by Chris Quilter
Last week, I made a short-but-sweet pit stop at the Laguna College of Art and Design to check out “The Art of Charles Schulz and Peanuts.” Catch it if you can. (But hurry. It closes Feb. 14.) The display wall facing the entry is painted Charlie Brown yellow, bisected by a fat black zigzag stripe. So you’ll be smiling as you walk in.
The heart of this compact show consists of strips from the glory years, which started in the pre-ironic mid-1950s. “Peanuts” was something new: Charles Schulz had a quietly subversive gift for making us laugh out loud at his often bleak, deterministic take on human nature. We all knew people who would keep trying to kick that football from here to eternity, whose default setting would always be crabby, and who would never stop waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Happily, the shock of recognition was delivered to our funny bones.
I was hoping the LCAD show would include a family favorite, which my brothers and I recite every Christmas with passable accuracy. Lucy and Linus—whose sibling rivalry exceeded even our own—are atypically holding hands. “We’re brother and sister and we love each other,” Lucy smugly declares. Charlie Brown calls them out as hypocrites. Do they really think they’re going to fool Santa Claus? “Why not?” Lucy responds. “We’re a couple of sharp kids, and he’s just an old man.”
In a town like ours, where so many children suffer from the ravages of over-privilege, this still resonates—albeit not with them. “Peanuts” long ago lost the satirical oomph it had when I was a pubescent suburbanite (although I am glad to report it is on full display in contemporary reruns from the classic era). I blame this decline on the animated television specials, starting with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965.
Emmy and Peabody awards be damned: those cutesy-poo voices bore zero resemblance to “Peanuts” in my mind, and the saccharine storylines left me cold. The slide into commercialization exposed the strip’s soft underbelly and it became what it had never seemed to be: safe. Things hit bottom in the mid-1980s, when MetLife hired “Peanuts” to be their official spokescharacters. That was also when my life briefly coincided with theirs.
I was living in New York writing “industrials” —business theater designed to soften up captive audiences—and was hired to write a script for a one act musical ballyhooing the “Peanuts” connection for a MetLife sales convention. I had a gratifying flash of inspiration equaled only by the time I talked the producers of a grand opening at New York’s Marriott Marquis into affixing an inflatable King Kong onto one of the atrium’s glass-enclosed elevators. (The blonde ingénue inside, telegraphing terror for all she was worth, would have been more convincing had Kong not sprung a leak.)
My MetLife high concept involved culling bits and pieces from all the “Peanuts” television specials, which could be cut and pasted into a short Met-centric story with new dialogue dubbed in. (Yes, Woody Allen got there first with “What’s Up, Tiger Lily.”) The client loved the idea, whereupon I discovered the problem with being an idea man: execution. Winding and rewinding through hours of specials on VHS was a novel form of torture. And I should have realized that the aesthetic integrity of the end result would be badly compromised by having to use those blasted voices.
The best part of my “Peanuts” gig was attending a rehearsal. I usually didn’t. The scripts for most industrials are frozen well before the normal give-and-take of rehearsals. That meant I got to observe how overwritten mine could be without being able to do anything about it. It this case, it didn’t matter because the director was Susan Stroman. She had yet to win a fistful of Tonys for choreography and direction (most notably for “The Producers”), but her gifts were fully developed. My perfectly adequate dialogue sounded solidly above average. As far as I know, Stroman remains unaware how grateful I still am.
If “Peanuts” lost its mojo along the way, it paved the way for what feels like a golden age of cartooning. Could we need it more? Wit is especially powerful in troubled times, assuming there are other kinds. Artists like Charles Schulz, who can make satiric fodder out of our vices, follies, shortcomings and contradictions, could even succeed in showing us how to live with ourselves. If not, we can at least die laughing.
Laguna local Chris Quilter has finally healed and found closure after years of being labeled the family Lucy by his three brothers, the blockheads.