How “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Almost Didn’t Happen

Lee Habeeb tells the story at National Review online about how Charles Schultz’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost never came to be. The sticking point was Linus’ reading of Luke 2:8-14 near the end of the story (see video above). In short, network executives and even the voice of Snoopy (Bill Melendez) thought that Linus’ reading from the King James Bible would make the program a flop in the ratings. As we all know by now, they turned out to be very wrong. Here’s a snippet from Habeeb’s article:

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.

There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBS’s prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands.

“They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special,” explained Melendez. “They basically wrote it off, like, hey, this is just isn’t going to be interesting to anyone, and it’s just going to be like a big tax write-off.”

Melendez himself was somewhat hesitant about the reading from Luke. “I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it. But Sparky just assumed what he had to say was important to somebody.”

Which is why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He knew that the Luke reading by Linus was the heart and soul of the story.

Schulz was right. The reading is essential. There is nothing remarkable about this little cartoon. The production standards are low even by 1965 standards. The child actors giving voice to the characters sound stilted—as if they were reading their lines from a script. The power is not in the production but in the story itself. The narrative is what has given this program staying power. And the central conflict of this short story is resolved in Linus’ reading from scripture. Without that reading, I doubt that we would still be talking about this program today some 46 years later.

ABC has contracted to air “A Charlie Brown Christmas” through 2015. It will air this year at 8pm ET, Monday, December 5.

(HT: Mike Frantz, who has absolutely no online presence for me to point you to)

4 Responses to How “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Almost Didn’t Happen

  1. Mike Hall November 30, 2011 at 5:34 am #

    Denny,

    Thanks for posting this article about Schulz and his commitment to the true spirit of Christmas. It is amazing how many Hollywood execs try to surpress the connection we all have to the grand narrative of redemption. You would think by now they would get the fact that this universal longing is something that all men share and is bankable (I.e. Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) The Charlie Brown Christmas Special will remain timeless because it touches a part of us all at our most basic level. We all need hope and god provided it by sending Jesus.

  2. Reg Schofield November 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    This cartoon has been a staple of my life since I was 3 years old ( I’m now 48) . Raised in a non-christian home , this was a little bit of the Bible each year. It lead to me be so overcome when I was 18 I had to get up and leave the room , after the last chords of Hark the Herald Angels played. As strange as it sounds , I truly think that between the reading of scripture and the whole tone of the show , the Holy Spirit took the word of God and began a work in my life that led me to believe when I was 25. I love the fact that now each year , in homes where there no mention of Jesus , A Charlie Brown Christmas has Linus read directly from God’s word and that is a awesome thing.

    • Denny Burk November 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

      Thanks for this, Reg! I had a similar experience.

  3. Andy December 2, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

    The reason the kids voices sound so stilted is not because the lines are read – the voice actors were actually too young to read. They children were given the lines by an adult and recited one line at a time. Longer stretches were spliced together which gives the now famous, and I think charming, stilted sound.

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