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'Fresh Air' marks the centennial of Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Happy Thanksgiving. We hope you're enjoying the holiday. Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Schulz, the creator of one of the most beloved and famous comic strips, "Peanuts." It was in the 1950s that a depressed, insecure kid named Charlie Brown took his place on the newspaper comics pages. Even if you didn't grow up with the "Peanuts" comic strip, you may recognize this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS")

PETER ROBBINS: (As Charlie Brown) I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.

CHRISTOPHER SHEA: (As Linus Van Pelt) Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy's right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest.

GROSS: That's from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which was first broadcast in 1965 and has since become an annual TV tradition. The soundtrack from the special is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Charles Schulz died in 2000, one day before his final strip was published. I spoke with him in 1990 on the 40th anniversary of "Peanuts." He was in his studio in Santa Rosa, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's a "Peanuts" from - I forget the year, but it's in the 1950s, where I think it's Linus shows Charlie Brown a scar. And he asks Charlie Brown if he has any scars. And Charlie Brown says, oh, I have lots of them, but they're all mental.

CHARLES SCHULZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And I think in a way that kind of sums up Charlie Brown's view of life, you know - the mental scars.

SCHULZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you find any reluctance in newspapers at the time to take on a subject like depression or mental scars, you know?

SCHULZ: No, I don't recall anybody ever complaining about that. What editors were afraid of in those days, much more than now, was the mention of personalities and things. There used to be a very wonderful lady who had a program out of Chicago called - she was called Miss Frances, and I used to watch it with my little kids all of the time. And I mentioned her name in a comic strip one day. And some editor complained. He said we shouldn't be promoting things like that.

Well, now people mention almost everything. And of course, comic strip characters are saying things which they never would have said even 10, 12, 15 years ago. They're all - they're actually beginning to swear in comic strips now, which I think is a bad policy.

GROSS: Well, the closest you've come to swearing in a comic is probably good grief.

SCHULZ: I have discovered in my life that good grief and rats will cover almost anything that ever happens to you.

GROSS: How did you start using good grief, which has really become a, you know, popular part of the vocabulary?

SCHULZ: It was just a natural thing that I always said. If I was playing golf, and I missed a three-foot putt, I might say, oh, good grief, you know. But I've never been one who swore. I've never liked ugly words. I have nothing against - you know, I'm not a purist in that way. But I like words to a certain extent. I'm not well-educated so that I'm an expert on them. But I've never cared for any type of ugly language, even words that are not considered swearing words.

GROSS: Do you think of the characters in "Peanuts" as each representing a different side of your own character?

SCHULZ: I think there's no doubt about it. I doubt it that - I doubt that it would be possible to do something every day with a group of characters such as I have, without each one of those characters being a little bit of myself or being a little bit of the creator. I think this is the only way you can do it. This is why I suppose the characters do change little by little. I try to be consistent in their personalities, but I also think that none of us is ever really consistent in the things that we do and say. We all have our little good points and bad points, and this is what the characters have.

I kind of like the theory that my son Monty has. He called me one day, and he says, I've been thinking about your characters, you know, and I've come to the conclusion that Charlie Brown is really the smartest one of the whole group. And I had never even thought much about it. But I have a feeling that he's right.

GROSS: What part of yourself is Charlie Brown about?

SCHULZ: Not as much as people like to think. It just makes a good story, of course. I have not been the loser that Charlie Brown has, although I can remember certainly losses in both baseball and golf and hockey that go back 50 years, and I'm still suffering from them. I think Charlie Brown and I are alike in that we are both fanatics about certain things. I was the same sort of little kid that Charlie Brown was. I looked forward to the baseball games that we were going to have, and if it was raining, I would have been the kind that would have stood out in the rain and saying, where is everybody going? You know, let's play the game. Come on, let's go.

You know, I was just dedicated to things like that. And I suppose it's the dedication to drawing that has kept me going these 40 years because I am completely dedicated to what I do.

GROSS: Do you get depressed like Charlie Brown?

SCHULZ: Oh, yeah. There's no doubt about it. I've been depressed the last few days. I never quite know why.

GROSS: About what? Do you know?

SCHULZ: For one thing, we are in the midst of doing a wonderful ice show here at my ice arena. And there's something about seeing all the beautiful, bright young people out there performing. And I listen to the music. The music brings back memories to me, and I suppose I'm just sensitive to that kind of thing. I don't think I'm any more sensitive than anyone else is, but they do affect me, and little things like that do tend to make me feel depressed.

Although Rheta Grimsley Johnson wrote a book about me a couple of years ago called "Good Grief," and she mentions in there my depression. And I think the use of the word depression is almost wrong. I don't know what word would be more suitable, but I don't think that I am what you would call a - really a depressed person by any means.

GROSS: Well, you know, when when a child is depressed, like - or anxious like Charlie Brown often is, I think that adults sometimes don't understand it and think, you know, that childhood should be a time when kids are more carefree.

SCHULZ: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: I was wondering if you were exposed to a lot of that when you were young - of adults maybe not understanding your moods and your interior self.

SCHULZ: I don't know about the moods, but I think the word anxiety is much more appropriate than depression.

GROSS: Yeah.

SCHULZ: I think I am a very anxious person. Now, my childhood was a good childhood, but there were episodes in our neighborhood where there were some cruel children, a couple of boys. And there's one of them - if I ever see him again sometime I'm going to kill him.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHULZ: They caused me much unhappiness. And I think this is something that adults tend to forget. It's very difficult out there in the playground to survive. It's a struggle out there. And as we grow older, we drift away from that, and we learn how to protect ourselves. But children are defenseless, and if they are forced to be out on that playground, and they are too small or they're inadequate in some ways and they just can't defend themselves, it can be a very miserable life.

GROSS: Now, let's get to Lucy. Lucy has a...

SCHULZ: (Laughter).

GROSS: Lucy has a psychiatry booth.

SCHULZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Were you ever in therapy or do you have any faith in therapy?

SCHULZ: (Laughter) I don't know enough about it to say I have faith or not. I went through a few sessions over this anxiety business, but the psychiatric booth is really a take-off, a parody of the old lemonade stands that used to be in comic strips.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

SCHULZ: Yeah. When I was growing up, every comic strip character at some time or another ran a little lemonade stand. And so I was thinking about that one day, and I thought, well, nowadays it'd be much more practical to have a psychiatric booth. And that's how that all started.

GROSS: How did you come up with Linus' security blanket?

SCHULZ: I would say out of the five children that we had, three of them had blankets. And two of them carried the blankets around until they literally crumbled and disappeared. Little by little, chunks would fall off each day until finally there was nothing left, and that was the end of the blanket. And that's what gave me the idea for it. I was always glad that I was the first one who noticed it and used it because I know if I had not, that Mort Walker, who was very bright, would have latched on to the same idea.

GROSS: Now, your father and Charlie Brown's father were both barbers. Now, Charlie Brown has no hair. He has that one little lock that comes out.

SCHULZ: Well, yeah, I don't think of it as not having hair. I think of it as being hair that is so blond that it just doesn't - it's not seen very clearly. That's all.

GROSS: Oh, OK. I was wondering if your father always gave you too close of a shave when he cut your hair.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULZ: No. But he always gave me haircuts. And when I went to school, I was always looking very nice. My hair was neatly combed. But the embarrassing thing about that was when I used to go into the shop, and he'd be working on me, and maybe he'd be halfway through my haircut, and a real good customer would come in, and he would say, why don't you just sit over there and wait for a little bit because I have to wait on this man. It was so embarrassing to sit on the bench with just half a haircut.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

We're listening to my 1990 interview with Charles Schulz, the creator of the comic strip "Peanuts." Saturday marks the centennial of his birth. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "SKATING")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1990 interview with Charles Schulz, the creator of the beloved comic strip, "Peanuts." Saturday is the centennial of his birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know, I think when you were 17 years old, you responded to an ad that said, do you like to draw? And you ended up taking a correspondence course through that ad.

SCHULZ: Yes. This is the one whose ads appear in magazines and matchbook covers. They usually - they used to have a profile of a girl's face.

GROSS: Yeah.

SCHULZ: Anyway, I took the course, and I was too embarrassed to go to a resident art school and...

GROSS: Well...

SCHULZ: Go ahead.

GROSS: What were you embarrassed about?

SCHULZ: Well, I didn't think I was good enough.

GROSS: Oh.

SCHULZ: I didn't want to sit in a class where everybody else was better than I was. I'm like Charlie Brown. I hate being defeated. So anyway, I took the correspondence course, and it was a good course, and I learned a lot from it. And then after World War II, I used to take my drawings over there because they were located in Minneapolis, and I would get personal instruction. And they hired me as a part-time instructor that summer, and I stayed on for five years. And it was while I was working there that I developed my own work.

GROSS: Did your parents know that you were taking this correspondence course, or did you really want to keep it a secret?

SCHULZ: Oh, no, they knew it. They were always puzzled by what they could do to help me. I've always been grateful that they never in the slightest way stood in my way for what I wanted to do, even though they couldn't quite understand it. There was no way they could comprehend that somebody wanted to be a cartoonist. I mean, it was just completely foreign to them. So this was just - I think they thought - was a good way to help me. The course, at that time, I think, cost $160. And I remember my dad even had a hard time keeping up with the $10-a-month payments in those days, but he paid for them.

GROSS: What was the first strip that you did with Charlie Brown or a Charlie Brown kind of character in it? Did it start off as the strip that we know now, or was there a more - was there an earlier version of it?

SCHULZ: No. But the original submission to United Features was a panel rather than a strip, so there were no definite characters. And then when I went to New York to sign the contract, I took along a batch of about a half a dozen strips I had been working on just to show them what else I could do. And they said immediately that they would much rather have a strip than a panel because a strip just is easier to sell. It's easier to market. So then they said, well, you'll have to create some definite characters. So I said, well, that's no problem because I already knew I liked to draw a little dog. And I just went home, and I asked my friend Charlie Brown if I could use his name. And he said that was fine. And so I created Patty and Shermy, and those were the four lead characters.

The first strip that ever appeared I wish I had never drawn. It shows Shermy and Patty sitting on a curb, and they see Charlie Brown coming from a distance. And Shermy says, here comes Charlie Brown - yes, sir, good old Charlie Brown. And as he walks by, he says, how I hate him. See; that shows what I was doing those days, which I would never do now.

GROSS: Why are you sorry that you drew that, though?

SCHULZ: Well, I don't think he should have said something like, how I hate him. It's a little too strong. Nowadays, I think I would make it more mild.

GROSS: Now, I know that when you first submitted your comic to the syndicate, that they changed the name. They want - they came up with the name of "Peanuts." And you didn't like the name.

SCHULZ: Probably the worst title ever thought of for a comic strip. And I always make sure that when I am interviewed that I say this because I like to get revenge, but it is totally inappropriate. It has nothing to do with what I am drawing. But I don't think the people at the syndicate - even though they were wonderful gentlemen, and I owe them a good deal because we've become close friends - but I don't think they had any comprehension of what I was going to do.

I think the difficulty of being a syndicate editor is that you have to realize the potential of this young person who is sitting across from you when you are looking at his or her work. Is this person a fanatic, or is he or she just somebody who is doing something for a lark? And they should have recognized immediately that here they had somebody who was a fanatic and somebody who was really dedicated. They should have listened to me a little more carefully. Fortunately, titles of comic strips are not that important. Who knows that Popeye is really called "Thimble Theatre"? It's really not important.

GROSS: What's wrong with "Peanuts"?

SCHULZ: "Peanuts," in the first place, is insignificant. It indicates something that is not very important. And also, it is not the name of the lead character, which is what I said would deceive people when the script first began. And it certainly proved to be true. I just hate it when somebody says, oh, I liked what Peanuts and his dog did the other day. That drives me crazy.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, so what title did you want to give it?

SCHULZ: I think I would have liked to have called it "Good Old Charlie Brown." But as the years have gone on, I realize that "Snoopy" would simply have been the best name because he has turned out to be the lead character. But we didn't know that, of course, at the time.

GROSS: Now, have you ever hired artists to draw for you, like most people who do newspaper strips end up doing?

SCHULZ: I would quit before I'd do that. The only way, I suppose, that it could happen would be if I had a temporary illness, and I simply couldn't keep up the schedule. But even then I think we would just drop the strip until I became well again. Before I had heart surgery, I worked very hard, and I got three months ahead on the strip because I didn't know how much time I would lose. As it turned out, I only lost a month. But I hope that no one else ever touches the strip because the strip is me. And this doesn't mean that I'm critical of others who do have assistance. Some of them certainly need them. But no, I would never want anybody else to do it. And my children feel the same way. And they insisted in putting in our syndicate contract that when I retire or die, the strip goes, too, because they said - and I quote - "We don't want anybody else drawing Dad's strip."

GROSS: Do you have any plans to retire?

SCHULZ: I don't know how to do anything else, and I don't want to play golf every day. So I suppose what I would like to stop is all of the nuisance things that happen, all of the - the continual stream of requests that come into the studio for drawings and special appearances and things like that. Somehow, I've got to try to learn to cut all of that out, and I'm doing the best that I can. In fact, just the other night, I said to my wife, Jeannie, look - I said no three times tonight.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHULZ: That was pretty good, I thought.

GROSS: It's hard for you to say no?

SCHULZ: Very hard. And I despise autographing. I hate to say it, but I really despise autographing. But it's bad enough, all the trouble, but then it's the guilt that is laid upon you because you've turned somebody down for autographs. But I just can't stand it anymore.

GROSS: What's bad about autographing? Is it coming up with something to say or just the whole absurdity of it?

SCHULZ: Well, yeah. And my hands shake. And, sometimes, it's a nuisance. And who wants to autograph a gum wrapper?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHULZ: I had a fella ask me for an autograph over in the parking lot the other day at the mall, and his car was still moving. And I - he drove by me, and he says, hey, aren't you Charles Schulz? I said, yeah. And he says, could I have your autograph? His car was still moving. I said, this is ridiculous. And I kept right on walking (laughter).

GROSS: You said your hand shakes. Is it embarrassing for you to autograph if your hand shakes?

SCHULZ: Yeah. Very embarrassing - sometimes, I'd like to draw them a little Snoopy, but my hand shakes, and that is embarrassing.

GROSS: Does that get in the way of cartooning at home?

SCHULZ: Yeah. I have to - it's not any worse than it used to be, but I kind of prop one hand against the other, and I can't draw as fast as I used to. I used to be quite facile with the pen. I used to be quite proud of the pen line that I had. But I have to be more careful now. But I just draw a little more slowly. That's all. And I letter very slowly. But I still letter very well and very clearly, I think.

GROSS: Have you ever wanted to do a strip besides "Peanuts"?

SCHULZ: Yes. I never will. I've often thought that I would have liked to have drawn a strip about real children with the cartooning not being as exaggerated as it is with mine, with the larger heads and the little, tiny bodies. I think there is something there. However, we are now caught in this terrible bind where we have such small space in which to work that it would be almost impossible to do something like that.

GROSS: Is it loyalty to "Peanuts" also that would hold you back from doing a different strip?

SCHULZ: Yeah because I like what I have, and I think that every thought that comes to me can be used in the "Peanuts" strip in some way or another. I never think of something and say, well, gee, I wish I could use that, but it just won't work in my strip. I have a repertory group here that will accommodate anything that I can think of, whether it's something fairly serious, you know, like certain scriptural references, something from the Old Testament, way on down to something really corny. And then I'll give it to Snoopy, and he'll tell Woodstock something which is just absurd and corny. And they both laugh so hard, they fall off the doghouse and land on their heads. You know, those things are really fun.

And that's what cartooning is all about. I think that cartoonists have to be very much aware of their medium because you cannot compete with live actors, television actors, movie actors, radio actors on their own ground. You have to remember that you can do things that they can't do. Cartoon characters can flip over and do things that live actors can't do, but they can do things that we can't do. So you always must be aware of your own medium.

GROSS: Charles Schulz, it's been such a great pleasure to talk with you. I want to thank you very much for sharing some of your time with us.

SCHULZ: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. I appreciate it.

GROSS: My interview with Charles Schulz was recorded in 1990. He died at the age of 77 in 2000. Saturday marks the centennial of his birth. After we take a short break, our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, will talk about the music from the animated TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" by pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi. Also from our archive, we'll listen back to an interview with Chuck Jones, the animator and director who helped bring to life "Looney Tunes" stars Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI'S "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. In 1965, San Francisco pianist Vince Guaraldi wrote and performed this music for the now-classic soundtrack of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It's been a bestseller ever since. A new edition has been remastered and is being rereleased with material from the original recording sessions. We're going to listen to our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's 2012 review of a Vince Guaraldi best-of album that included several tracks from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Kevin began with this recording, which became Guaraldi's first hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: There must have been times in 1963 when Vince Guaraldi was riding high on his surprise hit, "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," when he thought, this is what I'll be remembered for - not that he'd have minded. He said taking requests for it was like signing the back of a check. The song's got a great hook tied to a poppy, uplifting chord sequence. He'd mostly be remembered for it, too, if soon after he hadn't written the music for a TV Christmas special that CBS didn't have much hope for.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "LINUS AND LUCY")

WHITEHEAD: Now you know who I'm talking about. After December 9, 1965, Vince Guaraldi wasn't the "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" guy. He was the "Peanuts" guy. Even if Charlie Brown cartoons make you wince, you can hear the music's a perfect fit - as light as a kid's song. The breezy, syncopated bass pattern and sprightly chords of Guaraldi's "Linus And Lucy" evoked Schroeder pecking at his toy piano and that pirouetting Snoopy dog. The tune was maddeningly catchy in a good way. Guaraldi would break away from the main theme just so he could bring it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "LINUS AND LUCY")

WHITEHEAD: Vince Guaraldi was fascinated by boogie-woogie when he was young, and that rumbling left-hand bass part is boogie modernized and streamlined. He wasn't a super virtuoso, but he was a great piano stylist who favored a pared-down singing line and loved to swing. His fingers were short, but they'd sprint up the keys. Guaraldi would also slip up to the good notes from below, like another great midcentury piano stylist, Nashville's Floyd Cramer.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "CHARLIE BROWN THEME")

WHITEHEAD: With Guaraldi or Ahmad Jamal or Ramsey Lewis, the stuff that wears best is all about fetching rhythm and a bluesy economy. To my ears, Guaraldi's slow tunes and bossas are not so compelling, but he could make a standard ballad snap to attention. Vince Guaraldi had range and had an instrumental hit right when jazz was vanishing from AM radio. He didn't just play for "Peanuts."

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "THE LADY'S IN LOVE WITH YOU")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Coming up, from our archive, Chuck Jones, the animator and director who helped bring to life such "Looney Tune" characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd. Jones was the sole creator of Pepe Le Pew, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARL STALLING'S "ANXIETY MONTAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.