National Review Online first published this essay on November 25, 2011.
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 don’t know is that the Christmas special almost didn’t happen, because some not-so-smart television executives almost didn’t 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 Bible’s 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 I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve 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 didn’t 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 didn’t.
The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz’s 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 children’s 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.