Monday, November 28, 2016

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS meets Mad Men


I'm re-posting this because it's always one of my most requested posts. And it's perfect for the upcoming holiday season.  

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 51 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. Don't know what channel it's on this year, but I'm sure someone is playing it tonight.  Or you can go on Netflix or Hulu.  I bet it gets a 50 share on Netflix too. 

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY ANNIVERSARY CHARLIE BROWN.

And thanks to John Allen.

20 comments:

VP81955 said...

Was that the CBS of the James Aubrey "smiling cobra" era? Dring that time, CBS killed off "The Twilight Zone" and did next to nothing to stop "The Dick Van Dyke Show" from calling it a day. (I'm not sure if Aubrey had anything to do with canceling "Dobie Gillis," the first prime-time series I watched regularly, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did.) In its place were gimmicky series such as "My Living Doll" (silly, despite the talent of the wonderful Julie Newmar), "Run, Buddy, Run" and "Mr. Terrific." Simply put, Aubrey was boorish. No wonder CBS hated "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Thankfully, Aubrey overplayed his hand, was removed by William Paley, and CBS began to regain its poise in 1970-71 with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family."

rockgolf said...

"I'm surprised they didn't require a laugh-track on THE TWILIGHT ZONE."

Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me, but wasn't there at least one episode of "The Twilight Zone" that did have a laugh track? It was a legitimately comic episode, but beyond that, I can't remember details.

Bob Sharp said...

Just a small quibble. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" debuted 51 years ago next month -- December 1965. It is the second longest continuously aired Christmas special, after "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" which debuted in 1964.

Melissa C. Banczak said...

I remember that too. I wonder if it was someone living s life that had a lufe track while they were in the twilight zone. Anyone else remember this?

Dixon Steele said...

Not to mention it gave birth to a true musical classic...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hajwg6kxpQ4

And rockgolf, I do recall a TZ ep about a standup comedian who makes a Faustian bargain to get more laughs, which backfires...that one?

Robert Forman said...

Speaking of Christmas music....A Charlie Brown Christmas has the very best Christmas music. "Christmas Time Is Here" is my favorite Christmas song.
I saw a plastic scrawny Charlie Brown Christmas tree for sale at the local CVS. How ironic is that?

Mike Doran said...

The Twilight Zone with the laugh track was "Cavender Is Coming", which Rod Serling wrote as a vehicle for Carol Burnett.
CBS tried to make it into a backdoor pilot for Jesse White, playing an inept angel.
The laugh track was (surprise!) CBS's idea; Serling, Burnett, White, and the whole TZ team hated the whole idea, and publicly said so.
I believe that while the track got into syndication, subsequent video releases (including currently available DVDs) don't have it (correction accepted, if not exactly welcomed).

Geoffrey said...

Trivial, but A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS wasn't the first animated adaptation of the Peanuts gang. They had been appearing in commercials for Ford cars and trucks for several years before CHRISTMAS was made. Bill Melendez, who directed CHRISTMAS, had also been responsible for the commercials, so he was very familiar with the characters. Melendez used to say in interviews that while he was proud of that special, it was always hard for him to watch it. He would say that it was produced very quickly and all he could see were mistakes they didn't have time to fix. The Ford commercials were already using children to voice the characters, so the idea of having them voice the characters in the special wasn't groundbreaking. It may be, however, that CBS didn't care about children's voices in the commercials so long as the Ford company was happy, but did care when the show was being made on their dime.

@VP81955: I don't think anybody could have kept THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW on the air beyond five seasons. Carl Reiner had always been very conscious of the show not staying on too long. Besides, by season five, Hollywood was calling Reiner and Van Dyke, and they were both ready to move on.

James Aubrey was by all accounts a terrible human being. When Judy Garland's TV series was cancelled, Aubrey reportedly sent her a bouquet with a card attached that read, "You're through." Whether that's true or not, it says a lot that no one who ever worked with Mr. Aubrey during his reign at CBS doubted that he would have done it.

gottacook said...

Dixon Steele: The episode about an unfunny comic was by Rod Serling but it wasn't a Twilight Zone; rather, it was an early (1970-71) segment of Night Gallery titled "Make Me Laugh," starring Godfrey Cambridge and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Andy Rose said...

Another person who thought the animation in that special was terrible: the director. Bill Melendez was terribly embarrassed by the quality of the special, which was rushed because John Allen didn't commission it until six months before the air date. Melendez reportedly wanted for years to redo the special, but Schulz insisted there was no need.
Schulz did, however, permit a few mistakes to be fixed after the debut. Originally, Snoopy joins with the kids in saying "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown" at the end of the special. Schulz didn't like that because, of course, Snoopy doesn't speak English. So that was changed for later airings so that he still stands next to the children, but his mouth doesn't move.

Paul Duca said...

Vincent...James Aubrey was fired from CBS in February 1965, so he had nothing to do with RUN, BUDDY, RUN or MR. TERRIFIC--and since I don't know how much lead time was given, I'm not sure how much he was involved with A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS.

Paul Duca said...

The money quote is what a network rep said the morning after it aired..."All heaven broke loose"

Donald Benson said...

Old enough to remember when animated Christmas specials were a big deal, being totally unseeable the rest of the year. I believe that A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL and maybe even RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER were expected to run maybe twice and were budgeted accordingly. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, a late entry, was lavish by comparison -- probably because they anticipated many annual runs.

New Peanuts specials came thick and fast, many disconnected from any specific occasion. As Melendez and company got better and better at capturing Schulz's look, Schulz's scripts became less and less "special". They were by and large agreeable half hours of Peanuts humor, but rarely rose above that.

Mary Ann Lewis said...

Dear Mr. Levine:

I am a fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. One of my favorite episodes is Season Six, Episode Two with Steve Harvey (here: http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/steve-harvey-always-do-the-banana-joke-first). At the six minute and thirty second mark, Jerry tells Steve that he loves to talk about comedy and ponders if comedy is teachable.

Steve Harvey shakes his head and concludes that either comedians have it or they don’t; comedians are born with it.

Do you believe/think that to be true? I have been outlining and working on a radio play (do not ask me why a radio play) in which I hope will be comedic. I have not written anything with a comedic focus before, so I have been reading up (knowledge makes me feel better). I have read about the Superiority, Relief, and Incongruity Theories. I’ve read advice from various script writers on comedy. My notebook is full things I found interesting and enlightening.

Though you can’t see it in this short missive, I can be witty. I like to be witty and make people laugh. However, I’m concerned that my humor won’t transfer to the page. What if I am merely the entertaining office worker with grandiose ideas of being a comedian?

How can you be objective about your own comedy?

Thank you.
Mary Lewis

P.S. Please forgive that this has nothing to do with your post. I could not find another way to contact you.

Boomska316 said...

Friday Question(seriously:Is there some reason why studio executives are usually the last to understand what the public might like? I don't know if I'm phrasing the question quite right, but it seems like for every Brandon Tartikoff you get 10 of the guys mentioned in this post. Why is that?

Mike Barer said...

That's a great story, if there was the equivalent of an Oscar for blogging, that post would win.

Mike Barer said...

So appropriate that you used the picture of the sickly Christmas tree in regards to how the show was proposed, it is totally emblematic of the entire program.

Andrew said...

I've always loved this post of yours, Ken.

The moment that Linus reads the story of Christ's birth is so powerful - "And a little child shall lead them."

Gary West said...

... And, it came a year after NBC debuted, Rudolph. You always looked forward to it.

Also - CBS-TV's annual "Wizard of Oz" showing always drew big numbers. I remember Danny Kaye hosting the last few CBS years. Dick Van Dyke did so earlier in the 1960's. As did, Richard Boone.

The initial "Oz-CBS-TV" agreement was for 10 years. After that - it was up for bid - and NBC won.

It was never the same after it moved to NBC-TV. CBS was wiser with the Charlie Brown deal, staying on the network for decades. And, adding a few more.

John the Red said...

A Charlie Brown Christmas is brilliant on every level. I'm in my 40's now and it still fills me with that old feeling I used to gret when we watched it as a family when I was little. How typical the network disliked it!

And the score....outstanding! I love Vince Guaraldi anyway. Not only was he an amazing musician, he was apparently pretty hip. Used to hang out with The Grateful Dead when some of the band lived at 710 Ashbury in San Francisco in 1967, and supposedly even sat in with them onstage a few times. He even made the back cover of their 1969 album "Aoxomoxoa." It's a Dead & family photo, and Vince is the guy with the shades and hat on right next to the horse in the back row.

I'm gonna pull the Charlie Brown Christmas dvd out some night soon, as I do every holiday season. Luckily, my lovely wife loves it as much as I do!