Charlie Brown would never get a Christmas in 2012

Eric Garland Uncategorized 8 Comments

Today, in the absurd steel canyons of New York and Los Angeles, there are dull-eyed young executives trying look shrewd as they plan to release media projects that are part of a “franchise.” That’s the industry word for “making money off of something that is already famous.” Yes, thirty-somethings in shirts from Thomas Pink are scratching their chins pensively, thinking about the next comic book movie to be made into a Hollywood blockbuster, replete with fast food tie-ins, automobile ads and special deals at Target.

Should Hong-Kong Phooey drive a Scion? Shall he prefer Pop-Tarts? *scratch scratch* *think think*. (looks deep and leadershipy)

As I remarked last year, there is no surer sign of the demise of the conglomerated media jalopy, and of our our cultural malaise in general, than our slovenly attempt to reanimate a bunch of long-dead mediocrities. Folks, they actually made a remake of Footloose – as if The Kids’ big problem in 2010s America is not being allowed to dance, as opposed to, say, being strangled by their college loans and the ruinous leadership decisions of their parents’ generationBut Daaaaaaad…I wanna boogie! And get loan forebearance!

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The state of big media franchises thrust its way back into my head as I sat with my three-year old and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. This really is a sweet moment of family harmony for me. As my son’s linguistic skills have developed, he’s finally come to appreciate the story and fall in love with something that I remember with very fond memories. Back in the early 80s, I waited with baited breath on Friday nights at exactly 8:00pm EST for the CBS SPECIAL logo to come down in a spiral; he asks for the DVD. Whichever technology you employ, that transcendently classic piano music from Vince Guaraldi kicks in, and you’re truly transported to a world of warm feelings about Christmas.

There isn’t a media executive in Hollywood or New York today who would greenlight A Charlie Brown Christmas.

B-b-b-but – it’s famous! It’s so great! The music! The classic moments! How can you say that?

If you tried to pitch this project in today’s media environment, you would be lucky to be in the room long enough for the personal assistant to bring you that spring water you requested. You would be back on your laptop in some West Hollywood Starbucks, working on something “more commercial” in a matter of minutes. Because here’s how the meeting would go.

[INTERIOR SCENE: AN EXECUTIVE’S OFFICE IN BURBANK]

EXECUTIVE: So Chuckie Schultz, baby, snooky, oodums – tell me, what have you got?

Charles Schultz: I have this idea for a Christmas Special – it’s called “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Exec: Alright baby, start shootin’! Hit me! Who is the protagonist? Is it about a wizard, or a geek who develops super powers, a rich kid who discovers the meaning of Christmas, what? 

CS: The story is about Charlie Brown, a bald, neurotic nine year old who is obsessed with the materialistic values of Christmas in modern America.

Exec: (Silence) Um, okay. Like, is this a reference to Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm? Does he actually do lines from Larry’s show? Like some kind of hilarious reference to something already famous?

CS: No, he’s honestly insecure and the butt of everybody’s jokes. His main concern is the shallowness of modern American culture, and he feels like he’s completely alone, not even supported by his friends, or even his dog.

Exec: And he’s the protagonist.

CS: Yup.

Exec: (Silence) So what are his friends like?

CS: There’s Lucy. She is basically the embryonic image of everybody’s first wife – pushy, manipulative, materialistic, endlessly critical.

Exec: (stunned silence) Keep going.

CS: There’s Schroeder, who’s a piano player. He’s exactly like actual piano players – almost mute, obsessed by music and practicing, only sticking his head up occasionally when someone insults Beethoven.

Exec: (Looks deeply into email on smart phone, silent)

CG: Just quickly, here are the other characters: Snoopy, his cute dog who doesn’t say anything but does cryptic comic relief. Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, who just wants money from Santa. Pig Pen is really dirty, also plays upright bass. Then there’s Linus, the only character to appear to have sympathetic qualities at all.

Exec: (deeply enraptured in Sudoko) Umm, Schultzie, does anything actually happen in this feature? Is there…whaddya call it…a plot of some sort? Dramatic tension? Climax? Denouement?

CG: The story begins with Charlie Brown talking about how depressed he is at Christmas time, for which his best friend mocks him. He then goes to Lucy, who pretends to be a psychoanalyst and tells him to direct a Christmas play, which also has no plot. The production is a complete mess. Charlie goes to buy a Christmas tree, which the kids mock because it is scrawny and unattractive. Linus then reads a verse from the Bible in its entirety, which gives Charlie Brown a modicum of comfort in his crushing existential loneliness. The kids from the play then come to his house, decorate his tree, sing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and then wish him a Merry Christmas. The end.

Exec: Schultzie, man, I really want to thank you for coming all the way in from the San Fernando Valley to talk to me about this. The whole project, it’s very you, I tell ya. Let me shop this around and get back to you, cool? Hey, it’s cool if Angela shows you the way out, right? I’ve got a 2:30. Thanks!

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Having pitched projects to media executives, I have observed that they worship that which is a “sure thing,” i.e. what somebody already made famous, without having the slightest idea of what made it famous in the first place.

A Charlie Brown Christmas makes no sense whatsoever on paper. As a pitch, it’s a nightmare. It is a singular vision from a group of creators (Schultz having been accompanied by other geniuses) as they invite you into a quirky, detailed aesthetic. The humor has five different levels. Kids love the cuteness of the action while missing entirely the extraordinarily wry social critique about American life. My favorite is when Sally is asking Santa for tens and twenties to make life a bit easier on himself. When Charlie Brown reacts badly, she mimics perfectly those perfectly American tropes, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” I still laugh today, thinking about all these people railing away against “entitlement programs,” seventeen seconds before signing up for Medicare themselves. The insights about American life still hold up decades later. 

And if this were pitched today, it would never see the light of day. Sarcasm? Ennui? Loneliness? IN A KIDS FEATURE? And it’s going to criticize the commercialism of Christmas? How the hell are we supposed to do a Target tie-in?

Yes, today’s media executives are going to pass on everything that might have the remotest glimmer of genius in favor of something that was famous years ago – just to save them the fear of taking a chance on a quirky, interesting project and *gasp* failing! Because these days it is better to fail with Footloose than actually take a chance on a new project that seems weird – but deserves a shot.

As for me, there’s nothing more awesome than my three-year old cracking himself up over:

“It sounds like you have pantaphobia. Do you think you have pantaphobia?”

“What’s pantaphobia?”

“The fear of everything.”

“THAT’S IT!!!” 

Who the hell would write that now? Who would green light it? Who would fund it?

I want to leave my kids a legacy of strange, awesome stuff. It can be done, but it likely won’t involve today’s media.