In “Play It Again, Charlie Brown”, a special from 1971 appearing for the first time on DVD as part of Warner Home Video’s two-volume (four-disc) Peanuts 1970s Collection, Lucy attempts to win Schroeder’s love by arranging a gig for him opening up for the PTA. At first, Schroeder is grateful enough that Lucy’s long-suffering dream of a brood of little Ludwig Vans running around seems closer than ever to becoming a reality, but his enthusiasm sours when he learns that he won’t be allowed to play classical music. Instead, he must play — gulp! — rock.
Reluctantly, he agrees to do so, but not without some self-scolding. “I’ve sold out”, he tells himself. “Like everybody else, I’ve sold out”. On the day of the show, however, he undergoes a change of heart, refusing to play the kind of music he abhors and leaving the PTA to their (literally) canned entertainment. Schroeder explains himself with his version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech: “There comes a time when we have to take a stand. A person just has to do the things he believes in”.
Selling out and its close relation, rampant consumerism, appear in enough of these episodes to qualify as a running theme, whether it is Linus promising big and delivering small as student-body president or the gang confusing a supermarket for an art museum. The problem is that it’s hard to take too seriously a harangue against marketing gone amok when the guy doing the haranguing is Charles Schulz. If he were to apply his own character’s advice about taking a stand, then it follows that Schulz believes in lunchboxes, salt-and-pepper shakers, and travel editions of Yahtzee!, to say nothing of doorstops, soap dispensers, and insurance. In “No Time for Love, Charlie Brown”, the banner at the department store announces “Only 246 more shopping days until Christmas!”, the unintentional joke being that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (not included here) has become as much a part of the season as the sales.
In the case of Peanuts, the upshot of being such a media hound is that ubiquity roughly translates to popularity. Not only could much of America (and perhaps the world) identify the likes of Snoopy, Peppermint Patty, and Pig Pen by name, but I would venture a guess that most people have a favorable opinion of them. (When was the last time you heard someone say, “I hate that f***ing Linus”?) With so many people paying attention — and, let’s face it, with so much money to be made — Schulz pretty much ensured that his legacy would be taken care of in style.
Fantagraphics Books is leading the way by lovingly collecting every strip that Schulz created during the course of his 50-year career and divvying them out, two books a year for 12.5 years. Their covers are sharp, their indexes a blast (first time a character says “good grief”, first time Snoopy sleeps on the doghouse), and their introductions by figures as varied as Walter Cronkite, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert Smigel. (I can personally vouch for their excellence, as I have worked my way from 1950 through 1964, my wife doing her best Lucy impersonation by inscribing 1960-61, “Happy anniversary, you blockhead.”)
Peanuts 1970s Collection aspires to be as good as its (unofficial) print companion, though it falls short, in large part because the videos simply aren’t as strong as the strips. The reason for their inferiority is difficult to pinpoint, for, as even the casual devotee of the strip will recognize, large parts of the television specials are cobbled together from the daily comics. Schulz’s dailies were often of the serial variety — a storyline would extend over one or two weeks, with allowances made for the more expansive Sunday strip — but what comes across as well plotted narrative in print just feels choppy on the screen. A setup and punchline each day works; every 30 seconds, though, not so much.
The amount of filler required to stretch the minute it would take to read six strips into a 25-minute program also has a lot to do with this sense that the TV programs are imperfect incarnations of the originals. In fact, though, some of the best moments here are those in which the narrative isn’t at the fore: Woodstock building a nest, Sally fretting over her locker, Rerun riding on the back of his mom’s bike. These vignettes reminded me that for a stretch there in the ’80s, Peanuts was a part of regular Saturday morning cartoons, albeit in a format that was a series of shorts rather than extended narratives. This may be its preferred form.
If you’re a Gen-X’er, chances are you are familiar with a number of the titles here: “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” probably runs second to the Christmas special in popularity, and “It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown” (in which he kisses the Little Redheaded Girl, who, incidentally, is named “Heather”) and “You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown” (in which he would have won the decathlon for his school had he not lost himself in a daydream about his own success) came back to me nearly whole after only a few minutes, so there is a heavy nostalgia factor here, though that wears off in a hurry, as nostalgia often does. Luckily, each show has at least one good joke, with “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” setting the standard with two, both of which involve reading the back of a candy heart: Charlie Brown’s says “Forget it kid”, while Sally’s somehow fits the entirety of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?” sonnet.
Much of the humor stems from the children behaving as adults, which reminds us that Schulz did not write with kids in mind (he hated the publisher-chosen name “Peanuts” and thought it demeaning). The word “restitution” is hilarious when said by a five-year-old, as is the plea for a lawyer. There’s some satire here — candidate Linus going on talk radio, for example — but it’s harmless enough. Despite the similarities in their rendering, Peanuts is no South Park. I’m not even sure it was the South Park of its time.
Of the “first time on DVD” episodes, the aforementioned “Play It Again, Charlie Brown” stands out as the one that potentially casts them all in a new light. Enough of this show lingers on Schroeder playing his piano against a red backdrop that Fantasia repeatedly came to mind. In addition, those moments when the realistic features of the house give way to these solid backgrounds of color that reflect a character’s given mood demonstrate just how visually striking the shows could have been had they taken more risks. These flashes of impressionism — also well utilized in “It’s Your First Kiss” — are welcome, indeed.
Each volume includes a short (under 20-minute) documentary. The first, “Woodstock: Creating Snoopy’s Sidekick”, is insightful enough, though it over-intellectualizes when it lapses into a discussion of Snoopy and Woodstock and the Hero’s Journey. The second, “You’re Groovy, Charlie Brown: A Look at Peanuts in the ’70s”, wisely focuses on Schulz himself: his favorite kind of pen, why he is so good at drawing rain (which is a byproduct of his favorite kind of pen), and how his family life seeped into the strip.
Neither feature will enhance your appreciation of Peanuts anymore than cracking one of those Fantagraphics spines will, which is ultimately the Peanuts ’70s Collection’s undoing: The books position themselves as definitive; these discs wish that they were. Somehow I don’t trust that they are. Another version of the television programs must surely be in the mix, a version that is less smudged (it’s the backgrounds that are dirty, not your TV) and more loaded with documentaries espousing cultural significance. I have no inside information on this front, but these discs are bare-bones enough that they must be holding something back.
Finally, I realize that those of us who remember the first-run of these specials are not the solely intended audience. Warner Brothers must also hope that Charlie Brown will live on with younger viewers, as well. After all, this collection will be shelved alongside the Thomas the Train and Disney discs. It just so happens that I have a test case at home who can give some indication of how the Peanuts gang will be received by this crucial demographic: Jonah, my going-on-two-year-old son. Obviously, we don’t let him watch much TV, but he watches some, and he definitely has likes and dislikes (WordWorld doesn’t do it for him yet, but, much to our chagrin, Barney does). He expresses his likes by saying “more” and signaling with his hand in a way that resembles a basketball referee indicating that, yes, the shot after the foul counts. He makes this gesture with rice pilaf, with books at bedtime, and, when the screen would occasionally go black, with the Charlie Brown specials. “More”, he’d say, telling the official scorer to count the two. “More”.
So never mind what I think. The people have spoken. Warner Home Video better get cracking on that inevitable ’80s collection. Christmas is less than six months away.