Up Close and Personal:
Charles M. Schultz

Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1988 -- All rights reserved
This first appeared in Laughing Matters Volume 2, Number 1

He has helped us through many dark and stormy nights. His humor and creativity have lightened and enlightened us for over 33 years. His PEANUTS characters have given us much food for thought. Charles Schulz certainly deserves at least a testimonial dinner.

Charlie Brown once noted that "in the book of life, the answers are not in the back." When it comes to developing a sense of humor, the answers may not be "in the back" either. So, what can we do if we want to nurture our own sense of humor? One possibility is to learn from people whose humor and creativity we admire.

For many years, I have admired Charles Schulz' ability to invite laughter and insights through his PEANUTS comic strip. What follows is an up-close and personal conversation with him about his own life and his insights about humor, creativity, and people. Enjoy!

Joel Goodman: I would like to show you something I have had for the last 16 years (a postcard of Lucy saying, "We critical people are always being criticized"). A friend who was going through a critical turning point in life sent it to me. It was a great way for her to break through her seriousness and to "reach out and touch me" across the miles-- or across the smiles. So I want to thank you belatedly for 16 years ago. Do you receive many letters from people who say, "Thank you for helping us through your humor or through your perspective in PEANUTS?"

Charles Schulz: Oh, yes! Letters everyday, some of them extremely touching. The complimentary letters do come in quite strongly. It makes me feel that perhaps it is worthwhile after all.

JG: The last time I was here you talked about the early days when you were involved with the Minneapolis Correspondence School.

CS: I've always said that the 5 years I worked at Art Instruction were similar to the years that I might have put in if I had been fortunate enough to work for a newspaper. I think working in any kind of a large office is good for a person. In the first place, it teaches you to get along with other people. I always did pretty well working among other people. Before the war, I had a couple of jobs as a delivery boy for printing companies, and I remember standing in the stockroom wrapping bundles of advertising material. There were 2 girls who sat at the desk-- June and Marie-- they were a few years older than I. I got along well with them because I had a good sense of humor and we used to laugh and joke. It made me feel good considering my background of being such a miserable student in school, and being such a total nobody, especially in high school, to realize then as I was growing older that I could be liked by people. That did a lot for my morale.

But at Art Instruction, I came in, of course, totally cold to this room that had about 15 people in it. I was a little bit in awe of most of them. But they were a nice group of people, all very bright, very interested in all sorts of forms of art-- commercial art, cartooning, illustrating, fine art. We used to have a lot of fun, doing all sorts of things. We always celebrated each person's birthday and we would draw funny birthday cards for each other and play different kinds of games throughout the day. It was a very creative bunch-- it was a good foundation for me to finally do the kind of work that I do.

JG: Do you recall any of the games that you played?

CS: One that we invented was this fold-over game where one person draws a face and then folds the paper over and gives it to the next person, who blindly draws the upper part of the body and folds it over for the next person to add the legs. One day, we started out on something-- I suppose it might have been inspired by some of the things Steinberg was doing for THE NEW YORKER-- anyway, we took objects like the back of just an ordinary playing card and laid it on a piece of paper and then drew things around it-- turning the playing card into part of the drawing. I remember turning the back of this fancy playing card into the back portion of a very beautiful dining room chair, then taking a razor blade and making a French guillotine out of it. Within an hour, we had a table just covered with all sorts of things, little objects that people then fitted into a drawing. We always had a good time.

JG: That sounds like a fun way to build on each other's ideas and juxtapositions. I'm intrigued when I juxtapose these positive memories with your statement earlier that you felt like a nobody in high school.

CS: Not felt! I was a nobody!

JG: Was there a particular turning point? Was it that time in the office when the 2 women there were appreciating your sense of humor?

CS: Yeah, that was just before I got drafted. I had another job in a grocery store as a delivery boy, but I was a disaster at that. I was good at delivering the groceries, but I couldn't work in the store at all. I just didn't know the price of anything, or what to do. I only worked part-time earning about $9 a week before they finally let me go.

Then I got a job through a friend as a delivery boy for a printing company. I got along well with the people there although the boss was a very aggravating, dominating sort of man, who was very intolerant of things you didn't know.

After I quit that job, I got a job with a direct-mail advertising company in St. Paul. I worked in a stockroom where we just stood all day long and wrapped bundles. At first, I thought I wouldn't be able to stand it, being in this room at the table from 8 until 4:30. But you learn to get used to things like that. And, as I said, I got acquainted with these 2 girls and we laughed a lot.

Then they found out that I could draw. Suddenly, for $16 a week they were getting a cartoonist and a delivery boy. Then all of a sudden, I got drafted into World War II and that was the end of that.

It was the war experiences again that added to my feeling of being somebody who was worthwhile. I became a machine gun squad leader, which was something I was proud of. I don't think anyone thought that I had the ability to be a machine gunner, but I was always proud of the fact that I was a good infantryman and I knew what I was doing. We had a good group of guys, too.

So, when I came back, I really was a fairly confident person. Since then, I've lost a lot of that confidence, but I think those first few months when I came back from the war and got the job at Art Instruction might very well have been the high point in my life as far as having confidence. Since then, I've learned a little bit more about life and discovered that there's not so much to be confident about. So, I'm not so sure anymore.

JG: There's a slide that I use in some of my speeches that says, "Optimism indicates that the situation has not been clearly understood." Your sense of confidence has changed over the years. I'm curious to know if your sense of humor has changed or evolved, too.

CS: It probably hasn't changed much. I don't think it would have been quite as cruel as it might have been years ago. I think when you are young you tend to be a little more sarcastic. I discovered as the years went on that sarcasm is not a good trait to have. Although, since then, I have been able to translate my sarcastic nature into the strip, which is really an outlet for virtually every emotion that I have. Anything sarcastic that I think of can be put into the mouths of Lucy or Sally.

So, I have a broad keyboard on which I can play. I really think that anything I think of can be worked around and put into a strip, even some of my most serious thoughts. I am very fortunate because I think it is possible to go through your whole life being creative and still not have the right format, or not have quite the right outlet for what it is you are doing.

JG: As you look at the evolution of your strip itself, how has that mirrored or been different from your own personal evolution? Clearly, there have been characters added along the way, but have there been any significant breakthroughs for you in the strip that reflected something going on in your life? For instance, with the security blanket, did that idea just pop into your mind?

CS: Well, I can't remember when Linus had his first security blanket, but our first 3 children dragged them around. The last 2 little girls never did. It was just something that I observed. I think the very first security blanket idea that was in the strip involved Charlie Brown. Strangely enough, the very first Schroeder classical music idea did not have Schroeder in it-- it was Charlie Brown again.

These ideas come to you and you use them and then you realize that you've got something, so then you set about trying to decide how you are really going to use it. In the case of the blanket, I gave the blanket to Linus because it was better than Charlie Brown, and I gave the classical music business to Schroeder, who was just a little baby in the strip at the time. That's one of the good things about a comic strip. It's not like a novel where you have to go back and make sure that everything fits together-- because the only thing that really matters is today's newspaper. It doesn't matter what you did yesterday. You don't have to be that consistent.

JG: "Security blanket" has become a nationally-recognized phrase. Are there other ideas from the strip that you've seen popping up in the culture at large?

CS: Well, the "Happiness is..." phrase, of course. That has been copied by virtually everybody. I think the whole tone of the strip has been copied by many cartoonists. The way I set up the punchlines has been copied by a host of cartoonists in this generation. One tends to forget this and I think people forget how highly original PEANUTS was when it first began...the whole business of Snoopy and his thinking, his relationship to the other characters. I don't know how original it was with me because I'm sure that I did not think of it absolutely myself. We are always being influenced by other things that we read. Sometimes you don't even know that it's happening.

JG: If you were to describe in words your formula for setting up punchlines-- is there a way that you do that?

CS: I have no description for the process. I've never analyzed it. I tried to once in a book, but I found out that I couldn't. I think not always having the funniest line in the fourth panel was a little bit different. A lot of times the punchline in my strip comes in the third panel, and then there's some little saying at the end to make it work. I don't know how it's done, I just do a lot of it by instinct. It just seems right to me.

JG: So when you sit down here at your drawing board, do you have something in mind or do you incubate and work out an idea over the course of a week?

CS: All of those things that you've said. Every one of them. Although you could change "the course of a week" to "the course of a year." I've had some ideas that I've thought about for a year before I was able finally to make them work. And other times, I could sit here and have no idea what I'm going to draw, pick up a pad of white paper, and within 20 seconds I will have drawn something that would have prompted a really neat idea. Sometimes that idea leads to something else and before I know it, I've got a whole week's ideas just from that. Other times, I'll sit here all day long and not be able to think of a thing.

Then sometimes I'll hit a real low where nothing I think of works out and nothing even seems funny. I was telling Bob Metz, the President of United Features, a few weeks ago that I hit a period this year where I've rejected more strips than I have in the 33 years I've been drawing. Normally, I could go through a year and start one strip in pen and ink and put it away only once in that whole year, and I've noticed that this year I've already put aside 4 or 5 or 6 of them. It has never happened to me before. I don't know if it means I'm slipping or if it means that I am getting to be a little more particular.

JG: I'm intrigued with the notion that you carry some ideas in your mind for a year. I think many people perceive the immediacy, the need to have a daily strip and might not imagine nurturing an idea over the course of a year. Do you write the idea down or do you just carry it around in your mind?

CS: Usually it's a phrase. It's a certain phrase that when I heard it or read it, I sensed it would be a basis for an idea. When I was never quite able to make it work out, it probably laid on the top of the desk along with a few other notes for months and months until suddenly something happened so that I could make it work.

JG: The last time we were together you mentioned that a number of the ideas you've come up with are observations of your children, as we've mentioned with the security blanket, and observations you have made of others.

CS: There was an elderly man, who was probably younger than I am now, who was a bookbinder in St. Paul. He used to stand by his table and bind these books together and put nice covers on them. I was the delivery boy and used to sweep up the floors and wrap the packages. Now and then, I'd just go over and talk to him and we would look at the clock. The big hand on the clock had just indicated that it was slightly past 11 A.M. He'd watch the big hand and say, "It's going downhill now and will go real fast until it gets down to 11:30, but then it has to go uphill and it takes a long time for it to get from 11:30 up to 12." Then we'd laugh about that.

I've always admired the humor of people of this type. I've always appreciated it. I am slightly humbled by it. To realize that just because you are somebody who is a writer or a cartoonist or an actor of something like that, does not necessarily mean that you have a better sense of humor or you're better than these people. They are very creative in their own way and very clever, and if you listen to them you can learn a lot.

JG: Your strip is appearing in about 2000 different papers right now. It's an American strip, but it's also appearing in some 60 different countries and in 22 different languages. Is there anything you can put your finger on as to the universality of this strip?

CS: I suppose it's just that I'm dealing with emotions which are reasonably universal. I'm just an ordinary person from the Midwest, and I suppose things that have happened to me have happened to most of us. I translate it into this unique form of humor, and that's as much as I ever think about it. I just do it, that's all. I've always been proud of the fact that it's basically a very clean strip. Of course, comic strips are the most highly censored form of entertainment there is. We have carried this over into everything that we've done-- television shows, movies-- and still maintain something that is pretty decent. And yet, I don't think it's overly sweet or sticky or cute. Anybody who says PEANUTS is cute is just crazy. It's not cute. Even the 2 plays, YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN and SNOOPY are not cute plays. There's a lot of bitter and sarcastic things in them. I think it's very real. I think you can be real without being vulgar.

JG: I remember last time we were together you talked about resisting suggestions that the strip be "watered down" for young people.

CS: I never draw for children. I don't draw for any particular country or age group. I just draw what I think is funny and hope that as many people as possible also will think it's funny, but I don't expect everyone to like every strip everyday. I think that if the average reader will like 3 or 4 strips in a week, you are doing well, but I'm willing to sacrifice a certain percentage of the readership in order to hit another smaller percentage on one particular day. I think that's very important. I think that if you water down your strip so that everybody will understand it, you'll water it to the point where nobody will even care. So, I think it's important to be very precise in some of your humor and be willing to realize that only a small percentage of your audience will like it on that day. If you are doing something that is a bit more vague, it may be something that only a doctor would appreciate, or only a psychiatrist, or golfer, or tennis player, or teacher. If you treat that subject authentically, those people will appreciate what you have done and they will probably stick with you for the rest of your life.

JG: What is it that makes you laugh? Are there comic strips or movies or tv shows or comedians who tickle your funny bone?

CS: I like Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. I have a copy of Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS, which I think is one of the best movies ever made. It can make you laugh until the tears come and can also make you cry. It's just marvelous.

JG: I know one of my fondest memories from childhood is an afternoon my father and I were watching the CANDID CAMERA tv show. Both of us literally fell off the couch, doubled over, aching and laughing. Is there a time you can recall when you laughed so hard you cried?

CS: Oh, yeah! W.C. Fields' movie, THE BANK DICK. I used to think that was so funny. I saw it over and over, I don't know how many times. And then the fight scene in CITY LIGHTS. Charlie Chaplin is thrown into the ring with this guy who is much better than he is. I remember taking my dad to see that once. We laughed until we didn't think we could stand it.

I think it's great when you can get together with a bunch of people and something funny comes up and everybody laughs until their stomachs hurt-- until you think something is going to break inside of you. It doesn't happen very often. It has always been my ambition to be able to write a scene like that for a television show, but I don't think I'm ever going to be able to do it.

JG: If you or Charlie Brown or Linus were going to give advice or philosophize about "sense of humor" and how to develop it, what might you say?

CS: The only thing that comes to my mind is that I think it is very important for any of us to learn to laugh at ourselves and learn to take teasing. When you are very small, it's a struggle to survive in school and on the playground and after school around the neighborhood. You survive by trying to be better than the other kids at whatever it is you are doing. But little kids don't like to be teased because they are trying so hard to be perfect. And yet, all of a sudden as you get older, you discover that the people who can laugh at themselves and accept some teasing are really some of the nicest people and the most popular people of all.

It would be nice if you could teach a small child not to be bothered by teasing when he starts off in school, and to realize how totally harmless it really is if you just don't pay attention to it. But, of course, it can destroy you if you take it seriously. It can ruin your entire childhood, and that's always a pity. I don't know how this could all be done and I'm not much for giving advice, but if I were given a chance to tell somebody something, I think that's what I might tell them, but I don't think I'll ever get the chance.

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