Thursday, October 11, 2007

Good Grief! You're a Miserable Bastard, Charles Schulz!


I remember when British comedian Benny Hill passed away in 1992 that many were stunned to learn that the man who made millions of people laugh the world over was anything but an extrovert in real life. He had few friends and pretty much lived his personal life like the Unibomber. No one seemed more surprised than my father, who was a huge fan. That was right around the time when Dad started saying that everyone, especially anyone famous, has a public side and a personal side.

I was reminded of Dad’s saying again when I read this sort-of-explosive Newsweek interview with the author of an upcoming biography of Peanuts comic strip creator Charles Schultz. Due to be released next week, the book, titled Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (of which I have a signed sneak preview copy) paints the man who was known to his family and friends as Sparky as an unhappy, insecure individual who sounds like he could have benefited from some visits to Lucy Van Pelt’s makeshift psychiatric office. Author David Michaelis was given access to personal papers by Schulz' widow, Jean, and children and spent seven years getting to know the man. Some of the revelations that Michaelis uncovered include:

* Schulz was unaffectionate towards his wife and children and left the child rearing up to Jean

* Schulz had an affair with a much younger woman and proposed to her while he was still married

* Upon hearing that his art teacher was not going to pursue a career in cartooning, Schulz’ reaction was “Good! That’s one less cartoonist I’ll have to compete with.”

* Schulz worked with a “little person” (aka midget) early in his career. Her body type was the inspiration for how Schulz drew the Peanuts characters.

And then there was this exchange between Schulz and Lynn Johnston, creator of "For Better or For Worse", when Johnson confided to Sparky that the time had come for her to send Farley, the star canine of her strip, off to the giant fire hydrant in the sky. According to the Newsweek interview, my verbatim reenactment is not that far off.

Lynn Johnston: "I’m going to kill off Farley."

Charles Schulz: (Flings colored drawing implements onto the floor and his sketch board) "Beyotch! If you do that then I’m going to throw Snoopy under a truck! Everybody will worry about Snoopy, and nobody’s going to read your stupid story, and I’ll get more publicity than you will! So there!"

To be honest, I’m not all that surprised to learn that Schulz was a bit of a miserable guy. Call it the achilles heal of genius (or just call it being kooky) but it seems that very few individuals that achieve such greatness in a specific artistic area can say that they were perfectly happy with their life, despite the fortune that accompanies it. But you gotta feel sad for Schulz, too. I'm still a Peanuts fan and their merchandise and TV specials were such a huge part of my childhood. It sounds like he was just plain depressed. Who knows what demons drove him, but it seems he never believed or lived his "happiness is a warm puppy" saying.

By the way, the Schulz children are upset at the way their father is portrayed in the book and documentary, yet only one of them (one of Schulz' daughters) has spoken publicly about the book to the media. She appeared on the CBS Morning Show earlier this week and I could tell Harry Smith didn't really believe her arguments. To be honest I don't get what the Schulz children and widow are getting their panties in a bunch about anyway. Did they not talk to Michaelis and hand over personal documents? I've read many a time in previous articles about and interviews with Schulz that he was not an easy man to get close to. Schulz himself said in a 60 Minutes interview a few years before he passed away that he always had "a feeling of impending doom" hanging over him. I think the world has figured out by now that a man who would make his career from drawing comic characters beating up on another comic character had some issues, so the book's claims are hardly surprising.

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography will be published on October 16. A companion American Masters documentary is supposed to air on PBS next month, although I couldn't locate any information about it.

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