Blake Scott Ball, Charlie Brown's America
Blake Scott Ball joins host Terence Dollard to discuss his book "Charlie Brown's America." Ball is the chair of the Department of History & Political Science at Huntingdon College. Comic Culture is produced in partnership with UNC Pembroke and its Communication Studies team.
[intense ambient music]
- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.
I'm Terrence, Dollard,
a professor in the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
My guest today is author Blake Scott Ball.
Blake, welcome to Comic Culture.
- Hi, thanks for having me.
- Blake, your book is "Charlie Brown's America",
and I don't wanna screw up the subtitle,
it's "The Popular Politics of Peanuts"?
- That's right. - Okay.
It's a really fascinating book, I left my copy at home,
but I've been reading it throughout the week
and you have done a lot of research
into a lot of different subjects with peanuts.
So I'm wondering,
what is it about these characters in this comic strip
that made you wanna do copious amounts of research?
- Well, I figured if I was going to have to do
copious amounts of research on anything,
peanuts would be a great place to spend my time.
Although it did get a lot of jokes
and side looks from my grad school fellows.
But the thing that really interested me
was the fact that,
first of all, that peanuts was just so immensely popular.
It was so well-known, it's so just ubiquitous in
And I as a kid found it sometimes confusing
because it wasn't quite as,
it didn't really follow the model of a lot of the comedy
and children's entertainment that I was used to by the 90s.
It wasn't always immediately funny,
it wasn't particularly action packed.
And so I became very curious about
what was it about this thing that seemed to appeal to folks?
And that's when I discovered the volumes of letters
that were at the Schulz Archive
and began reading as the fans told us themselves
what it was that they saw in the comic strip.
- It's fascinating because growing up in the 70s,
Peanuts was a television staple,
you would every Halloween get ready for The Great Pumpkin,
you get ready for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
I mean, there was an Arbor Day special.
There was peanuts everywhere
and were always brought to you by the
cleverly linked in York's Peppermint Patties
which was always great when it was the Thanksgiving episode
and Peppermint Patty invites herself over.
But you're absolutely right,
these strips are filled with kids who talk about stuff
that grownups are kind of talking about in a simpler way
so that everybody kind of isn't offended
and yet kind of makes a point
whichever side they wanna make that point.
And you in the book described this
as the wishy washy politics of Charles M. Schultz.
So what is the wishy-washy politics?
- Great question.
Well, wishy washiness is a way that
Lucy often describe Charlie Brown in the comic strip.
It's also a way that Charles Schultz
would describe his own way of thinking
sometimes in interviews.
And what it is, is in practice is sort of
this tremendous skill that Charles Schulz had
at both sort of ambiguity and polysemy,
which is the ability to sort of present a thing
that could be read in multiple different,
so even competing interpretations.
And so Schulz is very careful
not to be offensive to his wide audience,
but at the same time,
he does not avoid topics that were blatantly offensive
and controversial in the time.
And so the Vietnam War appears,
the school integration and racial integration appears,
issues of about family planning
and global population appear often.
So all of these sorts of things
that were deeply controversial,
he talks about in ways that start conversations,
but don't necessarily
sort of ostracize any one viewpoint in that conversation.
- And that's different from strips like Doonesbury,
where Trudeau is definitely letting his point of view
come through his work.
And I know that Schulz didn't really like
the Doonesbury strip because of that,
or maybe because of the art,
but it seems that there is
that fine balance between
bringing something up and then going too far.
And one of the things in your book
is that you are taking some of these broader topics,
I believe "Crosshatch Is Beautiful",
is a very clever chapter title.
There was a chapter about the Vietnam War.
And so when you're kind of going into these issues,
are you aware ahead of time
that these are topics that he's covered?
Or is this something that just becomes evident to you
as you start going through archives of the 1000s of strips
that he did in the 50 years of Peanuts?
- I would say as I was researching
that the thing that first alerted me to this,
to some of these topics was the fan letters.
The fan letters that were in the collections
of the Schulz Archive out in Santa Rosa, California.
There were in some cases, particular topics
that people wrote quite often about
or particular strips that people wrote quite often about.
And so those were sort of,
those letters sort of gave me a starting place to go back
and dig into particular periods in the strip and go,
okay, what's the hubbub here?
But also then there were other topics, certainly that
as I was reading through the strips themselves
day by day, year by year that really started to emerge,
for instance, the way that really from the beginning,
the unique way that Charles Schulz treats female characters
in his world.
They could be quite atypical, especially once you get
characters like Lucy van Pelt
and Peppermint Patty who in many ways are sort of the,
not only some of the most dominant personalities,
but also in many cases, some of the most adept,
and skilled, most competent individuals in the strip.
- And Peppermint Patty is an interesting character
because she is so bossy.
And we even have Marcy who always calls her, sir,
which is a cause of, of great stress to Peppermint Patty.
But she's the leader of the rival baseball team
in "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown",
which we were talking about before we started taping,
she's the leader of the girl's team.
So when we are looking at characters like
Peppermint Patty, she becomes sort of an icon for,
well, I guess the counterculture for a lesbian culture,
and this is something
that Schulz is not necessarily happy with.
So how does he sort of ride that wave,
and still work with the character
and not feel like he has to pander one way or the other?
- Well, that's a great question.
Yeah, it's incredible, that's one of
the particular places where we see
the audience sort of taking a reading
and interpretation of that,
especially Peppermint Patty and Marcy,
reading those characters in a way
that seems very obvious to the audience,
but is not at least publicly what the author intends.
And I think that the way that Charles Schultz
sort of navigated this
is the way that he navigates a lot of his issues,
which is that I think he was pretty adamant about being,
he had a very strong understanding
of what the characters were, who the characters were
and the characters that we see last in Peanuts
or the characters I think that he most clearly
is able to define, their worldview,
their interactions and personalities.
And he talks about this often that he would write strips,
not typically with a plot in mind,
but instead writing from the point of view of a character.
So how would a character handle this situation
and kind of write from there?
And this is one of the classic skills that Schulz had
is taking a situation that you've seen in the strip before,
you kinda know how you think it's gonna end
and yet throws in some twists, the character,
maybe a different blend of characters
produces a different result.
And so I think Schultz, I think with Peppermint Patty,
Schulz was riding a character
who was to the world in many ways was very self-confident,
very self-assured, but in other ways,
felt very personally unsure and an unsecure,
and is sort of struggling with that problem
of being viewed one way in society,
but yet feeling quite different in your personal experience.
And so I think Schulz wrote true to that
and that just so happened to coincide quite well
with the experience of many women
that could see themselves in that experience.
- And it is interesting
because when we look at Peppermint Patty's backstory,
she doesn't really have a great home life,
her dad works nights, she's never prepared for school,
she doesn't seem to have a mother
who lives at home with her.
And at one point, you know, she has to have Snoopy come over
to keep her company so she can go to sleep.
So it's kind of a very sad life that she has,
and yet she always has this very upbeat,
positive, assertive, outgoing personality.
I mean, she's super friendly to everyone.
And again, I guess it speaks to Schulz's ability
to kind of mind that that wishy washiness
where there's tragedy
and yet there's likeability in that tragedy.
And they also, even at one point Schulz deals with,
it's very strongly insinuated
that Peppermint Patty's parents are divorced,
which was an experience that Schulz was having himself
in the 1970s and having that experience,
that change in the family dynamic,
but also demographically,
we can see Americans across country
were experiencing that in a new way.
And so just as I think he does later on in the 90s
in the CBS special,
the one where one of the schoolmates
become sick with cancer, it's sort of dealing with,
how do you process this,
and the character actually dies in the program
and the children are dealing with this emotion.
I think Schulz would take these opportunities
to see himself as a voice to help, to comfort and reassure,
but also offer perhaps some guidance
for young people reading the strip
that might be feeling the same way.
- I guess it goes back to the same point
that we've kind of covered
that Schulz has this great way of bringing up a topic
without really telling you how to think,
just let's think about it in general.
And one of the things that he does is
there's an underlying Christian theme to Peanuts,
and this is certainly something that we see
in the Charlie Brown Christmas special
when Linus says lights please,
and then goes
and tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas.
- Hmm. - But in your book,
you talk about the first strip appears,
and then a minister sends a note to the paper saying,
how terrible, there's a little boy,
and they say how much they hate them.
We don't need this kind of hate in the world.
So how does Schulz's personal beliefs
kind of work their way in so that we have this kind of,
I guess, Christian feel to the strip
without it being overtly Christian?
- Wow, that's a great question.
I think he certainly tried to tried to express elements of
things that I think he found, thought provoking,
elements of his faith that he found thought provoking,
elements of philosophy and sometimes his religion
and philosophy kind of intersect.
But again, and this is, I argue that in the book
that he does have a period in the late 50s
into the early 60s where he seems particularly evangelical
in some of his endeavors trying to communicate
a bit of a more overt message,
but by the mid and late 60s and interviews,
he's talking about it saying, you know,
I really think that religion
is the kind of thing that is important to discuss
and to talk about, but yet it's the sort of thing
that should be done personally.
Let's sit down, let's have a conversation,
let's get to know each other and talk about this
because I think he was becoming uncomfortable
with some of the potential misinterpretations of things
and things like that,
but particularly in the Christmas special,
I think one of the ways that he successfully navigates
introducing a particular sort of religious perspective
without becoming preachy or offensive,
is that really when you watch that program,
there's sort of a dual message going on in the program,
one that is very broadly accessible,
this sort of consumerist critique of just we have spoiled
a special time by marketing it, the death,
which we might say ironically in the,
coming to us through this program
[chuckles] funded by Coca-Cola.
But so there's this sort of broad message about consumerism,
but then there's this more targeted message
about how the nativity of Christ
is sort of missing from our Christmas story.
And so then again, we can see this in the audience response
that there are those who
respond to the anti-consumers message,
and then there are those who respond particularly
to that naitivity scene and say, wow,
a program that actually dared to mention Jesus,
or read the Bible on primetime television.
- It's funny when we watched that special now,
I remember watching as a kid,
I remember watching it in my 20s,
I remember watching it last year
and there was a big mix up
because it wasn't on ABC last year, it was on PBS,
and it was only on.
- Hmm. - At this one time
because Apple bought the rights to it,
but there was such a cultural backlash
that it wasn't on at Christmas, that it just,
again, speaks to the longevity
and the power of Schulz message.
Now, you mentioned Schulz kind of thinking that things
should be kept private and yet
his private life is one of those things
that we don't know too much about.
And you, in your book talk about how he was
involved with certain political movements.
He had correspondence going with president Reagan.
And a lot of times the strip would reflect his hobbies
when he took up tennis, well, so did Snoopy.
When you are going back and you're looking at Schultz
as the person versus Schulz as the artist,
how do you kind of look at that and see the connection,
but also see the, I guess,
individuality of both personal and art?
- This can be a really challenging question
for scholars dealing with the work of a particular author,
the question of how much,
in some of my current research projects I'm digging through
and trying to figure out,
okay, when I writer uses a particular
sort of controversial political viewpoint,
is that actually their viewpoint
or are they imbuing this to a character,
and kind of trying to attract those things down?
So it can be dicey.
I think the places as a scholar
that I was most interested in,
in the life of Schulz were the places where his life
and experience were directly impacting,
either viewpoints that he articulates in the strip
or certain personality angles
that he uses with the characters.
Schulz would tell you that in interviews,
they would say, are you Charlie brown?
Sometimes he would say,
yeah, I guess I'm a bit of a Charlie Brown,
but in many cases he says, actually,
each of these characters
is sort of a piece of my personality.
So some days I'm Lucy, [chuckles]
and I've even heard a few stories
from folks around Santa Rosa that
when they ran into a [indistinct].
But yeah, it can be hard to parse out,
and I think as scholars,
we have to be very careful to read too much of,
very careful not to make mistakes
of sort of crossing our wires there.
Sometimes the things in the art
are not the artist's perspective and sometimes they are.
And so it can be hard to tell.
- And one of the things that's hard is as a kid,
like you mentioned in the book,
you know, you can read a strip
and you don't know exactly why it's funny.
I remember reading a collection of Peanuts strips
and not knowing who Sam Snead was,
but I knew that Linus always admired him.
And I'd never knew who Joe Garagiola was,
but I know that
Charlie Brown always wanted his bubble gum car,
and it would be years later until I realized,
oh, he's the guy in NBC with Vince Scully
who's calling the world series.
So, you know, as a kid, you might have to go to an adult
and try and find out why this is funny
or why this isn't funny.
So in your book, you talk about having to do that,
but, you know, somehow Schulz is able
to make me wanna keep reading it,
even if I don't get the story right.
So in your experience,
how did that sort of keep you engaged and,
even though it wasn't necessarily the funniest joke to you
the next day, you wanted to go back and read it.
- Yeah, well, I think one thing that you mentioned earlier
in passing with Gary Trudeau and Doonesbury
that perhaps Schulz didn't like the art.
Schulz talked a lot about the importance of design,
the importance of attractive design in your artwork.
And I think that is one thing that he nailed.
It was sort of his style and design of the characters,
but also of the settings
that this world that felt very real,
but at the same time was extremely minimalist.
And I think design was a part of it,
the characters and their movements and gestures
and things were very attractive.
I think another part of it was
even in the times when I couldn't exactly understand
what the point was or what something,
there's this sort of air of what would the word be?
Like air of intelligence or profundity in Peanuts.
And so I think what was unique about it,
I'm just my personal child experience,
I've heard this from other folks,
what was unique about it was that
in the cases when I didn't understand, I wasn't turned off,
I was actually intrigued to want to understand,
I want to be part of this conversation.
And so, and I think,
the places where it did hit and connect,
it connected closely enough that,
I wanted to have more of those experiences,
I wanted to find the next strip that I could identify with.
- Now I see we have just a few minutes left,
we have about four or five minutes left in our conversation.
And I just wanted to ask, I've seen in your bio
that you have done a lot of research with Peanuts
throughout your academic career.
And I'm just wondering, at what point are you,
you're looking at these characters
and sort of like you scratch the surface
and you wanna keep digging,
is that sort of the case
where you just found that one little thing and was like,
gosh, there's a lot to this and I can go here
and I can go there and I can go the other,
and all these other places.
Is that sort of the enthusiasm that you were finding?
- Yes, absolutely.
It started as sort of pulling a single thread
and the tapestry started unraveling there.
And quite honestly, at times there was so much,
Peanuts was just so, as I said, just so ubiquitous
and touched on so many issues across 50 years.
you know, you think of it trying to converse with it
with a group of people for daily for 50 years,
that at times it was really daunting to sort of isolate,
okay, what are some major things that we can discuss
and not just feel like,
not just let this turn into a strip by strip commentary.
you know, of peanuts,
which might be a worthwhile volume.
Maybe we should talk to Gary Groth.
the fantagraphics folks about doing that.
That could be fun.
- We talked about the 50 years
of Charles M. Schulz doing Peanuts.
One of the things that I will
always be a little bit disappointed in was the final strip.
And this is a personal opinion.
- Hmm. - But having
read the strip for years,
and knowing that one time in 50 years,
Charlie Brown's team won a baseball game
and it was a glorious day,
but that last strip was a very nice thank you to the readers
and certainly very heartfelt on Schulz's part,
but, you know, gosh, wouldn't you have just loved to see
Charlie Brown kick that football?
Or would that have killed the magic for everybody?
I don't know if you've seen the,
Charles Schulz did a final interview,
NBC's Today Show with Al Roker.
And that's one of the,
it seems that Schulz even himself was conflicted about,
maybe I should have let him kick the football.
You know, I really think, I love the, just the,
it's kind of heart-wrenching to me
when I read that panel of, the opening panel
and Charlie Brown's answering the phone and say,
"I think he's writing, I think he's writing," you know,
and referring to Snoopy out on the typewriter
and he's typing out this letter.
So I do think that that's beautiful,
but I think there could have been some real magic to
just one glorious, final hurrah,
but in some ways I think it's also kind of perfect
for the mood of Peanuts
that it ends with this sort of melancholy,
just short of the finish line.
- Well, Blake, they are telling me that we are out of time.
I wanna thank you so much
for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me today.
[chuckles] a really fast half hour.
- Thank you so much, this was a lot of fun.
[upbeat ambient music] I wanna thank
everyone at home for watching Comic Culture.
We will see you again soon.
Comic Culture is a production
of the Department of Mass Communication
at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.