In the PBS link below, another cartoonist reports Schulz saying he was frustrated by being "stuck at 45 papers" for five years, and couldn't get the strip going until he was inspired to draw Snoopy standing up. It's true that the strip had been in publication for five or six years before it really began to command broad cultural attention, and it wasn't until the early 1960s that it took on the stature we now accord it. The mid-60s are when it really hit its stride, and by the late 60s it was a huge merchandising phenomenon, and that continued into the 70s; 1965-75 are thought of as Peanut's Golden Age.

You might find this biographical summary interesting. It does an excellent job of describing why Peanuts was considered so jarring early on. Other info via Wikipedia, the Schulz Museum, Minneapolis CityPages, PBS NewsHour.
posted by Miko at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2005

Though not religious myself, I really appreciate the explicit Christianity in Linus' big speech. "The True Meaning of Christmas" is something that's trotted out in a lot of feel-good children's seasonal media, and this is the one example I know of in which it isn't just bullshit. Linus might make you feel uncomfortable, but it'd be tough to argue with him.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on December 9, 2005

You've made me think about it, and I've decided that what I like about Linus's speech is that it's not explicit. It's explicitly christian, yes, but it's not explicit about what the "meaning" is. You are given this passage that describes what should be the most (or second most, depending on how you slice it) important event in the Christian narrative of sacredness.

I.e., you have to figure it out for yourself.

Not that it's very hard, but I think it's a crucial step.
posted by lodurr at 11:41 AM on December 9, 2005

Well said, lodurr.
posted by Miko at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2005

Speaking of Linus's speech, I just want to say I think my sentences on "the true meaning of Christmas" came off as too heavy-handed. I'm not religious at all, but like mr_roboto said, it's tough to argue when Linus lays down such a positive message as that.

To me, this special really cuts to the core of what it seems everyone's trying to drive at during the holiday season. While everyone's running around trying to get the best presents, I'd rather be celebrating something as simple as "peace on Earth, goodwill towards men."
posted by ScottMorris at 11:56 AM on December 9, 2005

Then again, I always did identify most with Charlie Brown.
posted by ScottMorris at 12:02 PM on December 9, 2005

A discussion of the Peanuts Christmas special without mention of Dolly Madison's Zingers? C'mon, people!

I love the Peanuts, but it always wasn't so. I remember finding the strip was pretty damn corny and repetitive--not to mention shakily drawn--in its last 10 years or so. It was only when I read the older strips that I realized just how brilliant Schulz was. Its depiction of the pain and sweetness of life and Schultz's sharp, confident lines. Yeah, I just love it. I think it was Art Spiegelman who wrote a really beautiful defense of it several years ago, although I can't remember where it was published.

As for the special, it's just amazing how it doesn't seem dated at all. Charlie Brown's quandary resonates today as it did 40 years ago.
posted by Sully6 at 12:53 PM on December 9, 2005

Well said Miko. I stand corrected. I was half remembering a New Yorker profile on Shulz I read years ago. But you are much better informed than I am. Peace.
posted by vronsky at 12:55 PM on December 9, 2005

I loved the summary made by Tris McCall in the excellent post forrest made the other day reviewing Christmas Carols:
I consider A Charlie Brown Christmas the high point of Western civilization. Okay, I'm kidding. A little. No, really, since Christian theology has been the font for monumental artistic expression from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to Of The Heart, Of The Soul, and Of The Cross, it's possible to see the Peanuts special as a sort of crown -- a succinct and poetic articulation of ancient principles. If you can understand why Charlie Brown chooses the tiniest and most unhealthy-looking tree in the lot, you're at least halfway to the proper spirit in which to approach the Gospels. Incidentally, the famous Linus speech I alluded to in the last entry is Luke 2.8-14, straight from the King James Version. I don't think that is made clear during the program. CBS certainly knew, and they were shitting bricks that audiences would find the special too preachy. This was 1965; in 2003, a project like this one doesn't even get out of the gate. Thank God it's been grandfathered in as an annual event -- by now it's too much of an institution for the seculars to gripe about St. Schulz, and really, how much Heatmiser can a person take?
I've decided that what I like about Linus's speech is that it's not explicit. It's explicitly christian, yes, but it's not explicit about what the "meaning" is. You are given this passage that describes what should be the most (or second most, depending on how you slice it) important event in the Christian narrative of sacredness. I.e., you have to figure it out for yourself.

Yep. The selection and delivery hits a very good spot.
posted by weston at 6:32 PM on December 9, 2005

That's really well said. And personally, I agree with the spirit of it. But this statement:

in 2003, a project like this one doesn't even get out of the gate

is off the mark. There's so much Christian content on television now that I think turning people off to it through sheer overexposure is now the greater concern. Touched by an Angel, anyone?
posted by Miko at 6:42 PM on December 9, 2005

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