The holiday season without “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would be like Christmas without Santa Claus, Hanukah without candles, and Winter Solstice without people constantly asking why you would celebrate Winter Solstice. But no matter how many times you’ve seen the special, there still might be a few things you don’t know about it…including the fact that it was almost never broadcast.
Charlie Brown’s Little Tree Ended the Aluminum Christmas Craze
It may only have twelve needles and collapse under the weight of a single ornament before the curative properties of Linus’s blanket rescue it, but Charlie Brown’s twig of a tree single-handedly put an end to a horrible new holiday tradition. Starting in the early 60’s—a period not known for the best decorating trends—people were forgoing real Christmas trees for brightly colorful aluminum ones (think a cheerier Festivus with spray paint), as seen in the tree lot in the TV special. But when viewers saw Charlie Brown stand by his little wooden wonder in the face of ridicule and tree’s own fast-impending mortality, they tossed aside their metallic pink decorations and returned to a more natural choice that also involved sweeping up dead needles from the floor every six seconds.
Executives Were Freaked out by Linus’s Speech
One of the most iconic moments in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is when Linus literally takes center stage and tells a distraught Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas by reciting from the Gospel of Luke. The scene features no music, no action, and no comedy, just a child quoting from the Bible. And naturally, this caused network executives to lose their collective minds. They argued no one wanted to be reminded of religion during the holidays, people would feel uncomfortable by the message, and everyone would be confused when the speech didn’t end with an anvil falling on Linus’s head like in all good cartoons. But “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz argued that in a story about a character wanting to know the true meaning of Christmas, not only was some explanation of the holiday needed but also the worst the speech could impart to viewers was the notion not to be fearful or sad. The studio stood their ground…and Schulz walked out of the meeting, with only three months to go before broadcast. And so CBS changed their mind and now every year we get to hear Linus say, “Lights, please.”
The Network Demanded a Laugh Track
Back in the 50s through the 80s, it seemed like every single TV program had a loud, obnoxious laugh track, to the point that you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a studio audience breaking into hysterics during a laxative commercial. That’s because networks didn’t trust their own shows to be funny enough on their own to merit laughter and sincerely thought viewers needed constant reminders that they were indeed watching a comedy. Therefore CBS insisted “A Charlie Brown Christmas” feature a laugh track as well, all so you could hear “HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!” when Charlie Brown thinks he killed a tree. But Charles Schulz—who hated the very idea of canned laughs—insisted either people enjoy the special on their own terms or CBS could fill the half hour with a test pattern. Fortunately, he got his way and now no fake audience goes “WOOOOOOOOO!!!” when Charlie Brown looks like he’s on the verge of tears.
There’s a Reason the Characters Speak…in..that…Halting…Fashion
Almost ever single kid cartoon character—then and now—is voiced by adults. Doing so allows producers not only to rely on more experienced actors but also ensures everyone is old enough to actually read the dialogue. But Charles Schulz wanted his TV special to have an element of realism when it came to its kid cast and so insisted all the characters be voiced by actual, age-appropriate children. While some of the young voice actors were professionals, most were neighborhood kids who had never been inside a recording studio before. And in the case of Sally, the little girl playing her was so young she couldn’t read or memorize her lines at all and so had to be fed them, one syllable at a time. These individual syllables were then spliced together in the editing room, resulting the slow, hesitating, almost hypnotic speech pattern for which the cartoon is now famous.
The Famous Soundtrack Was Almost Never Heard
Back in the 60’s cartoons were seen as programs that catered only to kids. And so studio executives surmised that when it came to cartoon soundtracks, viewers wanted to hear loud explosions and silly tunes, not a jazz trio that sounded like the musical entertainment for a museum cocktail party. But Charles Schulz insisted the cartoon have both an air of sophistication and a soundtrack that actually echoed the feeling of childhood, as captured by the famous theme music known officially as “Linus and Lucy,” (allowing for some of the best dance moves ever to be seen on TV). And speaking of music, the budget for the special was so slight that careful viewers will notice a few animated glitches could not be fixed, especially when Schroeder actually stops playing his piano for several seconds while the characters continue to dance as if they were all were all possessed.
Coca-Cola Saved “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
The network hated the idea of a religious message in a Christmas TV special. They hated that the special wasn’t non-stop action interrupted with gales of fake laughter (as if cartoons would actually have a live studio audience). They didn’t like the soundtrack, thought the kid voiceover actors sounded too much like children, and would rather have played a needle scratch than jazz music. Things got so bad that even the special’s producers and Charlie Schulz (not known for having a cheery outlook to begin with) thought the cartoon would be a critical and commercial bomb. In fact, everyone was thinking of simply scrapping the show altogether…except for Cocoa-Cola, who was the special’s main sponsor and was not about to let a half-hour of advertising not make it to air. And so the cartoon was broadcast on December 9, 1965, featuring many nods to its sponsor throughout the cartoon including Linus being flung by Snoopy into a giant sign for the soft drink. The special was a huge success, easily winning its time slot as well as scoring an Emmy. Over the years all of the Coke’s in-show ads have been removed from the cartoon, but the sheer love for—and magic of—the special has never, ever disappeared.
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