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So Long, Charlie Brown

The last daily "Peanuts" comic strip ran in newspapers today. Creator Charles Schulz, 77, retired after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He had written the strip for nearly 50 years. Terence Smith leads a farewell to Charlie Brown and the "Peanuts" gang.

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  • CHARLIE BROWN (in cartoon segment):

    I feel miserable. Nobody likes me. Why can't I have fun like everybody else?

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    For almost 50 years, Americans have empathized with Charlie Brown, the lovable loser and star of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," the comic strip that spawned TV specials, films and a merchandising empire. Although filled with self-doubt and anxiety, Charlie Brown never gives up: Hoping to win a baseball game, putting one over on his dog Snoopy, and getting the little red-headed girl he's madly in love with.

  • CHARLIE BROWN:

    "Dear little red-haired girl …"

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Other "Peanuts" characters Schulz created have become as beloved as Charlie Brown. Like him, they have complicated feelings and appealing idiosyncrasies. Snoopy imagines he's a World War I ace.

  • CHARLIE BROWN:

    Aughh!

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Lucy foils Charlie Brown at every opportunity …

  • LUCY:

    What do you want?

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    … charging him a nickel for empty psychiatric advice.

  • LINUS:

    The proof of the pudding is under the crust.

  • LUCY:

    Aughh!

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Linus is the philosopher king who will never surrender his blanket. (Piano playing) There are also Schroeder, Marcy, Peppermint Patty and many others. They live in a neighborhood like any in post-World War II suburban America. There are occasional references to real events, like a bird named Woodstock.

  • CHARLIE BROWN:

    Good grief.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    But with no Nintendo games or MTV, the "Peanuts" kids seem to be from a gentler, less sophisticated era.

  • LUCY:

    Blech!

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    It's the adult emotions that are expressed —

  • CHARLIE BROWN:

    My anxieties have anxieties.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    … The sadness, the longing and rejection that many say account for "Peanuts'" universal appeal. Whatever the reasons, more than 355 million people read "Peanuts" every day in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. Peanuts products have been highly successful — toys, greeting cards and lunch boxes to name a few. There is even a millennium Snoopy. It's estimated that the cartoon's franchise generates $1 billion in revenue each year, and that creator Charles Schulz's annual income from the strips, merchandise and product endorsements is $30 million to $40 million a year. When Schulz announced a few weeks ago that he was retiring for treatment of colon cancer, and that there would be no new "Peanuts" episodes, there was a general outpouring of dismay, and the story made the front page of every major American newspaper. Seventy-seven-year-old Schulz wanted to be a cartoonist from the time he was a small boy, a dream he pursued in spite of receiving poor grades in art school.

  • CHARLES SCHULZ:

    I applied for Walt Disney when I graduated from high school, but I got turned down.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    The United Features Syndicate bought his idea for a strip in 1950, and, over Schulz's objection, named it "Peanuts." It made its debut on October 2 of that year. Since then, Schulz has worked on his strip seven days a week, six weeks in advance. He draws every frame and letters every bubble of dialogue, an uncommon practice today when many cartoonists employ other writers and artists. Schulz says he's a bit like all the "Peanuts" characters, but feels the closest to Charlie Brown.

  • CHARLES SCHULZ:

    All of the characters are a little bit of me, but I think Charlie Brown is the sort of nice little kid that I would have liked to have had as a neighbor when I was small, because he and I like the same things. And he's a decent kid. All he wants to do is to be left alone and play ball and fly his kite, and things like that.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    United Media will rerun old strips dating from 1974 at least through the end of 2000, but today the last original "Peanuts" appeared. It is a thank-you note from Charles Schulz. He ends by saying "Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them?" On NBC's "Today" show this morning Mr. Schulz recalled how he felt writing the last script.

  • CHARLES SCHULZ:

    Right at the end I wrote my name and then it said — and I'll probably start crying — it said well, that was Charlie Brown, Linus and so-and-so and all of a sudden I thought, you know, that poor kid never even got to hit the football. What a dirty trick. He never had a chance to kick the football.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    For more, I'm joined by two cartoonist friends of Charles Schulz. Wiley Miller is creator of the syndicated comic strip "Non Sequitur," which is published in more than 400 newspapers in 20 countries; and Jan Eliot is creator of "Stone Soup," which appears in more than 100 newspapers. Also with us is Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Welcome to all three of you. Wiley Miller, what makes "Peanuts" so special?

  • WILEY MILLER:

    It's something that supersedes mere fame. There are lots of famous people and famous entities, but he supersedes all that. "Peanuts" became part of Americana, much in the same way as, say, Norman Rockwell or Mark Twain. And to achieve something like that in your own lifetime is remarkable in itself. That's usually something that takes place long after you're dead. But it's so ingrained in our culture that it is very much a part of our culture.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Mm-hmm. Jan Eliot, if that's the case, why? What's the key here?

  • JAN ELIOT:

    I think the key is that Charlie Brown is a simple, unaffected person. He's not a superstar. He's not a rock star. He's not a sports star. He's just a regular little boy who kind of reflects the regular everyday person in all of us, and we relate to him.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Robert Thompson, the Washington Post in an editorial said "'Peanuts' is cute without being cloying, genuinely funny with an edge that does not cut." Do you think that's the key?

  • ROBERT THOMPSON:

    Well, you know, with all of this Norman Rockwellesque feel that "Peanuts" has, I think we have to recognize that sometimes that edge did cut. It just did it in this very kind and gentle sort of way. You know, Charlie Brown, this guy — it starts in 1950, and the strip was so far ahead of its time.

    Charlie could have been a poster boy for Prozac long before anybody had ever heard of the kinds of things that you needed to take Prozac for, much less was the drug invented.

    Here's this guy, before all of the ADD and Prozac, and all of these kinds of things, who is simply trying to get through life as a child. And, you know, in a lot of ways, he's got a little bit of Samuel Beckett to him. He waits for the Great Pumpkin, and the Great Pumpkin never comes.

    He's got Sisyphus to him. He tries to hit that football every single time, and he's never allowed to, in fact, make contact with it. There's a real sense in which we're seeing some very serious issues of childhood long before we really began to identify them. I think the real apotheosis of all of what Charles Schulz did was the 1965 Christmas special. It's won a passel of awards.

    And this is 1965, and we're hearing dialogue like Charlie saying, "You know, I'm really depressed. I don't know why. It's Christmastime. I ought to be feeling better about myself. I just don't feel right." If this doesn't sound like something right out of a therapy session in the late 1990s, I don't know what does.

    And he's doing this on national television in the 1960s. There was a continuity to what Charles Schulz did throughout the postwar era that went on in a geologic pace, but a real sense in which he's kind of the glue that ties together some … society was changing a lot faster than that strip was.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Wiley Miller, that sounds like really adult angst coming out of the mouths of children.

  • WILEY MILLER:

    Well, yes, Charles Schulz said on many occasions that he has never written for children. It's not a children's strip. He is writing for adults, and he uses this juxtaposition of adults' angst through the eyes of children. And that's what made it work. That's what made it resonate, and that's what made it so deliciously subversive back in the '50s and early '60s.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Right. Jan Eliot, you know Charlie Schulz.

  • JAN ELIOT:

    I do.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Is he Charlie Brown?

  • JAN ELIOT:

    I think he's very much Charlie Brown, and I think he has said that. He is a sweet, kind, decent person, and he has often described Charlie Brown as a very decent person. He's a little bit anxious, a little bit depressed, and he's just a regular guy who wanted all his life to be a cartoonist, and he got his dream — unlike Charlie Brown, who never has gotten the football, or the little red-haired girl. But he's very much Charlie Brown.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Robert Thompson, many characters, of course, have come into our culture through "Peanuts," even notions — Linus and his security blanket. That was ahead of its time as well.

  • ROBERT THOMPSON:

    Absolutely. This was a pantheon of characters that we really used to define the national character and the various representations that that character took in individuals. Short of Disney, I can think of no other group of characters that sort of acted as the American popular culture icon. It's interesting to compare it to, I think, the next generation. Bart Simpson is in many ways a lot like Charlie Brown, but in the age of entitlement. Charlie Brown was an underachiever and depressed about it. Bart Simpson, of course, is an underachiever and proud of it. It's a whole different attitude that one sees as we got to the later part of the century. But in many ways, those two characters are exploring some of the same real estate.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Wiley Miller, the script, of course — the strip was only part of it. He was this immensely creative man. He is this immensely creative man who burgeoned out into all these other media. Have you seen anything like it in the cartooning business?

  • WILEY MILLER:

    Oh, no. Well, long before Charles Schulz, there was always licensing and all that in comics. I think he just took it to a new level. But what made him unique in this is that he remained true to the art itself. First and foremost came the comic strip. All the other stuff — all the, you know, the television shows, the books, the licensing, plush toys — all that stuff, that was all secondary to him. What was always number one was that comic strip, and doing that comic strip day in and day out without any assistance on it.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Jan Eliot, you knew him. Was he — you know him now. Was he to you, when you first met, an encouraging person to a younger cartoonist?

  • JAN ELIOT:

    He was actually extremely encouraging. I first met him at the 50th Annual National Cartoonist Society Reuben Awards in 1995, and he didn't know me at all. Lynn Johnston introduced him to me. He was standing there with a cup of coffee and a Danish, shaking a little bit, looking for a place to sit. It was a rather awkward meeting. It was fairly unsatisfying.

    But after I got home from that weekend, I sent him a note thanking him for taking time with me, and he, within just a couple of days, called me at my studio, and had my work in front of him, and gave me compliments and gave me suggestions, and asked me for my opinion about what he was doing. I was extremely flattered and extremely surprised, and it was amazing from someone of his stature to get a phone call like that so early in my career.

    I think the most impressive thing that happened to me, though, was about a year later when I was in Santa Rosa at one of his ice shows. And he and I were sitting together the morning after the ice show at breakfast. He has a cartoonist party every year at the ice show, and we were all having breakfast together. And he chose to sit next to me out of all the people there, and asked me how it was going.

    I expressed to him that I had some concern at the number of papers I had, and that it seemed to have plateaued, and though my syndicate had done a great job of getting me started, I was worried about where the strip was going. He said that for the first five years of "Peanuts," he was stuck at 45 papers, and he was quite frustrated. But in the beginning of "Peanuts," Snoopy was just a little dog off to the side, a pet, not really a contributing character. And at about the five-year mark, Sparky thought to have Snoopy stand up and have a thought. And he looked at me at breakfast and he said, "You know, the strip really didn't take off until Snoopy stood up."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Became a person, in effect?

  • JAN ELIOT:

    Yes, yes. And then he said, "You need to find the thing in your strip that's like having Snoopy stand up." And I expressed some reservation and hope and mumbled. And he said, "You can do it, Jan. I believe in you." And I was floored, because he didn't really know me very well, and yet he was willing to say he thought I could do it. To this day, I have a sign in my studio that says, "Quit whining. Make Snoopy stand up." And that's my hope.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Robert Thompson, in effect, "Peanuts" is one long, unending story line in which not a great deal really happens. I mean, is that part of the magic?

  • ROBERT THOMPSON:

    It sure is. You know, I think in all the talking about the ending of this strip, we sometimes forget that this is arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history. You know, sometimes the Wagnerian opera seems likes it goes forever, but it doesn't, it stops — the same with a Dickens or a Tolstoy novel. There are some soap operas that have gone longer. The "Guiding Light" has been going for 62 years. But I don't know of any other story that has been told by one human being for 50 entire years, and it ended today, and that really is a milestone. It's not just a 50-year-long story. It's a story that took its time. It's a whole different way of telling a story. And it's, I think, one of the things we're going to always remember that was nice about the 20th century.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Wiley Miller, imagine drawing a strip seven days a week for 50 years, and doing it all yourself. I mean, for you, that must be an exhausting thought, I would think.

  • WILEY MILLER:

    Well, that's why we don't think about it. He really showed the way on that. In the part of the preview here, he talked about this being unusual for a cartoonist doing this without any assistance. Actually, that's incorrect. It's unusual for a cartoonist to have assistance producing the comic strip. And Charles Schulz pretty much led the way on that. In the older days, you did have these adventure strips and story lines where these cartoonists did have a staff of people helping with the writing and art, because it was a much grander scale back then. We don't have that today. We all pretty much work on our own. There's only a handful of cartoonists who do have a staff. But we all do it ourselves, and so we can relate when we think of doing it for 50 years as "Gee, that's a long time."

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Finally, Jan Eliot, will cartooning be different without Charles Schulz?

  • JAN ELIOT:

    Oh, I think cartooning is different because of Charles Schulz. He has given us all new insights into where we can take it and how we can do it, and he's made a real mark on the field of cartooning that all of us can only hope to improve upon.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    OK. Thank you all three very much.

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