In which a (metaphorically) tiny tree reveals the true meaning of Christmas (specials).
“Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin’ is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.”
Cable television’s current belief in unique storytelling has resulted in the juggernaut known as Breaking Bad, a show about a terminally ill chemistry teacher’s meth empire that’s also considered to be the best show on television. But in the pre-cable era of 1965 there were but three television networks, all of whom jockeyed for TV show profits by steadfastly ignoring modern themes. This was the year Dylan went electric, Watts had riots, and Russ Meyer released Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Among CBS’s biggest shows at the time, by comparison, were The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres, all broad rural-based comedies that were so free from edge they were practically spheres. Those sitcoms were squaresville, daddy-o!
1965 was also the year Peanuts made the cover of Time. Over the previous 15 years, creator Charles Schulz had snuck quirky social commentary into the mouths (and swiped footballs) of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, creating America’s most popular comic strip. This inspired The Coca-Cola Company to approach producer Lee Mendelson about creating a Peanuts Christmas special for CBS, as he was a friend of Schulz. Mendelson and Schulz replied, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Hells to the Yes!”, and proceeded to add two additional heavyweights to the project: ex-Disney and Looney Tunes animation director Bill Melendez (Oscar winner for Gerald McBoingBoing) and jazz pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi (Grammy winner for Cast your Fate to the Wind).
Although a ferocious assemblage of West Coast creative talent, they had two major strikes against them: 1) none of them had ever created a Christmas special for television, and 2) they had six months to figure it out, three months less than the standard.
Schulz and Mendelson wanted the special to have an authentic feel, and scripted an original story about Charlie Brown’s depression due to the over-commercialization of Christmas. When his community wanted a glitzy pageant, Charlie Brown took solace in decorating a threadbare little Christmas tree that no one appreciated, but eventually his sweetness won them over.
The speed of which the team worked allowed them cross-pollinate roles. Animator Melendez provided the expressive voice of Snoopy. Composer Guaraldi created the “wah-wah” sound of adult voices by using a trombone played with a plunger mute. Assuming CBS would mandate a song with vocals, producer Mendelson wrote the lyrics to Guaraldi’s melancholy “Christmas Time is Here” in a mere 15 minutes.
Their commitment to authenticity led to voice actors, where they hired actual kids to provide the voices rather than the established practice of hiring adults to pretend to be kids. Since many of the kids couldn’t read they were fed their lines one by one, which added a choppy but endearing rhythm to their line readings.
Guaraldi’s buoyant jazz score gave depth and energy to story, especially the opening song “Linus and Lucy”, and it was allowed to shine due to Schulz’s refusal to add a laugh track to the special, assuming the audience could figure out the humor for themselves.
The team unveiled their final cut to CBS one month before its air date, unsure themselves whether it was any good.
The CBS executives, including future TV Hall-of-Famer Fred Silverman, confirmed it wasn’t any good, stating:
“It seems a little flat… a little slow. I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more. We’re sorry; and believe me, we’re big Peanuts fans. But maybe it’s better suited to the comic page.”
CBS executives were united in their disdain for the show’s tone. They found the acting amateurish, the jazz score jarring, and Linus’s reading from the Bible baffling. And, good grief, where was the laugh track!? And true, this show was flatter and slower, much more sedentary than Tom & Jerry. But CBS’s had been subsisting on the sugary frosting of culturally irrelevant programming, and an introspective special that aimed for timelessness seemed as appetizing as oatmeal.
Since CBS had already ran ads announcing the special, they begrudgingly broadcast it on December 9, 1965, where it shockingly attracted 36 million viewers, which was 50% of the entire television audience. In other words, a show that CBS fiscally placed into a shallow grave became the highest-rated Christmas special of all time.
The same amateurish decisions CBS found perplexing, audiences found compelling. Engaging. Authentic. And Linus’s Bible reading about the true meaning of Christmas was considered the highlight. Turns out America liked oatmeal too.
Tacitly admitting that a saloon full of rugby players and a dartboard could have produced a better decision-making process, CBS decided to order some more Peanuts specials. 30 of them in fact, with Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” used as the theme song for every one.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was also a critical favorite, winning an Emmy for “Best Network Animated Special” and a Peabody Award for “Outstanding Children’s and Youth’s Program”. And after 48 years it’s still rerun every December, wedged unglamorously into a network schedule inflated with gaudy holiday specials, quietly nudging us to re-discover our own reason for the season.
And Good Ol’ Fred Silverman? He eventually curated a patch of hipness on CBS by greenlighting All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and The Carol Burnett Show within the same year. And how did he make room in the schedule for these shows?
By canceling The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres.