In a 2001 interview, producer Lee Mendelson recalled the reaction of a CBS executive who attended a screening of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" shortly before it was scheduled to premiere, on December 9, 1965: "Well, it's in the TV Guide logs — we gotta put it on the air. Nice try. We'll put it on once, and that'll be it."
Mendelson and director Bill Melendez had been given only six months to throw the show together after sponsor Coca-Cola requested a holiday special. Following the preview, both men feared that the disappointed network honchos and appalled sponsors might be right. When not haltingly exchanging philosophical banter in static shots, the wonky cartoon kids — everyman Charlie Brown, precocious Linus, capricious Lucy, prodigy Schroeder, and the others familiar around the world through the wildly popular Peanuts comic strip — delivered stilted punchlines that weren't even accompanied by canned laughter. And they were voiced by actual children, most of whom had no acting experience. The six-year-old who played Sally had not yet learned to read and was fed her lines piecemeal, which accounts for her disjointed delivery when pressing Charlie Brown to write her letter to Santa Claus: "All I want is what/I/have coming to me./All I want/is my fair share!"
And there was a bigger stumbling block: The crass commercialism of modern American Yuletide led Peanuts creator (and author of the script) Charles Schulz to stubbornly insist that Linus recite the Christian Nativity story straight from the Gospels.
Schulz (1922–2000) could be as wishy-washy as Charlie Brown, curious as Linus, bitter as Lucy, and obsessive as Schroeder. In 1950, although he hated the name the newspaper syndicate insisted upon — "Peanuts" — he swallowed the indignity for the opportunity to create a daily strip. And then he assumed complete control: Schulz rarely took vacation and, unlike other syndicated cartoonists, who sometimes farmed out writing and art chores, wouldn't allow anyone else to touch so much as a panel rule. Having come of age during the Depression, however, he understood how tenuous economic security could be, so beyond the borders of the strip he licensed his characters to peddle everything from lunchboxes to Ford Falcons. In the inaugural airing of the Christmas show, Schulz's first foray into TV, Snoopy spins Charlie Brown and Linus around on a frozen pond, sending the former crashing into a tree underneath the special's title, followed by Linus plowing into a sign that reads, "Brought to you by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola." (In later years, Linus's collision — and a voiceover repeating Coke's message — was excised when other advertisers replaced Coke as sponsor.)
The engaging sincerity of Charlie Brown's search for meaning escaped the media barons, but it resonated for millions of viewers. Perhaps, after trudging through the snow to buy extravagant gifts and artificial Christmas trees, they discovered they agreed with Charlie Brown's outrage at a flyer announcing a decorating competition: "Find the true meaning of Christmas! Win money! Money! Money!" Schulz had captured something essential about the schizophrenia of Americans' self-image: There's always something else we need to buy, even as we yearn for something that can never be bought.
The show was a hit and has remained so, lo these 50 years. Much of its appeal derives from the very elements the suits objected to: the buoyant jazz soundtrack; the stark character designs and backgrounds; and the seemingly choppy script, which punctuated Charlie Brown's existential angst — his "fear of everything" — with comedy bits pulled directly from the comic strip, such as Lucy's telling Schroeder that Beethoven wasn't so great: "He never got his picture on a bubblegum card." (When Patty hears that Charlie Brown has been named director, her reaction — "This will be the worst Christmas play ever!" — reminds us that everyone's favorite adverb of parodic doom has been around longer than we think.)
Designed for the (literally) small screen, the rushed production is marked by flaws — poorly aligned animation cels, inconsistent flesh tones — that wouldn't have been noticeable on that RCA Victor portable of yore but become evident on today's high-def displays. One continuity mistake — the sign on Lucy's psychiatric booth alternates between "The Doctor is In" and "The Doctor is REAL IN" — becomes a serendipitous acknowledgement that the times were indeed a-changin' since the first appearance of the booth in a late-Fifties strip. When she confides that Christmas is a racket "run by a big Eastern syndicate," Lucy is channeling the sentiment, then growing, that corporations — not least those tied to the military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned against — were usurping America's humanity. (In 1968, Schulz introduced the strip's only African-American character, Franklin, who would reveal that his father was fighting in Vietnam. Charlie Brown's reply was that his dad had been in a war, too, "but I don't know which one.")
Melendez's animated characters had none of the surreal elasticity found in the slick Warner Bros. cartoons from the Forties and Fifties that kids still watched in 1965, nor the jetpack sophistication of Jonny Quest, who was taking viewers on weekly James Bondian thrill rides. What the Peanuts special offered were moves that charmed the nation — the children dance with a spastic abandon that grown-ups, encrusted with decades of self-consciousness, watch a little more wistfully as each year passes. And Melendez, a veteran of commercial and industrial animation, crafted a beautifully scaled layout — those big round heads amid pointy pink Christmas trees — that lacks the verisimilitude of a Pixar epic but that South Park has dined out on from day one.
Despite the misgivings of Schulz's collaborators about allowing biblical verses into secular prime time, the show pivots on Linus's earnest erudition. When he quotes Luke 2:10 — "And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" — he is so overwhelmed that he momentarily lets loose of his blue security blanket. Today, it's easy to imagine that Linus might be equally wowed by Pope Francis's "Who am I to judge?" humanism; conversely, we can wonder what His Holiness might think of Schulz's "joy to all people" theology.
Inquiries to numerous Vatican representatives received one reply: "Thank you for your message. The Holy Father does not watch television!"
Which is maybe too bad, because next year's Golden Anniversary has Schulz and crew questioning rigid dogma in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" — holiday entertainment this pontiff might truly appreciate.
A Charlie Brown Christmas airs at 9 p.m. November 30 on ABC.