Jean Schulz on Sparky's craft and 'The Snoopy Show'
Jean Schulz, wife of the late Charles M. Schulz, talks about the latest 'Peanuts' screen adaptation and why her husband prized authenticity in his work
Memories of the garish Peanuts Movie (2015) were still fresh when I started watching The Snoopy Show, a six-episode Apple TV+ series. Happily, I was struck by the fealty of the series to, and respect for, Charles M. Schulz's strip. The stories were familiar, either taken from the comics or a variation on familiar themes: Charlie Brown and his inability to fly a kite, Lucy and her psychiatrist’s stand, Schroeder and his love for Beethoven. At the heart of it all is Snoopy, writing his autobiography, flying on top of his doghouse, rooming with his feathered friend, Woodstock.
More than the source material, the animation itself felt comfortingly Schulz-ian, aware of movements and rhythms implied in the pen-and-ink still images. The series makes no real attempt to locate the characters in the modern world, so there’s a timelessness to the proceedings. The score by Jeff Morrow is jazzy, playful, reminiscent of the classic soundtracks by Vince Guaraldi for the TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966).
Charles Schulz died in 2000, just before his final strip was published. His wife, Jean Schulz, is president of the board of directors at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. She brainstormed briefly at the start with the makers on The Snoopy Show, though it was Craig Schulz, Charles’ son from an earlier marriage, who acted as one of the executive producers. She spoke to Lounge over Zoom about the difficulties of translating the strip on screen and how Charles—whom she referred to by his nickname, Sparky—learnt a valuable lesson about authenticity.
Did you have a hand in choosing the stories that were used in the episodes?
Not me so much. In the very beginning, we had a larger group who threw out ideas. With 17,000 comic strips and 50 years, there are a lot of continuous stories that you can follow. I think they based (some of the episodes) around specific holidays, like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, the first day of spring and so forth.
I have not been in on the creative side because there’s another member of the family, Sparky’s son Craig, and his son. There’s an expression, too many cooks spoil the broth, so I let them do that.
What is the hardest part of translating the strip to the screen?
I think the hardest part is that the drawings were never meant to be realistic. Even in animation which is not quite realistic, you still have to have movement and actions that require them to study the drawings, and not distort them so you don’t recognise Snoopy any more.
You had said in an interview that there were certain things in animation—the slope of Snoopy’s head, for instance—that fans will immediately take note of if they are different from the strip. Part of the difficulty is that it’s such a spare strip that small things are magnified.
The animators started with the idea of doing some Snoopy animation three years ago. They have been working till now to make sure the product is ready for primetime, as they say. It was a lot of studying and looking at how you could draw Snoopy’s eyes and express in animation the same thing they express in the comic strip without any words.
Charles was a master at suggesting movement, with just a few extra lines and changes of angle. Did he use films or real-life models when sketching?
Sparky believed that everything in the comic strip should be authentic, because that was important to him. For one strip with a particular skating move, the double axel, he rotoscoped a man from our arena doing it. He studied that so he would get it right. Any skater would recognise that movement, Snoopy bending his right knee—though dogs don’t have knees—to get around. A skater would appreciate that: They know that he has respect for their skill.
I always say the same thing: Sparky learnt this early on, because he loved classic music. Very early on, he did a cartoon of Schroeder with actual musical notes in it and someone wrote to him saying “I see Schroeder’s playing Beethoven’s something”. And Sparky realised that what he cared about, that reader cared about. He said, if you draw and write to their interest and their intelligence, you have got a fan for life. So I think he learnt very quickly that people appreciated you writing up to them, not expecting them to come down to your humour.
How did Charles feel about animation?
I think when he and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson started doing the classical Christmas and Halloween episodes, he realised that animation could do something he couldn’t do. He said to Bill, how are you going to make Snoopy fly? Bill said, oh you wait, I can do it. And so he had this wonderful scene in the Halloween special, with Snoopy going through the sky in his plane. I think that showed Sparky that animation had something to add to the comic strip—that his characters could be animated and have an additional impact to just the flat page.
The series feels like it exists out of time. There’s little in it that places the characters in today’s world.
Our interest, the Schulz family and the Creative Associates studio, is in presenting the characters and the atmosphere that exists in the comic strip. For us, it all goes back to the strip. We feel that there is enough content in 50 years of comics that they don’t have to go outside and make up jokes about cellphones and computers and all sorts of things and there is some value that people will like.
The other thing that has always been different about The Snoopy Show is the pacing—it’s always a little bit slower than kids’ animation, which is often frantic and fast-paced and something had to be going on all the time. I think they have made it a little bit faster but not much. I think it has kept the same calming timing and pace that I hope parents will appreciate.
'The Snoopy Show' is streaming on Apple TV+.