Monday, November 30, 2009

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS meets MAD MEN

A holiday tradition is A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and we pretty much have a Mad Man to thank for it. John Allen was a Don Draper at McCann-Erickson in the mid 60s. On behalf of Coca-Cola he was lobbying for Charlie Brown. It would be the first animated adaptation of Charles M. Schultz’s classic PEANUTS comic strip. But Allen had to really twist arms because in typical fashion, CBS hated it.

They thought the animation was awful, the story too thin and depressing, the jazz score inappropriate for kids, and of course wanted a laugh-track. I'm surprised they didn't require a laugh-track on THE TWILIGHT ZONE.

And CBS was especially opposed to Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Bible. What the hell is that doing in a Christmas Special?

Oh, and they didn’t like that children were doing the voices of the…uh, children. In other words, all the things that made it distinctive; all the things that made it great. One high-ranking CBS program executive/visionary said it was a “piece of shit”.

And CBS had a lot riding on this. It was going to pre-empt THE MUNSTERS and follow GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. The quality had to be top notch to join that pantheon of excellence.

But John Allen pushed and pushed and finally persuaded the reluctant program chief to air the special. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS premiered 44 years ago this month.

And got a 50 share.

It won an Emmy and a Peabody and became an instant holiday classic. I guess children doing the voices of children did not result in a viewer revolt.

CBS began running the special every year (taking credit for it of course). And it achieved the almost unheard of feat of getting higher ratings year after year. By 1969 it was scoring a 53 share.

CBS continued to air the special until 2000. ABC then took over. It was supposed to air again Tuesday night -- digitally remastered -- but is being pre-empted by the President's speech. It will play later this month. CBS meanwhile, will still air its holiday special this evening -- THE VICTORIA SECRETS FASHION SHOW.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY ANNIVERSARY CHARLIE BROWN.

And thanks to John Allen.

35 comments:

Rob said...

There is an exhibit at the Louisville Slugger Museum about the show that I keep meaning to go see. By far my favorite Christmas Special. Thanks for posting.

And here's my favorite mashup of audio and video. This gives me a great excuse to post it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW1oVdOxKko

Anita Bonita said...

The power of a great story, beautifully told, is such that observant little Jewish kids smack in the middle of the New York City suburbs never missed "A Charlie Brown Christmas" -- and were especially moved by Linus' simple, "Lights, please?" into the story of the birth of Jesus, because even though it wasn't our faith, it obviously had MEANING.

And what a great introduction to the music of Vince Guaraldi! No matter how many people cover "Linus and Lucy," the original is still instantly identifiable by the lilt of its syncopation.

Thank you, Mr. Allen -- and thanks, Ken, for telling "the rest of the story."

Ref said...

Loved it in '65, love it now!

Aaron Barnhart said...

This year ABC is airing both the 60 (good) and the 30 (bad). Ostensibly the reason for the 30 is to usher in a new 30-minute special from John Lasseter, PREP AND DELIVER, about Christmas elves who wear night-vision goggles. I worry that one day ABC is going to start substituting the 30 for the 60 and no one will notice except me.

amyp3 said...

Sorry to write something as inane as "great post." But great post.

I love this special. It ranks with A Christmas Carol as my favorite seasonal stories, probably even above Miracle on 34th Stree. And the music always makes me want to happy dance along with Snoopy.

Every once in awhile I buy a flawed item, be it a sickly plant or nicked Xmas ornament. (And yes, I'm partial to runt of the litter animals too.) And I always think of them as my own little version of Charlie Brown Christmas trees.

Max Clarke said...

The Charlie Brown Christmas special didn't make a big impression at the time, although I liked it. It was like hearing a beautiful song that has lots of minors instead of majors. The wrong keys, but they added up to something memorable.

Even as a kid, I noticed it wasn't like the regular Christmas specials. It didn't have a good feeling story, I didn't laugh at it much, the music didn't seem to pull your emotions up and down the way most soundtracks do. It seemed flawed because it wasn't like all the other Christmas shows, but I can't remember those other shows now.

The Linus reading of the Christmas story was very genuine, and now it reminds me of Jim Lovell from his Apollo 8 spacecraft reading from the Bible as they circled the moon on Christmas eve.

YEKIMI said...

An absolute classic and one of my favorite shows. Here's another good mash up Charlie Brown vs Outkast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGnYw-OuCnI

BigTed said...

I loved this show as a (Jewish) kid. As an adult, I'm always astounded by its beauty as a work of art.

gottacook said...

There was an episode of TWILIGHT ZONE that did have a laugh track! - although I've seen versions of the episode with and without it: the one with Carol Burnett, entitled "Cavender Is Coming."

Dave said...

Any idea how the Peanuts Ford commercials fit into all this? Bill Melendez directed them and they used real kids' voices.

blogward said...

...and thank you, Charles M. Shulz.

Anonymous said...

IIRC, the Ford commercials convinced people that Peanuts could actually be done as animation. The characters aren't really easy to do -- short bodies, stumpy arms and legs -- but Melendez pulled it off.

sephim said...

Despite absolutely despising Christmas, my favourite episodes of every cartoon I have ever seen have always been the Christmas episodes - despite that majority of those made in the late 70's/early 80's had exactly the same plot.

Santa Claus crashes his sleigh usually resulting in amnesia and the main character of the show, THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS, YOGI BEAR, PAC MAN, etc have to take it upon themselves to save Christmas - and sometimes, in the case of PAC MAN, nobody even knows about Christmas before this event.

But my all time favourite Christmas episode really wasn't about Christmas at all, but THE SMURFS - where the children "mistake" Papa Smurf for Santa Claus... which I have just realised is a tad disturbing because the children must also believe that Santa goes around shirtless the majority of the time.

ajm said...

There was an episode of TWILIGHT ZONE that did have a laugh track! - although I've seen versions of the episode with and without it: the one with Carol Burnett, entitled "Cavender Is Coming."

And a woefully unfunny TWILIGHT ZONE episode at that.

WV: appeal

Blaze said...

A "devil's advocate" question: we've heard hundreds upon thousands of anecdotes of executroids with double-digit IQs who blocked what hindsight has shown to be creative genius.

Are there one or two stories out there where some former VP in charge of Programming recalls how he proclaimed some project was total shit, but was cajoled and arm twisted and allowed it to air. And it was total shit.

Fred said...

Here's a humbug anecdote about that special. About 10 years ago I met Dick Beals, who voiced Speedy Alka-Seltzer, every child voice on the Flintstones (except Pebbles I think) and had a booming career as a voice-over artist for children's voices in cartoons.

After Charlie Brown Christmas aired, he went from being one of the busiest voiceover artists to practically unemployed because suddenly everyone wanted real kids doing kid voices in cartoons. As if having kids do the voices would make anything a sudden hit.

One of the charms of Charlie Brown Christmas is some of the horrible line readings by the kid actors, but after hearing about how that changed Dick Beals' life I feel just a little differently about it. Not that Mr. Beals was at all bitter. He was funny and charming.

Chuck said...

Here's a way to look for a tiny gray cloud around all that silver lining:

Reading this post made me wonder... how many other works of art have never seen the light of day - or at least a cathode ray tube - because they didn't have a John Allen to twist the arms of (to be generous) myopic execs?

"And that's what TV is all about, Charlie Brown."

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Anonymous said...

Just Curious wasn't show originally half hour latter padded to hour with other shorts?

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Charlie Brown was about Christmas? Oy vay, I thought that was a Hannukah bush! Go know...

The Curmudgeon said...

There are a couple of comments here about a 60 minute version -- I never heard of it. There was a second Christmas special, 20 or so years later, with the immortal bit about Sally saying "Hark!" (only, when push comes to shove, she doesn't) and then Harold Angel sings.

Did some suit really foist an inflated 60 minute version on the public at some point?

Kirk Jusko said...

The curmudgeon's right. The 60 minute special is completely different. It features Pepperment Patty, Marcie, Woodstock, and Rerun, characters that didn't exist in 1965.

Steven said...

Regarding the "horrible line readings by the kid actors"...

I always listen for the moment when Sally is dictating her letter to Santa Claus for Charlie Brown to write. When he expresses dismay at her greed, she says, "All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share." But I've always been convinced that it is four separate soundbites spliced together, because there is a weird kind of pause in the middle of each sentence. I actually find it charming.

On the other hand, there's one character -- I think it's Violet -- whose voice is truly awful. (It's whoever says, "He's not the kind you can depend on to do anything.")

(WV: surgiso. Shorthand for the state of the "surge" in Afghanistan after tonight's speech.)

J.J. said...

On NPR's Weekend Edition this past weekend (11/27) was a nice story about Vince Guaraldi (The Definitive Vince Guaraldi) the musical genius behind the music in A Charlie Brown's Christmas...

here's the link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120892574

Beautiful stuff.

Bill Peschel said...

So I wonder if there was a network exec who saw the Star Wars Holiday Special and thought it was going to get a 50?

Anonymous said...

I really love this BECAUSE it is a piece of shit. Even the playing on the score -- my favorite Christmas ever -- is a little dicey.

Wallis Lane said...

Another Jewish kid chiming in to extol this best of all Christmas specials. Its rudimentary animation is half the charm: the way everyone's mouth compresses into a little O in perfect syncopation with their heads in the closing carol, the various dances to Schroeder's music: the frug, Shermy's sleepwalk, the unidentified strolls and Madisons, the wonderful way that a tree with five needles suddenly acquires full bushiness after being covered by the waving of a group of hands (which was brilliantly parodied by a Smigel cartoon on SNL). It's so perfectly hand-crafted.

And YEKIMI's right: check out that Youtube Outkast/Charlie Brown mashup. You'll bust a gut. That was the very first video I ever saw on Youtube, and remains one of the best.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Somebody has to say the show didn't impress him, so I guess it'll have to be me. But I first saw it as a jaded teenager (and maybe not since then), so maybe I need to give it another shot.

theemptypen said...

Cap'n Bob, thank you!

I thought I was the only one. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special was already a few decades old when I saw it for the first time. I thought it was depressing and I didn't like the animation.

I have to listen to the sound track every year because everyone I know loves it. I feel like such a Grinch the entire time it's on.

Nat G said...

Just a clarification on the 30/60 minute thing. There isn't a 60 minute version of the special - but there is a version they assign a 60 minute slot. The original special runs about 27 minutes, because shows had fewer ads back in 1965. For decades, what was aired was edited-down versions, giving the show a few more minutes of ads. When ABC got the rights, they slotted it in an hour, and had new material to follow the special - for the first couple years, a making-of documentary, and in later years, newly animated pieces (Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales, actually fairly well done.) This year (and in some years past), they're airing the show more than once. December 8, it will be an edited-down version to fit a 30 minute slot, and December 15th it will be the full version.

(Even the "unedited" version is actually missing a few seconds - Linus running into a Coke billboard during the opening.)

They'll also be airing I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown this year, on the 21st. Not as good as A CB Christmas, of course, but that's hardly a harsh condmenation...

Anonymous said...

The Peanuts cartoonist was Charles M. Schulz (no "t").

Dewey said...

Loved "Charlie Brown," but I dug "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," too.

Michael said...

the pumpkin one is good too

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Dating said...

Bill Melendez directed them and they used real kids' voices.