November 20th, 2006
I love Charlie Brown — but be honest. Cartoon producers led his Peanuts gang through some truly disturbing stories. As the cartoonist's manic-depressive imagination focussed on his newspaper comic strip, studio executives fumbled for new ways to fill the 40 years after A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, even though Charles M. Schulz is dead — the cartoons keep coming.
If there's one thing Peanuts specials have taught us, it's that Charlie Brown was still loveable, even when he failed. So let's give that same appreciation to his five worst cartoons....
1. It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown
Disco had been dead for years, but in 1984 Snoopy suddenly discovered the joys of boogie fever. He slapped on a headband, sweats, and a bad case of 80s attitude, then did his best Stayin' Alive strut towards the discotheque, where he met Franklin — the cartoon's only black character — breakdancing on the sidewalk. In the creepiest scene of all, the discotheque is filled with adult-sized Peanuts spinning in narcissistic oblivion.
"All Flashbeagle really consists of is a foursome of thinly strung-together music videos," wrote one viewer, "with very little of the beloved Charles Schulz dialogue filling in between." And forget the familiar jazz soundtrack; this special is mostly dance loops and synthesizers.
This felt old the day it was released — but don't tell Charlie Brown's sister. After Snoopy spontaneously ignites her first grade classroom into a disco inferno, she insists Charlie Brown give his dog some credit. "That's the first time I've ever got an A in Show And Tell."
2. Linus's Towering Inferno
My uncle, the baron, hates strangers, and he will be very upset eef — ooh la la! He is back! He mustn't find you here!
We always knew Linus was a chick magnet, but his dalliance with a stereotypical French girl ends badly, as an overturned candle traps him in a burning Chateau.
Charles M. Schulz had served in World War II — his unit was behind the tanks that liberated Dachau — and he'd wanted to include his unit's village in a Charlie Brown cartoon. To reach this improbable moment, the entire Peanuts gang procures passports, then travels through Europe with Snoopy as their chauffeur. Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown is an artificially sweet travelogue that ends with a melodramatic fire sequence which consists mostly of Linus shouting "Help! Help! Help, Charlie Brown!" over and over again.
The baseball-challenged blockhead successfully rousts the villagers — including one token French Peanut — and as Snoopy wheels out a fire hose, Linus repels away from the flames using his blanket. After a particularly wooden reading of the line "Use my blanket! To catch us!" they all successfully escape a grisly death from smoke inhalation.
The only thing more depressing is the infamous Peanuts Memorial Day special in which Linus again visits World World II battlefields, then recites the poem "In Flanders Fields. " ("We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow...") He then turns to Charlie Brown and asks accusingly: "What have we learned?"
3. Why, Charlie Brown, Why?
Charlie Brown endorsed everything from Zingers to sandwich bread. In fact, the newspaper comic strip accounted for less than a fifth of all Charlie Brown-related revenue, most of which came from merchandising. (Case in point: the commercial in which an exhausted Charlie Brown suddenly perks up after eating "tasty low-sugar Cheerios" before facing certain doom in the boxing ring...)
But sometime in the 70s, Charles M. Schulz took a break from creating children's programming altogether, and began illustrating life insurance brochures. Those weird TV commercials in which Snoopy played a lawyer were only the beginning. The online version showed Charlie Brown illustrating the proper procedure for mourning the death of a family member. ("Immediate care of the body," it read, next to a picture of a very depressed Charlie Brown. "If the deceased has made provisions to donate his or her organs...")
Elsewhere Lucy proudly brandished her discharge papers in an essay about leaving the military, while Schroeder continued his Navy tour of duty and Snoopy continued his career as a Marine. (Complete with buzz cut). Two cute yellow birds were shown getting married, followed by a brochure illustrating the logistics of divorce. One page even showed Woodstock imprisoned for failure to pay child support. But no one really wanted to know why Lucy was carefully scrutinizing her health insurance's pre-natal coverage, and eventually it was replaced by a picture of Woodstock clipping out the phone numbers for an OB/GYN
Only after reading these disturbing brochures were you ready to watch Peanuts: Why Charlie Brown Why — the angstiest cartoon ever, in which a little girl fights leukemia. This 1990 special was nominated for an Emmy, but it's never been clear why Charles M. Schulz wanted to tackle the subject. (Although Charlie Brown was named after a boyhood friend who later died of cancer, a disease which also claimed Schulz's mother.) At one point the hymn "Farther Along" is sung gently in the background of this cartoon. "When death has come and taken our loved ones, It leaves our home so lonely and drear..."
In its tear-jerking conclusion, the little girl's baseball cap flies off her head, revealing that all her hair grew back after her chemotherapy.
4. Snoopy, Come Home
Umberto Eco once wrote about how Snoopy failed to bring Charlie Brown the tenderness he needed. "His solitude becomes an abyss," the deconstructive Italian novelist wrote. "...he proceeds always on the brink of suicide, or at least of nervous breakdown..."
That's the feeling you get watching Snoopy abandon Charlie Brown in Snoopy, Come Home. Charlie Brown stands alone, sad circles around his eyes, not just depressed but actually crying. He returns alone to his joyless room, as a 4-minute ballad chronicles his uncontrollable descent into depression with histrionic violins.
Someone named "TickleMeCthulhu" has uploaded the video to YouTube, along with another clip from the same movie — although it's not particularly cheery either. In the 1972 film the beagle's original owner, now confined to her sick bed, writes him a letter wondering if she's been forgotten. She cries, looking longingly out her window, then sends the letter to Snoopy.
"What could possibly be sadder," one commenter posted, "than a little girl in the hospital missing her dog?!"
5. Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown
Family Guy isn't funny — except when it is — but you've got to acknowledge the audacity in their mean-spirited parody. A miserable grown-up Charlie Brown crashed a reunion of his old gang — sporting tattoos and piercings — then blusters, "What are you looking at? Yeah, it's me, your old punching bag, Charlie Brown. Everybody wish Snoopy and Woodstock were here? Well they're dead!"
The sweetness of Peanuts presents a too-obvious target, and even Simpsons director Jim Reardon took a whack at it. Back when he was an art student in 1986, he created "Bring me the head of Charlie Brown" — an underground three-minute short with the Great Pumpkin offering a bounty for the death of his arch nemesis. The bounty sends Lucy, Schroeder, Linus, and Snoopy on a hunt for Charlie Brown, so when watching the ultra-violent climax you'll probably want your security blanket.
If you search YouTube today for Charlie Brown, you'll find the top matches are amateurish re-dubs of the holiday specials into race-baiting parodies like A Charlie Brown Kwanzaa, or simply, Suck My Black Ass, Charlie Brown.
These parodies are useful only to demonstrate how the Peanuts cartoons would look if you threw away everything that made them so endearing — their gentleness, artfulness, and philosophical humor. Even at their worst, the real Charlie Brown cartoons always had a simple, bittersweet honesty. They didn't always end happily — but maybe that was the point.
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