Not only is it Super Bowl week, it’s the 15th anniversary of one of the strangest football trades in history. NBC was preparing for its first season of Sunday Night Football and had hired the legendary John Madden away from ABC. Madden’s partner in the booth was Al Michaels, but Michaels had a year left on his ABC contract. No problem: ABC’s owners, The Walt Disney Company, agreed to trade Michaels to NBC in exchange for, among other things, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
You remember Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, don’t you, kids? No? Oswald was a character that old Walt created back in 1927 when he was working for someone other than himself. Oswald starred in a number of popular animated shorts and was bought by Universal, now NBC Universal. The character that Walt went on to create right after Oswald was Mickey Mouse, and because he owned the rights to Mickey and all his pals, he built his company on them. Mickey and friends remain one of the most lucrative franchises in all of cartoondom and have grossed more than $70 billion.
So why would the Disney company be so interested in Oswald’s worthless bunny ears? Walt Disney’s heirs, it turned out, felt Oswald was an important piece of the founder’s legacy, even if the last cartoon he starred in was in 1938. In a rare bit of corporate sentimentality, a piece of intellectual property was acquired to make someone feel better. Usually it’s the reverse. Exploiting people’s nostalgia is big business, and there’s no better example of this than the perpetual reinvention of iconic children’s entertainment icons.
Which brings us to The Snoopy Show on Apple TV+, the latest attempt to make the iconic “Peanuts” franchise appeal to a new generation of viewers. Twenty-one years after the death of its creator Charles Schulz, “Peanuts” remains the most beloved and financially successful comic-strip franchise of all time, having generated $15 billion of value. Like millions of other kids growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, I made a beeline for the funny pages when the newspaper was delivered. “Peanuts” was the first thing many of us read, and Schulz’s syndication company churned out paperbacks of old strips. It was the original “little children saying grown-up things” cartoon. At the time, the TV specials and movies felt like add-ons. Obviously that’s all changed.
I remember watching a special on the 25th anniversary of “Peanuts,” where I learned that “Sparky” Schulz, as a brainy little child in Saint Paul, had been skipped a grade in school. Diminutive and socially awkward, Sparky was clearly traumatized by this move and never seemed to live it down. Far from it, he mined it for thousands of comic strips. I remember being struck by how much Schulz's origin story resembled my own. I was a nerdy kid from a divorced home, who desperately wanted to be liked and accepted by the rest of the gang, but I had to be true to myself, and that wasn’t so easy in the days before the self-esteem movement. I also learned that unlike other comic-strip artists, Schulz did every panel himself, no assistance. Well, no wonder — it was therapy for him, reliving his tortured childhood through the life of Charlie Brown.
Yet as the 1960s progressed, and “Peanuts” prospered, an attitude shift became noticeable in the strip. The misunderstood round-headed kid was gradually upstaged by his dog, a clever beagle named Snoopy, whose outsized dreams allowed a whole different side of Schulz’s creativity to bubble over. Snoopy was a World War I pilot shot down behind enemy lines in France. He was a tinkerer and a wanderer. He had an amusing brother in Needles, California. He did a happy dance at suppertime. Thanks to Snoopy, “Peanuts” earned bank and got its own CBS special, which became an instant classic. Charles Schulz had turned into Snoopy’s alter ego Joe Cool — probably for the first time in his life.
And then, amazingly, Charles Schulz went from cool to red-hot. Starting in 1967, Snoopy had a sidekick, a little tweety bird. After the rock festival in 1969, he was given the name Woodstock, and that chattering chickadee became an even bigger sensation than Jimi Hendrix. No dummy, Schulz rebuilt the entire strip around the dog and bird. Many longtime readers became annoyed that “Peanuts” had turned into the Snoopy and Woodstock show. But by this time Schulz had seen the future of his franchise, and it was on the screen, where two animals could steal every scene without saying a word.
The Snoopy Show is half an hour and is built around three unrelated shorts, like Apple TV+’s Snoopy in Space. Charlie Brown and his mates are there, but it seems like minutes went by when all I heard was the catchy score of the jazz ensemble accompanying the misadventures of Snoopy and Woodstock. From what I could see — and here I will confess I found I could only bear to watch two episodes of The Snoopy Show — each story followed a formula: Dog and bird get into a scrape together, quarrel, escalate their quarrel to an epic battle (one involves dueling leaf blowers, in another Woodstock and Snoopy become housemates, which never ends well), before making amends like the best friends they are, all in about eight minutes.
The Snoopy Show is well-paced and nicely designed to appeal to five-year-olds, teaching them about friendship and yada yada. For me, though, watching it is bittersweet in the way that watching Sesame Street, as I wrote on that show’s 50th anniversary, is bittersweet. Much as I never got the appeal of Elmo, I never saw “Peanuts” as primarily about the big-snouted dog but rather, the big-headed little boy of my youth. Oh well. As Charlie Brown’s friend Linus Van Pelt might have said, quoting Saint Paul, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
The Snoopy Show premieres on Apple TV+ February 5th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.