I can still remember when I first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Christmas special aired on December 9, 1965, and I would have just turned 10 years old.
I recall being out on the playground across the street from my house in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park when I looked at my watch and noticed it was almost time for the show. Because we didn’t have VCRs or DVRs to record shows back then, I had to catch the program live. So I went sprinting back to the house and plopped in front of the TV.
It was magical. This was the first time I had ever seen a comic strip come alive on television—and Peanuts was my favorite comic. It still is.
In the excellent biography, Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis tells the behind-the-scenes story of how Peanuts made it to the small screen. Charles Schulz, the Peanuts creator, was a shy guy, but he still made his demands heard loud and clear from the get-go. Among those demands was no laugh track—the canned laughter you still hear in the background of many sitcoms.
The producer of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lee Mendelson, argued that all comedy shows relied on laugh-tracks, which was true on TV in the 1960s.
“Well this one won’t,” said Sparky—the nickname for Charles Schulz. “Let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way.”
The idea of using jazz music for a Christmas cartoon also struck head honchos at the TV network as bizarre. But today, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is still among the most recognizable of holiday music.
When the network bigwigs got their first look at A Charlie Brown Christmas, they did not like much of what they saw. Neither of the two vice presidents of the CBS network laughed even once, recalled the director, Mendelson, according to the book Schulz and Peanuts.
One producer said the show seemed “a little flat,” while another said it was “too slow” and “the script is too innocent.”
But worst of all…
“The Bible thing scares us,” said one of the vice presidents.
The Bible thing…
“When Sparky began work on the script,” writes Michaelis, Schulz proudly announced that there would be “one whole minute of Linus reciting the Gospel.”
The network was terrified of offending their commercial sponsors with one minute of the Gospel of Luke. Sound familiar? Last year, I read of a Kentucky school district censoring Linus’ speech in an elementary school play version of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
But according to Michaelis, Charles Schulz insisted that the passage of Scripture remain. He told the executives, “We can’t avoid it—we have to get the passage of St. Luke in there somehow.”
Then this is the line I love.
Schulz “looked at them for a moment in silence,” Michaelis writes, “and then turned his ‘strange blue eyes’ on Melendez (the animator), and said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?”
If we don’t do it, who will?
This is the question that we all need to ask ourselves on a regular basis. If we don’t stand up for our faith, who will?
Nearly half of the people in the United States watching television that night tuned in to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I was one of them. The special became an instant classic, one of the greatest Christmas specials of all time.
“All heaven broke loose,” wrote one New York adman the next day.
The special even made its mark on the irreverent comedy show, Saturday Night Live. I own all of the copies of The Complete Peanuts book series, and an introduction to one of the books was written by Robert Smigel, a writer for Saturday Night Live. Smigel, a huge Peanuts fan, says he once wrote an SNL cartoon in which Jesus sadly watches Christmas being trivialized by all of the garish holiday drivel on TV. But then Jesus turns to A Charlie Brown Christmas at the exact moment that Linus is reciting Scripture.
According to Smigel, a close-up of Jesus getting a tear in his eye was supposed to be poignant, but it was also supposed to get a laugh from the live studio audience. But as he explained, no one in the SNL audience laughed. Complete silence. He said it’s because “the audience cherished Linus’ moment, and there was simply no instinct to laugh, no matter the context…In today’s world, watching that scene with Linus is probably the most religious experience many people have during the holidays.”
So, as you go out into the world, don’t be ashamed or afraid to declare the same Good News that the angels announced in Bethlehem so long ago: A Savior is born!
As Charles Schulz said, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
By Doug Peterson