Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Charlie Brown Triumph

A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in December 1965. Commissioned by Coca-Cola, Charles Schulz and the production company finished the show just barely one week before the broadcast date. When it was pre-screened by two top executives at CBS they were underwhelmed at the final product. “Well, you gave it a good shot,” said one. “It seems a little flat…a little slow,” said the other. “Well,” said the first, “we will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”

The rest, as they say, is history as the special knocked the socks off a pre-Woodstock, pre-Superbowl America and has aired on TV every Christmas since 1965. Even though we have the special on VHS and DVD at my house, my tradition is to try to watch it “live” every Christmas season. I’ve been known to watch it by myself in a hotel room in some far-flung city while I was traveling in December on business. There is something different about the “live experience.”

I feel sorry for those who think of Schulz’s animated classic as only a “cartoon.” In the Newark Star Ledger on December 1, 1995, columnist Matt Zoller Seitz hit the target when he wrote:

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.

Charlie Brown… is America’s most-beloved loser, forever falling short of his goals, endlessly stung by failure. Yet he keeps striving in his own mopey, block-headed way, to become a better person and to make the rest of us better, too.

In the process, he gives his friends, his dog, himself and us an invaluable Christmas gift: the gift of introspection. As we watch the Peanuts gang singing songs around a little tree nobody wanted, we realize that unless we’re willing to look inward, to recognize our own selfishness and conquer it, we remain incapable of bringing lasting happiness to others. We remain boxed inside our own preconceptions like beautiful unwrapped presents.”

And regarding the highlight of the classic special, a scene Charles Schulz insisted be kept in the production, Gene Edward Veith wrote a number of years ago:

A Charlie Brown Christmas deals precisely with the misunderstandings of Christmas—the commercialism, the frustrations, the frenetic efforts to attain a perfect holiday. But the story is resolved when Linus on the stage simply recites the account of Christ's birth from the second chapter of Luke. ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.’ That is the best moment in Christmas TV.”

Amen to that.


Jan said...

I have it on DVD, it's one of my favorite Christmas specials; truly a gem. The disk also contains the second one, but it's horrible. Very jarring and cynical compared to the first one.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Jan - I never found any of the subsequent Peanuts specials to quite measure up to the magic of the first. Most were cute and entertaining enough, but all lacked the impact of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Michael said...

Thanks for reminding me of the need to slow down this time of year. Merry Christmas to you and your family.