Posted by: Chris Sandel | December 21, 2008

An Improbable Christmas Hit

Yesterday Melissa and I watched one of our Christmas favorites, the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  Watching it reminded me of the very interesting origins of the classic cartoon.  You can read all about it on Wikipedia but a few of the highlights of this improbable cartoon are:

  • The production was done on a shoestring budget, resulting in a somewhat choppy animation style and, from a technical standpoint, poorly mixed sound.
  • Another complaint was the use of children to do the voice acting, instead of employing adult actors.  With the exception of the actors who voiced Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) and Lucy (Tracy Stratford), none of the children had any experience doing voice work.
  • Network executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke; they assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Version of the Bible.
  • Another percieved problem was the absence of a laugh track, a common element of children’s cartoons at the time. Schulz maintained that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at their own pace, without being cued when to laugh.
  • Finally, the executives thought that the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi would not work well for a children’s program. When executives saw the final product, they were horrified and believed the special would be a complete flop.

There were several battles with executives, especially over the reading of the Christmas story but Charles Shultz argued, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”  In the end, it aired as we see it now (minus a edits for time).  What happened?

Despite it’s technical flaws, rough editing and overt religious message, A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the most successful TV specials of all time.  When it first aired, a full 50% of the televisions in the United States were tuned in.  It has been awarded with both an Emmy and a Peabody award.  Even the soundtrack, once criticized by executives, has become a perennial best seller (and one of my all time favorites). 

I won’t include the whole special here, but take a moment to enjoy Linus & the Christmas story and be thankful that, in the middle of all of the usual TV junk, something like this still makes it to air.

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