OUT OF LEFT FIELD
of CHARLES SCHULZ
An artist's version of a photographic
portrait of Charles Schulz
Looking back on another
interview with Schulz
By STAN ISAACS
Michael Johnson, one of my colleagues here at www.thecolumnists.com, wrote an incisive piece here last week on Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame in reaction to the new book, Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis (Harper, $34.95). The book woke up some of Johnsons memories of a time he interviewed Schulz in 1959 when he was a student reporter at San Jose State.
I saw Schultz some years later, 1977, when I was on a journalism fellowship at Stanford University. I did a Question and Answer interview for LI, Newsdays weekend magazine. My piece did not analyze Schulz the way author Michaelis does, but I think the sense of the man came through in his answers to questions. Among other things he said, I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about, and because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry.
Stanford fellow, Solveig Torvik, and I met Schulz at his ice skating rink in Santa Rosa, about an hours drive north of San Francisco. We then went over to his 12-room house and adjoining studio on four acres on Snoopy Lane. A new tennis court on the grounds was christened with a game the day of the interview. Schulz invited me to hit some balls with him, showing a form that was practiced and graceful, not as furious as that of his strip alter ego, Snoopy.
One thing I didnt include in the Q and A concerned his thoughts about Mormons. When my pal Torvik mentioned that she was a failed Mormon and didnt think much of that church, Schulz said heatedly that one of his daughters had been married to a Mormon and been treated badly. If I had a gun, I would shoot him, this seemingly mild-mannered man said--and he wasnt kidding.
Some excerpts from the interview:
Q: What were you doing on Oct. 2, 1950, the day your first Peanuts strip appeared in newspapers?
Schulz: I cant recall if the paper in Minneapolis was one of the initial subscribers. About half-a-mile uptown in Minneapolis there was a large newsstand which sold out-of-town newspapers, and I had a very close friend named Jim Sassaoil and we might have gone up to that newsstand and bought any papers with Peanuts in them, and the news dealer said, No, and we dont have any with popcorn, either. That was doubly and triply obnoxious because I hated the name, and I knew that things like this were going to happen. It made me more and more angry I despise the name.
Q: What would you have called it?
Schulz: Originally it was supposed to be called Little Folks, but we couldnt use that name. I think I would have settled for just Charlie Brown because most comic strips are named after the lead character.
Q: How did you become a comic strip creator?
Schulz: I was working at Art Instruction School, which is a correspondence school in Minneapolis .It was called Federal School then, and its the same correspondence school which advertises the draw me and try for a free art course. I answered an ad in a newspaper when I was in high school. My mother showed it to me And a salesman came out to the house and I was sold on the textbook simply because they had things about cartooning in them. I was afraid of art school because I didnt think I was good enough. But I wanted to be a cartoonist, so I signed up, and eventually after the war, I began to take my drawings over to the instructors, and they hired me as an instructor for five years. And thats where I was the day my first strip appeared.
Q: You have said, I do not regard what I am doing as great art. Why?
Schulz: When I said that I wanted to make it clear that I didnt want anybody to get the impression that I regarded this as art even in its broadest sense. Comic strips arent art; they never will be art. They are too transient. Art is something which is so good it speaks to succeeding generations, not only as it speaks to the first generation but better. I doubt that my strip will hold up for several generations to come. I dont know any that have. Krazy Kat is good, but I noticed that even now I am bored with reading Krazy Kat. Comic strips are not made to last; they are made to be funny today in the paper, thrown away Just because something has drawing in it doesnt make it art, just because something has words in it doesnt make it literature. In an age where we label things like pop art, I didnt want to be accused of thinking I was better than I really was.
Q: I think many people might argue that 50 years from now a lot of Charlie Brown will have meaning to people.
Schulz: Well,, you have convinced me. As long as you say it; I dont want to say it.
Q: What inspired you to conceive some of the themes of the strip? First, Schroeder playing Beethoven.
Schulz: I was looking through a book on music the very first year the strip began and it showed a portion of Beethovens Ninth in it, so I drew a cartoon of Charlie Brown singing this. I thought it looked kind of neat, showing these complicated notes coming out of the mouth of this comic strip character, and then I thought why not have one of the little kids play a toy piano. We had just bought a tiny piano for our youngest daughter, Meredith; she was only two years old. And then I thought, why not have Schroeder, who had just come into the strip as a baby, play the toy piano. And thats how it all started.
If I had known that it would work as well, I would have planned it more carefully. Actually I drew three or four strips and then I ended it. But then I kept thinking of new ideas and I brought it back. This is what happens in a comic strip all the time. You are never sure when something is going to work, so you dont plan things out as carefully as a novelist might because you dont have the time When you discover that something has worked, you wish then that you had really plotted it out more carefully You just go back and work it around. The only thing that matters in the strip is what is in todays paper.
Q: Lucy as psychiatrist. What is the inspiration for that?
Schulz: I think it had something to do initially with a parody of children and lemonade stands, which you always used to see in comic strips .It worked, so I kept it going and carefully polished and refined it
(Schulz had once said he was thinking of cutting out the football sequence because it was too hard, but it had turned out to be too popular).
Q: Now that you have this football monkey on your back, can you give us any insight of how you are thinking of working out the next one?
Schulz: I will start with the conversation in my mind of Lucy saying, Come on Charlie Brown, Ill hold the ball and youll kick it. And of course his initial reaction is one of outrage. Hell say, Boy, you must really think Im stupid, dont you. From there Ill think of what her response will be .I think my favorite is the one where he is lying on his back and he quotes from Isaiah and he says, How long, oh Lord, how long? And she says, All your life, Charlie Brown, all your life. Another good one was where they shook hands on it and she said, A womans handshake is not legally binding.
(Robert Short wrote a book, The Gospel According to Charlie Brown which pointed up the religious themes inherent in the strip.)
Q: What is your reaction to The Gospel According to Charlie Brown?
Schulz: a fair amount of delight because I was flattered that he should have treated the strip in this way. I think Bobs theory is that even such a lowly thing as a comic strip can prompt some kind of spiritual thought, which is why he quotes everybody from me to Kierkegard .Its difficult to talk about what my beliefs are The only true theology is that there is no theology.
Q: It could be argued that in the broadest sense your strip is more than a comic strip, and if they were going to give the prize to anybody [Gary Trudeaus Doonebury won a Pulitzer] the first Pulitzer Prize should have gone to Peanuts.
Schulz: Doonesbury is an outstanding political cartoon, not a comic strip. They just dont want to give it to comic strips Were low down on the scale. I keep insisting that we are right next to vaudeville or burlesque as the lowest form of entertainment there is.
Q: But you dont believe that
Schulz: It puts you in an untenable spot. ..You dont know where to think you are good or not. You cant take yourself too seriously, because if you do, youll get shot down. You are not in a dignified profession.
Q: And yet a religious writer has written that you are a preacher with a wider audience than Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale or others.
Schulz: But you are still a comic strip, and you still get letters from people saying, Dont quote Scriptures in such a lowly thing as a comic strip. Scriptures on streetcars is fine, but put them in a comic strip and they say you are sacri1igious. So you are stuck.
Q: If you were to put only one of your strips on the wall which would it be?
Schulz: The strip that seems to get the most attention is the one where the kids are looking at the clouds .They are trying to imagine what they are seeing in the clouds. Linus says all sorts of pompous things which he sees and which just overwhelms Charlie Brown. Then Lucy says, What do you see, Charlie Brown? He says, Well, I was going to say I see a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.
Q: If Charlie Brown was drawing an epitaph for Charles Schulz someday, what might you like to see him write?
Schulz: He made us happy-which I think is what its all about.
©2007 by Stan Isaacs. The drawing of Charles Schulz is an artist's version of a photograph. This column first posted Nov. 5, 2007.
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