Forget Charlie Brown

Turns out, Charles Schulz was the real clown.

Published January 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In all the gushing over "Peanuts'" belated burial this month, you would think someone would've admitted how bad it sucked. Charles Schulz had been coasting on retreads for decades until last fall, when failing health mercifully forced him to stop redrawing the same tired frames. Meanwhile, he racked up millions in syndication and licensing fees for selling out his icons and diluting his reputation. The combination earned him heaps of love letters from blowhard eulogists, even though it's hard to remember a time when the strip was actually funny, ironic or insightful.

The real surprise among the gratuitous fawning in Newsweek, on NPR, on the nightly newscasts and even in Salon was the claim from several of Schulz's peers that he revolutionized the comic form. While that may be true -- some of the earliest strips about gross hypocrisy and the cruelty of children are still striking -- he clearly ran out of material and never found the dignity to let it go.

Last week, with the hope of pinpointing the exact moment "Peanuts" dried up, I waded into the archives of the Denver Public Library with a half bottle of No Doz. With rolls of microfilm, I plowed through 50 years of the comic strip -- particularly the four-panel daily version -- in 10-year increments, focusing on the last month and a half of each decade, plus 1951, the first year it ran in the Rocky Mountain News. ("Peanuts" first appeared in seven papers in 1950.)

There weren't many surprises. Schulz was a shameless self-plagiarist, and for every missed football there were two dozen other themes that silently detailed how his comic fell apart. Charlie Brown was already grappling with how to address Santa back on Dec. 8, 1959. "You know, in a way, 'Dear Santa Claus' is rather stuffy," he fretted to Linus. "Perhaps something a little more intimate would be better ... something just a shade more friendly ..." The third frame was silent, ponderous, until Linus suddenly perked up: "How about 'Dear Fatty'?"

Forty years later, Schulz was still working the same old Santa gag, but instead of setting up the punchline, he opened with it. "Dear Snooty Claus," Sally wrote in the first frame. "Snooty Claus?" Charlie Brown asked. "He thinks he's so smart. He didn't bring me anything I wanted last year." "Well, don't burn your bridges," he warned. "Bridges? What have bridges got to do with it?" She looked down at the letter in the final frame: "Now I forgot what I was writing." Did I miss something?

I figured Schulz had effectively retired at least a decade or two ago, but it turns out his brain stem had checked out even earlier. His 1969 strips were already lifeless. The gang spent a solid week on a ski trip, for instance, and Schulz used the same lame punchline every day: Snoopy can ski! To be fair, that year there were still a few pithy nuggets of inspiration. Dec. 5, in front of a freshly built snowman, Linus experiences a brief moment of godhood. "You're mine! I have made you with my own hands," he says. "And lest you forget, as I created you, I also can destroy you!!" He shudders silently for a moment at his own staggering power. The final frame: "I'm sorry. That was a stupid thing to say."

Patty's problems with school were another warhorse Schulz trotted out every December in my sample: '69, '79, '89, '99. One of the dumbest examples opened Dec. 11, 1979, with Patty smugly addressing a teacher in the final frame: "You wouldn't give a D minus to somebody with a bow in her hair, would you ma'am?" By Friday, Schulz had delivered all sorts of bows: fat bows, wild bows, Patty completely covered in bows! Hysterical.

Schulz's affair with the sight gag culminated in Woodstock. The little yellow bird was so inherently funny to Schulz that providing a mere glimpse of him was often an entire day's work. On Dec. 2, 1969, Snoopy worried about Woodstock shivering outside in the snow. "Maybe I could loan him something to sort of help keep off the chill," he thought. Woodstock stood silently in the final frame, peeking out of a very large stocking cap. A stocking cap! And boy, did he look pissed.

Exactly 10 years and 15 days later, Woodstock returned in a fur hunter's cap. The strip climaxed with the flaps pulled down over Woodstock's face. Just think, it was only 1979. At that point, Schulz still had 20 years to try on new hats. Too bad he never did.

By Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."

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