Bless the Blockhead

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"When he retired, and then when he passed away, that outpouring of affection from all over the world was because he represented the common man," Mendelson says. "A French man we met in Quebec once said to him, 'Mr. Schulz, don't take this as an insult, but I think you are a very simple man,' and what he meant was he was very down-to-earth. He loved to sit down and have conversations with people, and the common-man touch came out, because all of us are Charlie Brown. All of us fail every day and want to get up and try again, and I think he hit a universal chord. His was the first strip to ever talk about feelings, emotions. It was funny: Here's a very shy man who was talking about emotions in a comic strip.

"The show was the antithesis of animation. I was thinking that people who are my age now were 32 when they first saw the show, so you have three generations who have seen it, and I do think adults do appreciate it more. It's like the comic strip, which he never drew for kids. He drew it for adults, but kids could enjoy it. It was the same thing when he wrote the show. He wrote it for adults and put funny little things in there for the kids. I think that's why the whole family could enjoy it at different levels and for different reasons. But back then, we really thought we had ruined Charlie Brown. It shows you what creative people know."

A Charlie Brown Christmas has left indelible footprints in the snow that will never vanish: The Simpsons lifted its "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" finale for one of its Halloween specials; South Park has borrowed from it at least twice (two weeks ago, its Thanksgiving special offered a parody featuring a desiccated turkey named Gobbles in place of the fir tree); and Robert Smigel, who creates Saturday Night Live's "TV Funhouse" cartoons, lifted Linus' entire true-meaning-of-Christmas speech for one of his episodes. In a cartoon that originally aired on SNL two years ago, Jesus returned to earth and found it overrun by pocketbook preachers and gluttonous heathens; he was sickened by what he found. Then, standing in front of a TV store, Jesus catches Linus' recitation from the Bible, and a single teardrop falls from Christ's eye. It was a punchline delivered with a frown; the joke stuck in your throat.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced," Smigel told the Dallas Observer in 1998. "And you know I'm serious when I say that, because I'm Jewish. The range of subjects that show covers in 22 minutes, and the way it treats each one with humor and sadness at the same time, is amazing. These were kids with adult feelings; they knew what a lonely place the world could be, but they had the determination to keep going."

"You know," Mendelson says, "generations change, audiences change, but this show never will. I had never thought about it till this discussion that it is Sparky's Christmas Carol, and it will last just as long as those other epics, which is quite something. Of course, I'd never put it in that context." He then laughs, like a man caught tooting his own horn. It makes him uncomfortable, if only because he doesn't need to. "I shouldn't be doing that. I'll leave that to somebody else."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky