Charlie Brown’s timeless appeal: The secret behind the Peanuts franchise

Published: Sunday, Dec. 4 2011 9:20 p.m. MST

In this Sept. 29, 1995, fie photo, cartoonist Charles Schulz holds a drawing of his famous comic strip character "Snoopy" in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Ben Margot, AP

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Near the end of 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — the Peanuts comic strip's first foray into full-fledged animation — the title character veers perilously close to his emotional breaking point.

Charlie Brown exerted a good-faith effort to direct his friends in a Christmas play, but the cast has laughed him to scorn and altogether abandoned him. It's painfully clear the production will end as a miserable failure.

"Everything I do turns into a disaster," Chuck bemoans. "I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about. Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!"

A most unlikely voice of reason steps in to quell Charlie Brown's snowballing exasperation: Lucy's little brother Linus, who sucks his thumb and clings to his blanket and is the last living soul left on-stage with Charlie. In short order, Linus recites from memory the touching account of Christ's birth as found in Luke 2:8-14 — and thereby restores order once again to the Peanuts universe.

However, Linus's memorable monologue almost didn't happen, according to Amy Johnson, daughter of deceased Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

"With the Christmas special, Dad took that risk of putting in the passage from the Bible," said Johnson. "He was told that if he put that it in, (1965) would be the first and last time ('A Charlie Brown Christmas') would ever show. He was told it was going to be a failure, and it would never play again."

The naysayers couldn't have been more wrong: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" went on to win Emmy and Peabody Awards — not to mention open the door for the approximately 50 made-for-TV Peanuts specials that would follow. Tonight, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" airs for the 47th consecutive year. (ABC Family, 8 ET/PT.)

As the anecdote about Bible verses illustrates, Schulz's singular blend of foresight and creativity is the driving force for a Peanuts franchise of animated holiday specials and comic strips that still resonates across generations of Americans.

At the heart of the cartoons' enduring popularity is how Schulz was able to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of families craving a certain kind of wholesome entertainment — one which appealed not only to children but adults too.

"I remember my dad saying he believed that the American people really do like decent entertainment," Johnson said. "As much as some people maybe don't think that Americans do like decent programming, Dad believed that they did. … And in this day and age, there is hardly anything that you can sit down with your whole family and be safe watching anymore."

Schulz's creativity pops up in Peanuts comic strips through unconventional storylines such as an entire week devoted to a kite-eating tree or the decades-long ordeal of Charlie Brown as baseball pitcher — a narrative that left a particularly lasting impression with writer Larry Granillo.

"I've been a big fan of Peanuts for as long as I can remember, reading and re-reading the various collections we had in the house," Granillo said. "Something about the strips — the poignancy, the perseverance, the fantastical imagination of Snoopy — appealed to me since I learned to read. The fact that Charlie Brown also shared my love of baseball just added to it."

Granillo writes for Baseball Prospectus, an organization revered in baseball circles for its cutting-edge statistical analysis. As a Peanuts aficionado who makes his living sifting through copious amounts of baseball numbers, it's natural that Granillo would start to wonder what kinds of stats Charlie Brown had piled up during his "career."

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