Tube City Almanac

September 27, 2007

Back to Hermann Hesse!

Category: Cartoons, History || By

If you remember that headline, then you're probably as big a fan of "Peanuts" as I am. "Peanuts" was an important part of my childhood. I learned to read from the paperback collections of the comic strip.

In my life, I've written fan letters to exactly two people. One was Charles Schulz, and the other was Art Buchwald, when he was dying.

And I will admit that when I heard Charles Schulz died (the same morning that his final new comic strip was appearing in newspapers), I choked up. It was like someone had killed Snoopy. A few months later, I heard his widow, Jeannie, being interviewed on the radio (I think by Jim Bohannon) and I choked up again.

When the Post-Gazette and other newspapers began reprinting the classic late 1950s and early '60s version of "Peanuts," I was really tickled. Many of them were strips I remembered seeing in those paperback books from the 1970s. And when some people --- like Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post --- argued that "Peanuts" should have been retired, to make way for newer comic strips, I got mad.

But lately I'm starting to conclude that "Peanuts" time has passed. Last week a funny sequence about Snoopy's doghouse being demolished for a freeway (no, not the Mon-Fayette Expressway) ended with Linus telling him, "Don't worry, the highway's not being built until 1967!"

When that particular strip was new, 1967 was seven years away. Now, the punchline lands with a resounding clang.

Yesterday, "Peanuts" made a Mort Sahl joke:

Yeah, that's a reference that'll really get kids reading newspapers again.

If you have to explain a joke, it doesn't work, but I'll explain this one. Mort Sahl was a notorious curmudgeonly comedian who was among the first stand-ups to base his act primarily on events in the news. Sometimes he'd actually bring the day's newspaper up on stage and improvise his act based on the stories. Think of him as the Bill Maher or Lewis Black of the 1950s and '60s.

Though Sahl is still working, he faded from public view 30 years ago. About every five years or so, someone does a story: "Whatever became of Mort Sahl?" Otherwise, no one under the age of 45 will get the reference, and it truly looked bizarre coming out of Lucy Van Pelt's mouth.

It's as out of place in a 2007 newspaper as an ad for DeSoto-Plymouth dealers, or stories about Sputnik. The comics pages of American newspapers ossified years ago, but this is the first case of them actually going backwards.

I touched off a raging discussion yesterday on a Usenet group (yes, I spend time on Usenet) by suggesting that "Classic Peanuts" should be gently retired. Several people who I respect argued that there are so many unfunny comic strips in the average newspaper that "Classic Peanuts" should be forgiven the occasional dated reference.

One poster wrote if "Classic Peanuts" is the first strip I'd want dropped from the newspaper.

No. "Spider-Man" would be gone in a heartbeat. But every newspaper that runs "Classic Peanuts" is a paper that isn't taking a chance on "Lio" or "Watch Your Head" or a dozen other new strips.

And there are other established strips that are left out to make room for "Classic Peanuts." We don't get Bill Holbrook's computer-themed strip "On The Fastrack" any more since the Daily News dropped it several years ago. "Luann" doesn't run anywhere in Western Pennsylvania, as far as I know.

Meanwhile, I can read "Classic Peanuts" any time I want, thanks to the copious and abundant reprints.

Someone else noted that "Peanuts" is as consistently funny as any new strip, and far funnier than most of the "edgy" or "modern" strips that could be added. I agree. There is some real dross on the average "funny" page.

So let's bring "Pogo" back, too. And "Toonerville Folks." Who doesn't think that "Pogo" was better than "Mallard Fillmore," or that "Toonerville Folks" was better than "Drabble"?

I don't mean to be dismissive. But I think, maybe, that "Peanuts'" time has passed. CBS isn't showing "Dick Van Dyke" in prime-time, either, and it's 10 times funnier than "How I Met Your Mother."

Newspapers are dying. Taking up space for Mort Sahl jokes isn't a strategy for saving them.

I hope "Sparky" Schulz will forgive me.

Some newspapers --- the Valley Independent in Monessen and the Observer-Reporter in Washington among them --- are running more recent "Classic Peanuts" strips from the early 1980s. It doesn't change the basic argument.

Charlie Brown and his friends will live in our memories (and in books and animated specials) for years to come. Let's give them a break from the comics pages.

Your Comments are Welcome!

I’m told even Murphy Brown hasn’t held up to time well, which makes me sad. I need to watch some again soon anyway.
Derrick - September 27, 2007

The one that shocked me was “Cheers.” I watched a few episodes recently (someone is running it late at night) and I said, “I thought this was funny? What was I thinking?”

“The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” leave me cold now, too.

On the other hand, I still think the early seasons of “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family” are hysterical, and watching “WKRP” on DVD has proved it’s just as funny as it ever was.
Webmaster - September 27, 2007

I’m still pissed off that they cut WKRP to ribbons because they couldn’t get the music rights.
Every time the Sammy Davis Jr. episode of All in the Family comes on, I sit down and watch, and by the end, I’m in tears from laughing so hard.
Classic Peanuts makes me sad. Original Family Circus makes me cry.
Vince - September 27, 2007

Mort Sahl would be quite offended, by the way, to be compared to Bill Maher. I heard Sahl interviewed on “Fresh Air” last year and he was quite dismissive of Maher.
Jonathan Potts (URL) - September 27, 2007

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