Comic Culture

FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: January 09, 2022 | 0:26:47
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TRANSCRIPT

[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

American culture.

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.

- Absolutely.

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.

[chuckles]

- 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.

[chuckles]

you know, of peanuts,

which might be a worthwhile volume.

Maybe we should talk to Gary Groth.

[chuckles]

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?

- Hmm.

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.

It's been

[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.

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