Skip to comments.The Gospel According to Peanuts [A Charlie Brown Christmas]
Posted on 11/28/2011 5:15:56 AM PST by Servant of the Cross
How A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didnt happen
Few headlines about network television make me giddy. Fewer still make me hopeful that all is good in the world. But back in August of 2010, I read the following headline from the media pages with great excitement: Charlie Brown Is Here to Stay: ABC Picks Up Peanuts Specials Through 2015. The first of these to be made, the famous Christmas special, was an instant classic when it was created by Charles Schulz on a shoestring budget back in 1965, and thanks to some smart television executives, it will be around for at least another five years for all of us to see and enjoy.
What people dont know is that the Christmas special almost didnt happen, because some not-so-smart television executives almost didnt let it air. You see, Charles Schulz had some ideas that challenged the way of thinking of those executives 46 years ago, and one of them had to do with the inclusion in his Christmas cartoon of a reading from the King James Bibles version of the Gospel of Luke.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
As far back as 1965 just a few years before Time magazine asked Is God Dead? CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was a groundbreaking program in so many ways, as we learned watching the great PBS American Masters series on Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as Sparky. It was based on the comic strip Peanuts, and was produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.
We learned in that PBS special that the cartoon happened by mere serendipity.
We got a call from Coca-Cola, remembered Melendez. And they said, Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters? and I immediately said Yes. And it was Wednesday and they said, If you can send us an outline by Monday, we might be interested in it. So I called Sparky on the phone and told him Id just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas, and he said, Whats that? and I said, Its something youve got to write tomorrow.
We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didnt make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didnt.
The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulzs team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.
The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a childrens program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.
Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.
There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBSs prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands.
They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special, explained Melendez. They basically wrote it off, like, hey, this is just isnt going to be interesting to anyone, and its just going to be like a big tax write-off.
Melendez himself was somewhat hesitant about the reading from Luke. I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it. But Sparky just assumed what he had to say was important to somebody.
Which is why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He knew that the Luke reading by Linus was the heart and soul of the story.
As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, Linus quietly saves the day. He walks to 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 thats what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown, Linus concluded.
The scene lasted 51 seconds. When Linus finished up, Charlie Brown realized he did not have to let commercialism ruin his Christmas. With a sense of inspiration and purpose, he picked up his fragile tree and walked out of the auditorium, intending to take it home to decorate and show all who cared to see how it would work in the school play.
When CBS executives saw the final product, they were horrified. They believed the special would be a complete flop. CBS programmers were equally pessimistic, informing the production team, We will, of course, air it next week, but Im afraid we wont be ordering any more.
The half-hour special aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters and following Gilligans Island. To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.
Linuss recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, Linus reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is equaled only perhaps by the 1966 How the Grinch Stole Christmas! in its popularity among young and old alike. Thank God the Grinch-like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965 despite their misgivings. If it had been left to their gut instincts, we would have had one less national treasure to cherish come Christmas time.
What are odds that network chops the Bible reading scene
to add more commericals.....
What are odds that network chops the Bible reading scene
to add more commericals.....
I could see this show ending on networks not because of the content, but because of the nature of visual media entertainment. Who wants to tune in on a specific channel at a set time when you can watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost at will on the internet and on DVD?
Seeing that the Bible Christmas story recited by Linus is a pivotal point of the show, you couldn’t delete it without destroying the entire story. But I’ll bet the network will find a way to do it nevertheless.
As a kid before cable and VHS tapes, so see a cartoon in the evening time was a wonderful thing!
That in itself showed in the ratings and at some point it just became something that let you (with great excitement of course) that CHRISTMAS WAS ALMOST HERE!!!!
And it was a good show too.
Thanks for posting this. I wanted to do so yesterday but the site was so wacky I didn’t get a chance.
If the show was made today, Linus would go off on a rant about how capitalism has ruined “the holidays”.
In 1969, I worked in the AudioVisual department of a brand spanking new high school with a wall of open reel tape decks (about 30 of them) that would broadcast on up to 5 channels into the school library via an antenna around the library.
I took a Wollensak portable open reel deck home and placed it’s mic in front of our tv speaker while the show was on. I even paused it during commercials. We then played that tape in the school library for the entire Christmas season. I was an agnostic at the time but I remember that reading by Linus as being the whole point of the show. And when he concludes it with ‘and that’s what Christmas is all about, it had a profuse impact on me to this day.
Every year I’ve watched Christmas get more and more commercial while in my life it continues to get less and less commercial. That episode has also become a condemnation of our culture as it sits now, before the fact. Back when this show was created, there was no such thing a “Black Friday”.
I love Guaraldi..
We've got this show on DVD and watched it this weekend. My comment to my wife was "This couldn't be made for mass consumption today." Sadly, she agreed.
This is one of my favorite Christmas specials.
Lucy: “Everyone knows Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate Charlie Brown”
The best Christmas special ever made:
Hands down the best Christmas Special ever. Period.
It tops our annual Christmas watch list. We have a family tradition of watching the following (almost all on DVD now to accomodate schedules as kids have their own lives and families now):
Charlie Brown Christmas, Grinch, Rudolph, White Christmas, A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sim version), Scrooged, Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story. We then cap it off on Christmas Eve with a family dinner, then the entire family watches “It’s A Wonderful Life” followed by opening one gift before the kids and grandkids go home and we hit the bed — mom in her kerchief and I in my cap of course.
Thanksgiving day I pop that Vince Guaraldi soundtrack into the kitchen CD player, and it doesn’t come out til New Year. I never get sick of it....
Possibly the best special ever. (And for the same reasons the execs didn’t like it)
“who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.”