Thursday, December 24, 2015

By request: Charlie Brown meets MAD MEN

Got a request for a re-post.  Lots of people have requested it, actually.   So in the spirit of the season...

On Monday Andrew asked:

One of my favorite posts of yours is the one on "A Charlie Brown Christmas." First of all, I get the impression that you're not a Christian and don't expect to become one :-). So to read your insights into what made it stand out to you was a real treat.

But the best thing about the post was how everything that made that show wonderful and special - the music, the animation, the children's voices, Linus reading scripture - was opposed by the higher-ups. There's a lesson in there somewhere, and not just related to TV.

So my request: Please repost that post! It will be a delightful Christmas gift to your readers, especially those who've never read it before. 

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 48 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. and has aired it ever since.  They'll show it again tomorrow night at 8:00/7:00 Central. 


And thanks to John Allen.


Bill Avena said...

On in a one hour time slot. That takes a 25 minute cartoon and adds 35 minutes of commercials. I couldn't believe when TNT showed the Grinch special in a 30 minute slot without apparently cutting it.
Merry Luanistyn to all!

Boomska316 said...

Friday Question:I've heard this story about this special before and it makes me wonder why the network suits tend to be so clueless on stuff like this? Seriously.

Mike Barer said...

I think it is such a work of art, it transcends religion. I think it was also the first broadcast to question the commercialism of Christmas.
What a great post, Ken! This in itself is worthy of award.

Barry Rivadue said...

Boomska316, in a recent interview John Cleese said something like, the least qualified people to understand or make creative decisions are often the ones in charge of these things (that is, the suits), and that they're incapable of even knowing they are the least qualified. Sort of like double cluelessness. It's been that way in the media a long time.

Mike Barer said...

From what I'm reading, the Network suits have only gotten "suitier" over the decades.

Stephen Marks said...

The Munsters, Charlie Brown Christmas and Gilligan's Island.....thats like Mary Tyler Moore having a threesome with Tom Arnold and Al Bundy, Yikes!

Mike Barer said...

2 of my favorite old comedies.

Daniel said...

Bill Avena: ABC does air the special in a one-hour timeslot most years, but A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS occupies only the first forty minutes of that hour. Usually, a 2002 special titled CHARLIE BROWN'S CHRISTMAS TALES, running only twenty minutes, has filled out the remainder of the hour. CHRISTMAS TALES is really just a series of Christmas-themed vignettes, drawn from Schulz's strip, and was produced for the express purpose of filling out the hour so ABC could run A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS uncut.

Another person initially unhappy with A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS was Bill Melendez, who co-produced and directed nearly all the Peanuts specials and feature films, in addition to providing the voice of Snoopy. The special had been produced very quickly, in only six months, and Melendez and most of the crew thought it looked terrible, due to the animation being such a rush job. That's much less evident to us today, as the show's animation errors were corrected, smoothed out and reanimated for subsequent rebroadcasts. (Additionally, a few internal references to Coca-Cola, the show's original sponsor, were removed or required new animation after Coke dropped the show.)

VillageDianne said...

I loved the wha-wha-wha sound every time an adult spoke. Probably the suits hated that too.

Chris said...

it achieved the almost unheard of feat of getting higher ratings year after year.

CBS had previously had that experience with THE WIZARD OF OZ. They originally ran the feature in 1956, and it did well. The network didn't repeat it until 1959, when it did even better. It was repeated every season after that, and for the next few years, to CBS's amazement, the movie continued to draw higher and higher numbers each season instead of lower ones, as was the norm with reruns.

Jon said...

The special had been produced very quickly, in only six months, and Melendez and most of the crew thought it looked terrible, due to the animation being such a rush job.

I've seen documentary footage of Melendez saying that because most of the show's animation mistakes were fixed for reruns, people can't realize today that, from a purely graphic point of view, the special as originally seen in 1965 really did look pretty bad.

Contrary to what's often written, A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS wasn't the animation debut of the Peanuts gang. Ford, the car manufacturer, had featured Charlie Brown and friends in a long series of ads for the Ford Falcon, animated by Bill Melendez, dating back to 1959 and running into the mid 1960s. I know Schulz was all about licensing and marketing, but it's still a little disconcerting to see Charlie Brown and Linus urging us to go out and buy a new Ford Falcon today. Those commercials were actually what led to the proposal for A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, and prove that the idea of having children provide the character voices was in place long before A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS was ever made. Here are some examples of the Peanuts ads for Ford, from YouTube:

A live-action Peanuts sitcom had been proposed in the early 1960s, inspired by the success of the live-action DENNIS THE MENACE sitcom, but Schulz refused to even consider that idea.

Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VaultGuy said...

Charles Schulz himself requested at least one change to the A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS animation. The closing credits play over the kids singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." As originally seen in 1965, Snoopy speaks along with the kids when they shout, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" and sings along with them on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Schulz asked that this be changed, so the credits were reanimated to eliminate Snoopy's mouth movements. The original 1965 credits are linked below. You can also hear the tail end of the song, which is no longer heard. Now, the song fades out a few seconds before the credits end. This happened after Coca-Cola dropped sponsorship and the final plug for Coke, at the end of the credits, had to be cut out of the negative.

VaultGuy said...

Oh, note, too, that in the original 1965 credits, Charlie Brown blushes after the kids wish him a merry Christmas. This, too, was eliminated when the credits were reanimated.

By the way, the special was made and originally aired in color. It was the norm back then for 16mm back up prints to be printed in black and white, even if the show itself was in color. This 1965 closing credits footage comes from one of those back up prints. Unfortunately, none of this original footage, cut from the 35mm film negative when replacement animation was inserted, was saved.

Tim W. said...

I know I'm probably the minority, but I never liked the Charlie Brown Christmas. I DID find it depressing. In fact, I've never been a fan of Charlie Brown at all. I find him one of the most depressing and annoying characters from my childhood. I never understood why watching a guy who can never succeed in life was supposed to be so entertaining.

Stephen said...

I was too young for Peanuts the first time around, but I do read the old strips that run on gocomics. Overall I like the strip, but Charlie Brown really gets on my nerves sometimes with the unceasing, self-pitying whining about how miserable and unhappy he is and what a loser he is and how nobody likes him.

Doug said...

Some fascinating old Peanuts animation linked here. I've seen a couple of print ads Schulz did with his characters for Ford, but I'd never heard about them actually being animated for TV commercials. On the 1964 commercial, Charlie Brown sounds like the same kid who voices him in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS.

I have read about some other changes they had to make after Coke stopped sponsoring the special. The first was in the opening. After Charlie Brown slides into the tree and snow falls on him and they show the A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS title card, there was a shot of Linus sliding into a Coca-Cola sign. Later, when the kids are throwing snowballs at a can on a fence, originally they were throwing snowballs at a Coca-Cola bottle. That was one of those things where the whole scene had to be reanimated. The third was when Charlie Brown and Linus leave the auditorium to go find a Christmas tree. Originally there was a Coca-Cola sign in the background at one point. That had to be changed, too.

Programs sure did go out of their way to accommodate the sponsor back then.

Kayla said...

I like the Ford ad linked above where Charlie Brown is speaking in the announcer's deep bass voice.

Diane D. said...

A L Crivaro
There are many readers of this blog who still can't get enough CHEERS talk and will love hearing about your experience. Although the first season (with the addition of the first episode of Season 2, which is a continuation of the last episode of Season 1) is my favorite, I have to agree about the episode where Carla attacks the customer.

For many of us diehard fans, it's only the first 5 years (Diane years) we really love. It continued to be hilarious and well worth watching, but we just couldn't get over the loss of the Sam/Diane dynamic. The show was so perfect, and many fans had come to care so much about Sam and Diane that it was so sad to see them part. However, the show continued it's fabulous ratings throughout it's entire run, so obviously, there were plenty of people who did fine with the changes.

Enjoy, it gets better and better, and I hope you will continue to give updates.

Mary Ann... no, Ginger... no, Mary Ann... wait... said...

Friday question: Speaking of Gilligan's Island, it has my favorite line that somehow made it past the censors.

Ginger (to robot): I've been stuck on this island for a very long time, and I'd like you to get me off.
Robot: I am not programmed for that function.

Do you have a favorite line you never thought would get past the censors, but did?

Andrew said...

Thank you, Ken!

Adrian said...

A lot of cool stuff here about A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS and early Peanuts animation. From what I've looked around and found online, the Peanuts kids were featured regularly in TV commercials for Ford from 1959 to 1964, animated by the very same crew who would make the TV specials. One site referred to those all those years of Ford commercials as a forgotten chapter in Peanuts history. Charles Schulz himself apparently preferred to forget they'd ever happened and always claimed that the Christmas special was the Peanuts gang's animation debut.

tavm said...

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is my favorite TV holiday special!

Christian said...

Part 1:

Out of all those Peanuts TV specials cranked out over the years, only three -- A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN, and A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING -- have become TV perennials. Some of the others get trotted out occasionally, and there is the one someone mentioned above -- CHARLIE BROWN'S CHRISTMAS TALES -- A twenty-minute show run annually that exists solely so ABC can run A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS complete and uncut in a forty-minute time slot. Most of the others have shown up on home video, but for broadcast purposes, it's pretty much just those three.

Honestly, some of the later ones were pretty awful. Crap like IT'S FLASHBEAGLE, CHARLIE BROWN, which exists solely because Charles Schulz got the idea that it would be brilliantly hip and contemporary to have Snoopy perform an animated version of Jennifer Beals' dance routine from the movie FLASHDANCE. Others play out like silly sitcom plots. In IT'S MAGIC, CHARLIE BROWN, Snoopy becomes a magician, makes Charlie Brown invisible, and then is unable to re-materialize him. Others got too wrapped up in Snoopy and his fantasy life, sidelining the kids almost entirely. LIFE IS A CIRCUS, CHARLIE BROWN had Snoopy running away from home to become a circus performer after he falls in love with a performing poodle named Fifi. WHAT A NIGHTMARE, CHARLIE BROWN had Snoopy dreaming of being an Alaskan sled dog, eventually acting like a real dog, baring his fangs, walking on all fours, and challenging the lead sled dog to a dog fight, with sideline silliness like the beagle sneaking into a saloon and trying to pass himself off as a can-can dancer.

There were a few oddities along the way, preachies like WHY, CHARLIE BROWN, WHY?, a Very Special Episode about a new little girl in the neighborhood (never seen before or since), who has been diagnosed with leukemia and is receiving chemotherapy. And WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED, CHARLIE BROWN?, which had the kids in France and Belgium, learning important things about World Wars I and II.

Christian said...

Part 2:

Weirdest of all may have been IT'S THE GIRL IN THE RED TRUCK, CHARLIE BROWN, a blend of live-action and animation built around Snoopy's oddball brother Spike and his friendship with the titular young lady, portrayed by Schulz's daughter Janice. There's not a lot of plot to it. Janice is an aerobics instructor who wants to be a jazz dancer in the big city. She and Spike ride around and, at one point, go roller skating together. In production for four years and costing millions of dollars, the special had the misfortune to air a few weeks after WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT premiered theatrically, with its ground-breaking blend of live-action and animation. To say that the clunky, amateurish IT'S THE GIRL IN THE RED TRUCK, CHARLIE BROWN suffered in comparison would be an understatement. Schulz later commented, "I wanted this to be my CITIZEN KANE, but it's not."

Another oddity was THIS IS AMERICA, CHARLIE BROWN, a series of eight specials aired in 1988 and 1989, focusing on events in American history. For this group, Schulz threw out his "no adults" rule and had grown-ups mingling with the kids and speaking. One of these shows, THE MAYFLOWER VOYAGERS, airs in abbreviated form on ABC following A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING. As with CHRISTMAS TALES, this is solely to allow ABC to show THANKSGIVING uncut.

It wasn't the first time Schulz had violated one of his own rules. Charlie Brown's eternal crush, the Little Red Haired Girl, was never seen in the comic strip, Schulz explaining that he could never draw her to live up to his readers' expectations. Nevertheless, she not only appears in IT'S YOUR FIRST KISS, CHARLIE BROWN, but is given a name, Heather. IT'S YOUR FIRST KISS is also unique for being the only special to be altered for subsequent rebroadcasts due to viewer complaints. The plot involves the school's homecoming game, lost because Lucy, for some insane reason designated as place kicker, cannot resist pulling away the football every time Charlie Brown tries to kick it. Even though the team's loss is very clearly Lucy's fault, Charlie Brown is, naturally, the one who takes all the abuse for it, so much of it that viewers complained, leading Schulz, and co-producers Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez to concede that they'd gone too far with Charlie Brown's ongoing mistreatment by his "friends," resulting in some of the special's dialogue being altered to lessen the severity of the kid's cruelty.

Christian said...

The plot involves the school's homecoming game, lost because Lucy, for some insane reason designated as place kicker, cannot resist pulling away the football every time Charlie Brown tries to kick it.

Correction to the above: Charlie Brown is place kicker. Lucy is place kick setter.

Johnny Walker said...

Fascinating. Thanks for sharing that, Christian.

Janice said...

In the book CHARLES M. SCHULZ: CONVERSATIONS, Schulz talked about his regret over the IT'S YOUR FIRST KISS, CHARLIE BROWN special. He said, "You have to do things that attract some kind of attention, and it's no doubt that that was one of these stupid stories we never should have done."

Note that the Little Red-Haired Girl also appears, and speaks, in the Peanuts feature film that's currently out.

I've seen most of these Peanuts specials on DVD, and I have to admit that as good as most of the earlier ones were, by the 1980s they had started to go seriously off-track. Too many gimmicky ideas and too much emphasis on Snoopy and his fantasy life. It's sort of like those involved forgot that the basic appeal of the strip was Charlie Brown and his friends and their adventures around the neighborhood. It's amazing how many of the later specials feature very little of the kids. It really does appear that Charles Schulz and the people he worked with on these specials got too caught up with the idea that they all had to have some sort of a hook. Some big, gimmicky idea that could be easily promoted and that would catch people's attention. Or maybe they thought since so much of that kind of material was being done on the Saturday morning CHARLIE BROWN AND SNOOPY SHOW than ran during the mid-1980s, the prime-time specials needed to be unusual, different and off-beat to stand out.

FLASHBEAGLE is pretty awful, aside even from being very badly dated. An album was produced as a tie-in with it, that everybody involved with the show was apparently surprised to see failed to sell.

THE GIRL IN THE RED TRUCK is just bizarre. It was co-written by Schulz and his son and starred his daughter. The line quoted above about Schulz saying he expected that special to be his CITIZEN KANE is in the CONVERSATIONS book. Watching the special, it's really hard to fathom what he thought was so great about it. The story is very slight and the blending of live action and animation is never very convincing. People always seem to be staring off into the distance, not at the animated Spike, right in front of them, with whom they're supposed to be interacting.

tavm said...

Anybody here remember something Charles Schulz wrote called "The Big Stuffed Dog" in which the giant Snoopy stuffed toy got passed around various people. It was a live action production with one the players being Abe Vigoda, I believe. It was the first ep of NBC's "Project Peacock" which replaced "The Wonderful World of Disney" on the network in 1981.

Craig H said...

Am I dreaming this or didn't an episode of The Twilight Zone with a young Carol Burnett feature a laugh track?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Great classic Ken post and great comments! A few thoughts:

• "Linus and Lucy," Vince Guaraldi's iconic Peanuts theme (which has now become played as a Christmas song), was written for a documentary called "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" (not to be confused with the 1970 feature film). So the music was first heard in the doc, not in the Christmas special. Just a fun fact. The Schulz Museum sells the DVD on their website.

• Clueless decision makers exist in many other places than just at TV networks. And they're often in charge of the very thing that they don't "get." Curiouser and curiouser. To be fair, there are some that have a clue. Some.

• Carol Burnett's Twilight Zone episode was called "Cavender is Coming" and some prints did have a laugh track. And it was weird to hear that on The Twilight Zone. Fun fact: Filmation cartoons were the first to have laugh tracks on Saturday morning.

• The late veteran voice actor Dick Beals, a little person, was the go-to actor for kid voices and told me that he had been cast and approved as Charlie Brown until Charles Schulz learned he was an adult and had it recast.

• For the record, there is a Munsters Christmas Special (not with the original cast). It does not have a scripture reading. I would have loved to see something like "Gilligan Saves Christmas" with Santa landing on the island, getting their help, but still somehow ditching them, leaving them stranded just like Zsa Zsa, Don Rickles, Rory Calhoun and The Mosquitoes did.

• I'm also rediscovering Cheers and really really appreciating Nicholas Colasanto as Coach. And I miss him.

• You can hear the complete ending of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" on the soundtrack album of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

• Several Charlie Brown specials that are not shown very often, but are very good, include "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" (you'd love that one, Ken), "You're in Love Charlie Brown", and "There's No Time for Love, Charlie Brown". Most are from the early days, but "You're the Greatest, Charlie Brown" is pretty good too.

• The third Peanuts theatrical film, "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown," also had adult voices in it. It was directly inspired by events in Schulz's life. "What Have We Learned" was a sort of sequel.

• Charlie Brown is appealing because he never quits, despite the pain and humiliation. That makes him lovable and eternally beguiling. He is a classic comic pathos character. Ralph Kramden also keeps trying, even though his success is so unlikely -- it's part of the often inexplicable reason that Alice puts up with him.

• While the new "Peanuts Movie" does have some short dialogue with the Little Red Haired Girl at the end, it is in no way as off-concept as it was in "It's Your First Kiss," where Charlie Brown was in "the Big Game"(?) and Linus later told him he was dancing the hustle and the bump. In fact, The Peanuts Movie is very good. The movie takes place completely in the Peanuts neighborhood, using Snoopy for the action and travel sequences. It's a credit to Fox for resisting the "marketable" temptation to mess with the charm and simplicity of the original comic strip and early specials.

• The "Flashbeagle" special was another off-concept one, but the album was pretty good, with extra songs, including a very nice one called "Someday, Charlie Brown" that I wish could have shown up in a special at some point, but did not. Fun fact: all the Peanuts story records and that album were actually Disney records.