REVIEW: American Masters: “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz”

American Masters: “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz”
Original Airing: 10/29/2007

I do not review many PBS shows here on The Film Frontier. In fact, this episode of American Masters is the first one. Why the sudden interest? This installment is devoted to none other than Charles M. Schulz, American master, American legend, American genius, and creator of Peanuts.

Having been born in the mid-1970s, I cannot remember the first time I experienced Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang. Thinking back, it just seems like they were always there, and I was pretty much born a fan. Most likely, my first exposure was not to Schulz’ daily comic strip but to the myriad of television specials.

Back in those days, you had to watch stuff when it aired. Most members of the general public did not have VCRs or other video recording technologies. Unfortunately, it thus took me years to see a Charlie Brown special in its entirety. I would wait for the forthcoming airing all day, nearly cheering through the animated logo for “A CBS Special Presentation” that always signaled one was about to begin. To this day, that logo makes me think of Charlie Brown.

The show would start and whether it was themed around Christmas, Halloween, Valentines, Thanksgiving, Arbor Day, or some other holiday, I loved it. Then, the inevitable would happen: the first commercial break. Much like the CBS Special Presentation logo marked the beginning of the special for me, the first commercial break might as well have marked the end of it.

Despite my enthusiasm for Charlie Brown and Snoopy, I was unable to make it through the commercials. Every time for years, it seemed, I would fall asleep. Later that night, someone would wake me up at the end to take me to bed and I would cry realizing I had missed yet another Snoopy cartoon.

“Good Ol’ Charles Schulz” is a 90-minute episode of American Masters that I stumbled across while channel surfing a week or two ago. I had not watched American Masters before, but it is similar to A&E’s Biography.

With only a high school education and art training from a correspondence school, Charles Schulz became artist and writer of the greatest daily comic strip. He penned 18,977 Peanuts comic strips in a fifty year period, never outsourcing any of the art or writing. Along the way, there were also the TV specials, movies, and plenty of merchandising.

“Good Ol’ Charles Schulz” shows us that it was the daily comic strip, though, that kept Sparky (as friends called him) going. In a life marked by as much change and turmoil as that of you or I, the comic strip was his one constant.

The documentary is well assembled, drawing on contemporary interviews with friends and colleagues (including real-life inspirations for the “Little Red-Haired Girl” and Linus) and archival interviews with Schulz himself.

Close-up footage of Schulz drawing his deceptively simple-looking characters is priceless. The documentary also uses a very effective slide-book approach to displaying various installments of the daily strip, including the very first one back in 1950.

In 1965, Coca-Cola was interested in sponsoring the first television special based on Peanuts. The idea was sold on a Wednesday, and Schulz had the script ready by that Monday. The story? A Charlie Brown Christmas.

For that first special, Schulz had to battle CBS on a number of issues. He insisted that actual children voice the characters and that a laugh track not be used. CBS executives were also concerned about overt religious references appearing in a Christmas special (it seems that television executives have not changed so much over the years). None too pleased with the results, CBS was ready to turn the special into a big tax write-off.

Then, A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on December 9, 1965. The next day, the documentary notes, “all heaven broke loose.” After a huge ratings smash, CBS quickly ordered four more specials.

“Good Ol’ Charles Schulz” paints a portrait of a man who could seemingly connect to the entire world through his comic strip, but had trouble connecting personally with family and friends. He lived through his strip.

“Do you think God ever gets discouraged?” he asked a friend and reverend as he was going through a divorce from his wife of over twenty years. It seemed he threw himself into his work while experiencing his marriage problems, for the documentary notes that the period leading up to his divorce in 1972 was one of his most creatively productive.

Schulz married again in 1973, a 27-year union ended only by his death in 2000–just a day before the publication of the final Peanuts strip.

Speaking of his many fans, a tearful Schulz, battling cancer, told Al Roker in his last on-camera interview, “It is amazing that they think what I do was good. I just did the best I could.”

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Do you know the great thing about PBS? No commercials. I didn’t fall asleep during “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz.” But I still cried at the end.

Overall Experience: 9 (out of 10)

Related Links
American Masters: Charles Schulz
Includes an excerpt from Schulz and Peanuts, the new biography by David Michaelis. You can also check airtimes for repeats of “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz” in your area.

The Official Peanuts Site
Includes a revolving 30 days worth of classic Peanuts strips, historical info, and lots of great merchandise.

The Peanutizer
Which Peanuts character are you? I’m most similar to Linus, according to PBS’ Peanutizer. As personality tests go, it’s not exactly spot-on but it is still fun:

“This is a distinct philosophy of mine … No problem is so big or complicated that it can’t be run away from!”

Although Linus Van Pelt carries a blanket and sucks his thumb, he is also a decisive and serious intellectual with philosophical insight. He has wisdom beyond his years, and this paradoxical maturity helps him put up with his older sister, Lucy. He is not interested in romance, and he often rebuffs Sally when she vies for his attention. Linus is kind to his friends and strives to be ethical.