Writers know the creative process is often fraught with uncertainty, particularly when choosing to break the rules. A perfect example is A Charlie Brown Christmas, which celebrates its 51st anniversary this year. Looking behind the scenes at the making of the special reveals the problems Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez encountered in creating this endearing classic.
To start with, the script broke tradition from the standard Christmas programs based on classic literature and Christmas songs by telling an original story.
Coca-Cola, the sponsor of the special, gave Melendez six months to produce it with a budget of $76,000. Compare that to How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which had a budget of $300,000 the following year.
Back then it was a common practice for half-hour comedies to have canned laughter or a studio audience. Charles Schulz objected to the laugh track and got his way.
To give the show authenticity, Schulz and Melendez cast ordinary children instead of voice actors for certain roles, which created problems when some of the children couldn’t read the script. Ultimately Melendez fed them the lines.
Three weeks before the show was due to air, the network watched the screening and hated it. They felt the pacing was too slow and the story lacked energy. They left the meeting vowing there would be no specials in the future. But when the program finally aired, 15 million households tuned in–about 50 percent of homes which owned televisions were watching. Suddenly the network had a change of heart.
The lesson for writers–sometimes you have to break the rules of conventional wisdom and take a risk. You might just create a future classic!