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1951 Part 1 - Nuggets of Humor

Jimmy: Hey everybody. Welcome back to Unpacking Peanuts, the show where three cartoonists go deep on the greatest comic strip of all time, Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I'm Jimmy Gownley. if you know me from anything you might know me from my comic books, Amelia Rules, The Dumbest Idea Ever, or Seven Good Reasons Not to Grow Up and joining me as always are my two co-hosts. First we have the composer behind the band, Complicated People as well as this very podcast and the cartoonist behind such strips as Tangled River, A Gathering of Spells and Strange Attractors, Mr. Michael Cohen,

Michael: Hello there.

Jimmy: And we also have with us former vice-president of Archie comics, executive producer, and writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and creator of the Instagram strip Sweetest Beasts, Harold Buchholz.

Harold: Hello.

Jimmy: Well guys, thank you so much for joining me, it's so exciting to get into the first full year of Peanuts strips by Charles Schulz. You know, as we start out here, our hero is expanding his cast. He's focusing his themes. He's really beginning to master the daily comic strip format. Michael, why don't you get us up to speed?

Where do we stand here? January 1st, 1951 in the world of Peanuts.

Michael: Well, we're now three months into the strip and Schulz is working with a very small cast, probably not very recognizable characters and slowly getting his rhythms down and developing some of the themes which are going to be developing over the next few years.

Cause originally it's very, very basic. There are four characters-- we have Shermy. Probably I'm guessing these kids grow up to be like four or five, very recognizable Schulz type characters, large heads. Shermy seems to be a character without a whole lot of personality. He doesn't seem to have any really distinguishable characteristics, but the first strip is, is him and a little girl named Patty probably around the same age.

And it's not till the second strip that you see the character most associated with Peanuts, which is Charlie Brown. So you have these three kids and you have a little puppy named Snoopy. At this point in the story. Snoopy is very much like a little dog. Um, the character we know is still four or five years off, but it's really fascinating to watch the slow progression as Schulz gets a handle on these characters.

Charlie Brown seems to be smaller or younger than the other two kids. And he's treated somewhat like he's, he's the baby, the new kid in town, maybe. So just with these four characters, he's starting to develop this little world of Peanuts in which there are no adults ever appear. And at this point, no other characters than these, these four appear in that in 1950.

So as we move into 1951, we're going to start seeing some new characters come in and we're going to see some of these rather simple characters develop into the characters we know and love and really develop very, very distinct personalities. So I'd say at this point, Peanuts is still kind of in a very proto form.

You can sort of recognize it, but it's definitely not the strip that most of us grew up reading and continue to love to this day.

Jimmy: Yeah. It's definitely an embryonic form. I'm sort of shocked by how many of the themes are present early. But the specifics, it, it really, it takes a long time for him to, to work into those.

So Harold, how about our hero, Charles M Schulz. What's what's going on with him in 1951?

Harold: Well, it's a very big year for Charles Schulz. Um, like we said, he, he started the strip in October. He was living in, in, the Minneapolis St. Paul area with his father, who owned the barbershop. But during this time he's also working at the art instruction schools as a, basically a cartooning instructor by mail.

And he's around a lot of very talented, very ambitious people. And, um, through some of those people, he meets a woman named Joyce Halverson and begins dating her is probably around the time that the strict. Um, but fairly quickly a romance develops and, Charles Schulz proposes and on April, I believe it's April 18th, 1951 Schulz and Halverson are married. That's a big, big deal for, for Charles Schulz. And they immediately go on a honeymoon to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and decide that they're going to stay there. And they move into a little suburban setting actually, which is new for Schulz. He'd always kind of grown up around the urban areas of Minneapolis, St Paul, but now he literally is in what we would see in the Peanuts strip.

This it's kind of, um, veterans, housing, um, little small suburban tracks. And this is what Schulz is, is kind of showing in the strip that he's now living in a little suburbia. And, on top of this, Joyce does not come alone. Her daughter Meredith has been, has been born earlier the previous year. And so now he has, um, a baby child that he adopted at the same time he gets married.

So he's moved, he's married and he's become a father all in a period of a few weeks here and in April and living in a place he's never lived before. Um, you know, certainly as a civilian and he's now, he's now making a huge transition to a professional full-time syndicated, cartoonist, which was always his dream.

And that's, you know, what I see in this strip in Schulz, um, if I were to call 1951 a particular kind of, year, it would be, I’d call 1951 Charlie Brown, a pretty good guy, because character that we've got here is a guy, instead of being the put upon character, he's kind of the, he's kind of a, the star of the show and he's got a little bit of cockiness to him and, he enjoys life.

He certainly can be disillusioned, as we are used to seeing Charlie Brown being, but this is a different Charlie Brown than what we see for pretty much the rest of the strip. And you can imagine, you know, Schulz is probably gaining a bit of a confidence here as, as somebody who was socially awkward in high school and hated, hated being in the services as well, armed service during world war two, he's kind of coming into his own here.

And I think it's fascinating to see these strips at this time in his life where he's really kind of -- he's kind of celebrating himself in a way, I guess that's the best way I could put it in when I'm reading these trips. That's at least that's, what's kind of stands out to me. And if you guys have the same feeling about that.

Jimmy: Yeah.I mean, I definitely see confidence when I look at these strips, you know, just from a cartooning point of view, his ink line is just gorgeous. Peanuts is simply drawn, but that doesn't mean it's, it's simple and it's certainly not easy to draw that way because there's no details to hide behind at all.

It's just one confident line. I mean, just, just, this seems like a silly thing to say, but just drawing Charlie Brown's head correctly, this phase is kind of a challenge and it's not as expressive or as facile as his mature period where it all really does feel like it's, it's almost handwriting. It is really confident. you know, there's, there's just elements of fantastic cartoon drawing all throughout this year.

Harold: Snoopy is darn cute in this 1951 year. I don't know how Schulz does this. I've never quite seen another character who is. Snoopy just is. And Snoopy has got this, this little, little smile. Um, it's like the Mona Lisa Snoopy, 1951.

I just think find adorable.

Jimmy: Yeah. Interestingly now, Michael, you said in our last episode, Snoopy, is one of the things you, you wanted to track his evolution and you mentioned it today too. What, what were your takeaways of Snoopy's growth just in, in general over this year?

Michael: Oh, big year for Snoopy.

He doesn't grow all that much, frankly, but Schulz definitely indicates that Snoopy knows a lot more than he gives on. I mean, Snoopy sort of famous for what he's thinking and imagining and pretending. Here he's you see him as a dog, but he seems to be reacting to things around him. I mean, it looks like he might be able to read, even says something at one point, which, you know, Snoopy never really talks.

It's just all thought balloons, but the evolution of this character is so slow. It's really amazing because if you look at Snoopy in these strips and then jump ahead four years and you see a little bit more recognizable dog who looks totally different. But if you look in between, you don't see the changes, you never see Schulz saying, well, you know, it's time to change Snoopy and make him, you know, make his head smaller and this and that.

It's just, I don't even know if Schulz was aware of how he was evolving this character. Um, but he's recognizably Snoopy.

Jimmy: Well, I remember reading an interview is Schulz. Um, you know, sometime in probably like the late nineties, where he said that he looks back at some of the periods of, of his drawings of Snoopy and he's appalled by it.

And he specifically is talking about later in the fifties where Snoopy has sort of a long banana nose it's for people who are familiar with that era, the strip it's like the weed claustrophobia era of Snoopy. And so to me, that indicates that, yeah, he really wasn't consciously doing this. It was just the incremental changes of drawing the same thing every day.

But just by nature, you're changing your stylist. Changing the tools might be changing everything, contributes to the fact that these characters just, just evolve over time.

Michael: Yeah. And that's what we're keeping an eye on. As we go through ‘ 51, we're picking strips that we think are either important or extremely funny, but the importance would be okay, this is a clue to where it's going.

That maybe this is the first time that Schulz tried this, this gag, which became, would become a, like a major thing later on. So that's what I find interesting is trying to get into his head and seeing that he's throwing all kinds of things at the wall, but when he really likes something, he doesn't forget it.

And if it's really working, he'll, he'll bring it back and make it a major part of the strip. But it might take years.

Jimmy: Yeah. One of the influences I see in this year, in that particular area, especially is Krazy Kat in that he is looking for his thing. His situations that he can go to again and again and again, and constantly, you know, ring new jokes out of them.

But I don't see any visual. I'm not sure what the visual influences he would be looking at at this time. I mean, there's, it's still not the UPA animation style. I think that's still a couple of years away. I mean, I might be Harold, you might be able to speak more to that than I can, but it just does feel like a really unique visual world he's creating.

Harold: I think that Schulz is really very, um, very simpatico with UPA. For those of you don't know UPA, it was, an animation studio that, that kind of came into its own around world war two, a lot of animators from Disney and other places, came together, kind of a progressive view of, of cartooning, in a more sophisticated, um, line oriented style.

It's very, very designy. You know, Disney as an in the animation world had moved toward realism that just odd people in the thirties and early forties, but by the late forties, early fifties, UPA really caught the eye of a lot of people. And again, going back to Schulz, being at the, um, the art Institute, imagine what he is around, probably more so than he may be he was for the rest of his life. He was going into an office with these very talented artists. I mean, this was originally a cartooning school and it became a general illustration school as well, but he's around some incredibly talented people. And, um, and they're, they're very ambitious and you know, they're on top of what's going on in the field.

And what is going on with UPA is, um, they now are making, cartoons on a regular basis and getting theatrical distribution for them through Columbia Pictures. So there's a lot of exposure to this new art style and you're seeing its influences everywhere. You're already seeing it in some of the, um, Warner brothers bugs bunny type cartoons Chuck Jones was, was creating, but it's, it's an amazing style. And it's, what's interesting to me about Schulz Schulz's work is in terms of the simplicity of line and design. There's no question that Schulz is going for it. I think if you would ask the UPA artists to look at Schulz's work at this point, I think they would feel simpatico, but they wouldn't necessarily feel Schulz is very, um, sophisticated yet in terms of some of the, you know, the line weights and this and that, but I do feel like he's very much in line with that. And I'm going to come back to this a little bit later, but, um, I, I do feel like another way to look at this is UPA also introduced limited animation in, in ways of making limited animation, meaning basically low budget or not fully animated cartoons acceptable in the design world. And this was happening right before television came out. And so you needed to do things with super economy of line and movement, and you had to have simpler characters. And so what you're seeing here is, you know, I think UPA made quality, limited animation possible in the era when television needed to be done cheaply and quickly.

And that was kind of the downside of UPA. If people look at it as like, oh, well you at least have beautiful Disney style animation. It's not UPAs fault. They just made it more palatable because there was so little movement in these lower budget things. I would argue that Peanuts is the equivalent of limited animation in the comic strip.

It's a smaller size. It's shrunk down to such minimalism by necessity because it was sold as a space saving strip when there were newsprint shortages. And so in the same way, Schulz took something that could have been a limitation and, and basically did marvels with this incredibly small space that required a very, very defined stylistic choices because he had no room to work in every, every line counts. And that's definitely a UPA thing.

Yeah, for sure.

Jimmy: You know, there's a book that came out last year, the strange death of Alex Raymond by, Dave Sim who did Cerebus and he talks about, it's mostly about the photo realism in comics, which would be, strips like, um, you know, Rip Kirby, Heart of Julia Jones, Mary Perkins On Stage, and how Peanuts arriving just kills them essentially at the, at the height of their their popularity, because, you know, they were, there was a lot of effort put into those strips in terms of trying to get them to reproduce right. Even though they never really did reproduce right. And Schulz was able to build this language where it didn't matter if it was printed on a potato, you would still be able to feel like you had a meaningful interaction with this strip where, you know, these highly illustrative strips sometimes would get reduced down to just being a blob of nothing.

Um, so, so it's interesting because on the one hand, Schulz is the pinnacle of these of comic strips and the pinnacle of the form. But in another way, it really closes off an entire avenue of expression for different types of artists.

Michael: Yeah. But one thing that he was concerned with was, was the setting. And because it seems to me that a lot of the kids strips, you know, going back to the twenties, thirties, and forties, really try to picture the, the urban landscape of, I think a lot of it had to do with, you know, people growing up in poverty, living in a slum somewhere and have, as Jimmy mentioned, you know, he had moved to a suburban tract in Colorado and that's pretty barren.

I mean, it's not a desert, but those suburban tracks are just, you know, newly laid pavement and a tree planted here and there and a lawn. And so there isn't much visual stimulus. Um, and he's able to show that as just, you know, two parallel lines as the curb. And there's really no backgrounds ‘cause there probably wasn't any.

Jimmy: right.

That is very true. And, you know, on a really crowded newspaper page, something minimal with a lot of white space is going to jump out at you and you know, it wasn't always on the comics page. So, so that was going to be important for him too. So it didn't look like just another coupon or another ad for something, um, the, the negative space, the minimalism of the line, I think does make it jump out when you're competing with a whole lot of gray noise.

Michael: Yeah. Well, what what's really strange though is, I mean, it's clearly a kid’s strip and kids are probably going to be more attracted to this very simple style and very simple characters. And it's very easy to tell who's who and what's going on. But Schulz was not aiming the strip at kids. That's the real strange thing.

It looks like it's going to be, you know, funny, you know, pratfalls and pranks. And I wrote down a few words that he uses in 1951 here. Okay. We have retroactive, filibuster, maladjusted, inhibited. He uses Beethoven. Cause I remember I read these, you know, pretty much around the time they were coming out a few years later, you know, you know, who's “beat havin?”

I had no idea. I mean, there's plenty here that a kid is just would not understand, which I think has a lot to do with its success because adults could read this


Jimmy: Yeah. Well it's the trick is that he was able to write for a general audience without pandering to anybody. And, you know, I read these, you know, I, you know, I didn't know why Charlie Brown was always saying “sig-ha.” Every time something bad happens.

He looks at the camera and says “sig-ha.”. Um, but it didn't sort of bother me that there were parts of it I didn't get, I wanted to get it. I wanted to reach for it. Maybe not all of it, but, but some of it, you know, and I even want to incorporate that kind of language into my personality almost, you know, it was a sophistication that was still really welcoming.

It wasn't punishing you for not knowing it was just very naturalistic to these characters.

Harold: Yeah. And that, I think we've talked about this like this before, you know, as a kid, when you're growing up, you're used to being exposed to all sorts of things you don't understand. And you're, you're plugged into this world where you expect you're gonna understand 30 or 40% of what's going on. And, you know, Peanuts, also being a newspaper strip, which was really genuinely something that newspapers were trying to appeal to the whole family. Um, this is a unique time in entertainment where, where, you know, the thing that, that does appeal to that broader audience, there's really an opportunity to, to create for more than one group within an audience and try to synthesize them.

And I think Schulz was very much into that. One of the things that really struck me, I thought it was kind of funny. It was, you know, when they were trying to promote this, you know, what is this strip? And, and, some of the, on the very first time they were like putting out ads to send to newspapers who were signing up for Peanuts.

I just wrote down some of the, the things that the syndicate, I don't know if Schulz had anything to do with this or not, but the way they described it as is so not. It's like nuggets of humor to enrich your daily reading was one of them. And another one said, isn't that wild? The greatest little sensation since Tom Thumb.

Jimmy: I've seen that

Harold: for kids young and old, I can buy that. The kids strip for everybody, a delightfully different kind of comic strip.

Everybody will love this new comic strip. Small kidding in a big way. It's kids in kidding from that special little world of the small fry. Watch for this whimsical heartwarming news strip, the whole family will enjoy the daily activities of our youngest comic strip citizens.

Jimmy: They don't even mention character names cause Schulz really didn't have characters.

Like we talked about last episode, you know, it's just, they're, they're just really selling it. The strip is small and the characters in it are also small.

Harold: Yeah. And that in a way that totally frees him up, I think, to do whatever he's going to do, because the expectations must be so low going into what this is and what it's supposed to be.

But yeah, I mean, Schulz did use the word sophistication when he was, when he was saying I was trying to do something new, you know, he was seeing that he was on a cutting edge of sorts in his own mind.

Michael: Or he already wanted to subvert that, that whole advertising campaign by saying, oh, he went heartwarming. Huh? I'll show you heartwarming.

Jimmy: Well you know, the other thing that's interesting about the art style, I would say, and contrasting it with those soap opera strips is that those soap opera strips were supposed to be the sophisticated thing. Right. Cause they're like looking at fashion illustration, it's adult characters in serious stories and Peanuts lays waste to that in that way too, because even though it is about these little cartoon characters with the giant heads, it gets to things that nobody was talking about in comic strips.

And, you know, it would be absurd to have Rip Kirby, you know, thinking about, you know, the existential questions of life, like Charlie Brown can. There's something about the simplicity of, of the cartooning that allows the sophistication of the thought to kind of come through. I think,

Harold: yeah, it does seem like I was reading through these strips.

I was struck the whole year was in many ways. The humor is, is, is quite basic. I don't know if that's a fair way to put it. And if I were to be uncharitable I might even say bland, there's a, the humor is. It's odd. It's like, it's almost like there's a, I have this odd sense of there's an innocence and naivete and Schulz himself as a guy who socially was just, you know, not, not somebody who he, he, he, he really grew into himself over the years.

And I, I see comedy in here that is Schulz growing quickly as a person and as a, and as a humorist. But you know, some of this stuff is, is kind of, I mean, it's like the non joke joke that looks like he really thinks it's a joke, but it's not a joke. And I, I may not being the being charitable to him, but in certain times, That's there's really no, there, there on, on a particular strip here and there, but he's, he's constantly experimenting and it's super admirable, but there are a lot of jokes to me that just do not work.

Michael: well, I, I kind of break these down into two categories, because there are jokes, you know, fair jokes and great jokes in this year's strips, but a lot of the jokes are just jokes.

In other words, it wouldn't matter who said them, right. You know, there's a punchline. It could have been Shermy, it could have been Patty. The great strips, and I tried to select a few of these to demonstrate and are the strips where if Charlie Brown says something, it says something about him and it wouldn't work at all for any other character.

And I think that's where he's heading that these characters become so distinctive that they, you sort of know what's in their head when they say something. And you can almost anticipate what they're thinking. And so there's a few where clearly this is a Charlie Brown joke. It would not work for anyone else.

The Shermy and Patty characters, who we met in 1950 and are characters who I don't think we ever really get in their heads. And Schulz probably realized that after a while, because they eventually kind of get shoved off to the side when he finds stronger characters like Lucy and Linus, um, there's no need for a Patty character.

And she, you see Patty throughout the rest of the strip, but when there's a bunch of kids waiting in line to see a movie or something, I think he realized he could only go so far with her and Shermy never really had much going anyway.

Jimmy: Poor Shermy. Hey, so before we go on, I do want to talk a little bit about something we discussed last episode, that I have a little more information on.

So we were wondering about what was, was this, the first thing Schulz sent out to the syndicates. Had he tried a bunch of other strips and failed? And basically from what I understand is once he, he was able to sell little folks, L’il Folks into the local paper, that was his focus. And his focus was to try to not just become a cartoonist, but to get L’il Folks syndicated nationally.

And he was even in negotiations with, hold on, I have it written down here, something, what is it? Oh, the newspaper enterprise association, where he would be an independent contractor, providing them with L’il Folks to be syndicated, you know, throughout the country. And that's why the local paper was holding onto it.

Once that deal fell through, the newspaper then drop the strip, you know, from appearing locally. And then his first batch of strips that he sent off to United Features was one pack. Well, you actually draw, or, you know, took the train, to the, to the offices, to, to

pitch these. It was one pack of strips that was in the little folk style, which was essentially gag strips. And then another batch, which was his first attempt at turning L’il Folks into a four panel strap, which is obviously what they bought.


Harold: well, one thing I also read was that prior to that, um, that was the first time he sent something to New York, but for at least a number of months, he was traveling to Chicago where the, you know, the Chicago Tribune syndicate, um, there were a couple of syndicates out of Chicago and the story is that he went every so often pitching strip, strip ideas, given that he was going to the same places. I'm assuming there was some other content he was, he was developing and trying to sell. Although he, he must have clearly known that the thing that was really resonating with it was Saturday Evening Post cartoons

with the little kids. All

Jimmy: right. So that's a little more background than Schulz and where he was at when he was trying to pitch this strip.

So how about you guys? We take a break now and we come back and we discuss the strips of 1951 in detail.

Sounds good.

Harold: Great.

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