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The Real Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas (and why it almost wasn't shown)

04.jpgIn my mind, the Christmas season doesn't officially start until CBS shows A Charlie Brown Christmas. Who out there doesn't picture Snoopy dancing joyfully with his nose in the air whenever they hear the familiar strains of that jazzy piano music? Interestingly enough, this Christmas staple - the longest-running holiday special on TV - started out as an afterthought.

The Original Dog-umentary

Back in 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson had the idea to make a documentary film about cartoonist Charles Schulz and his popular Peanuts comic strip. Schulz agreed, and collaborated with animator Bill Melendez to create two minutes of the first-ever animated Peanuts footage. The rest of the special featured "Sparky" Schulz in his studio, driving his kids to school, and even bowling a few frames. Songwriter Vince Guaraldi agreed to write some original music for the special, and the first composition he came up with was an incredibly catchy tune he called "Linus and Lucy."

031.jpgThe Peanuts documentary never sold, but one of the interested advertisers included Coca-Cola. Executives from the soft drink giant asked Mendelson if he'd be interested in putting together an animated Peanuts Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like "sad Christmas tree," "school play," and "ice skating" scribbled in the margins. The "Lucy and Linus" song was resurrected for use in a scene that featured the characters dancing at their play rehearsal, and a choir of children were gathered from a Bay Area (California) church to record vocals for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Why Snoopy Gets all the Action Scenes

When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Chuck's head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to turn and indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

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The Blockheads at CBS Hate It (then change their minds)

When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were vastly underwhelmed. There was just so much wrong with it. There was not enough action. It moved too slow. The voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors. There was no laugh track. And Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. ("You can't read from the Bible on network television!" they declared in unison.) At the end of the meeting, Mendelson was told: "Well, you gave it a good shot. Believe me, we're big Peanuts fans, but maybe it's better suited to the comic page."

011.jpgBut CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as often happens in the world of entertainment, the original gut reaction of the suits was completely wrong. A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program. (See? Christmas really is the season for miracles.)

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11 Fast Facts About Cash Cab
Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel

Between 2005 and 2012, anyone hailing a taxi in New York harbored a secret wish: that they’d wind up in the Cash Cab. The mysterious vehicle was both a licensed city taxi and a mobile game show, one where passengers could win thousands of dollars just by answering a few trivia questions on the way to their destination. After five years away, it’s back on Discovery Channel with its original cabbie host, Ben Bailey. But before you slide into the Cash Cab seat once again, check out some trivia on the series itself. Who knows—it could come in handy during your next taxi ride.

1. THE SERIES ORIGINATED IN ENGLAND.

Before Cash Cab came to the U.S., it had a brief run in Britain. This Cash Cab aired on ITV with host John Moody. It kicked off in the summer of 2005 and, although producers had high hopes for the series, fizzled out by the following year.

2. THERE ARE CASH CABS ALL OVER THE WORLD NOW.

Since the American iteration of Cash Cab became a hit, the concept has expanded across the globe. Internationally, it’s earned airtime in India, Canada, Jamaica, Egypt, and many more countries. Just stateside, the show has had additional runs outside of New York. Check out a clip from Cash Cab Chicago, with host Beth Melewski, above.

3. BEN BAILEY HAD TO PASS A DRIVING TEST.

Before Ben Bailey was the host of Cash Cab, he was a stand-up comedian who drove limos to pay the bills. That side gig turned out to be useful when he auditioned for the show. According to NJ.com, Bailey demonstrated his skills behind the wheel by scoring a 92 on his taxi license exam. He got the Cash Cab job, and left his old chauffeuring job behind. But he still does stand-up comedy (in fact, he’s touring now).

4. BAILEY HAS SECRET HELPERS.

Cash Cab can’t run on one man or one vehicle alone; Bailey has a crew close by at all times. Esquire reported that a black van housing the audio and video team trails behind the car. Bailey also has assistants who hop into the cab after he has revealed his identity to passengers. They’ll get contestants to sign their release forms, then work the lights and music. These assistants also, crucially, keep track of how much money is on the line.

5. SOME CONTESTANTS ARE SELECTED AHEAD OF TIME.

Not all passengers are chosen randomly off the street. Some are prescreened, although even that process is a little sneaky. According to previous contestants, the Cash Cab staff often approaches people by saying they work for a made-up series called Show Me New York, where residents share their favorite spots in the city. They’ll give prospective contestants a quiz. If they do well, the staffers will tell them to go to a certain location to film their segment. That’s when they get in the cab, and Bailey reveals the ruse.

6. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO PLAY.

Ben Bailey and the Cash Cab
Discovery Channel

While most people shriek in delight when the lights go off in the Cash Cab, not everyone is into the game. Bailey told NPR that when the show was first starting out, people regularly declined to participate. “People would kind of look at me and go, 'I don’t know what this crazy cab driver is up to, but I am out of here,'" he said. After the show gained attention, more passengers stuck around. But Bailey still got some hold-outs.

“I’ve had a couple people who burst into tears in the cab when I’ve told them what was going on,” he told Thrillist. “One time someone seemed to have some sort of panic attack, and then another time, this one woman was having an awful day—she just wanted to get in the cab and get where she needed to go. I was like, ‘Why are you crying in the Cash Cab? This is supposed to be fun, man!’”

7. THE CASH CAB IS FREE.

Regardless of how well they do, contestants never pay a fare for riding in the Cash Cab. Bailey still runs the meter, because the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission requires drivers to keep a record of the trip, but there’s no fee at the end of the trip. As Bailey puts it: The Cash Cab is one of only two free rides in New York. The other is the Staten Island Ferry.

8. THE BIGGEST PAYOUT WAS $6200.

To date, the biggest winner in Cash Cab history is a man named Sam, who took a ride with Bailey in 2011. He correctly answered a Video Bonus question about the Bonneville Salt Flats, doubling his $3100 in prize money to $6200. Anyone looking to beat Sam this season had better study up on America’s salt pans.

9. THE ORIGINAL CASH CAB WAS A TOYOTA SIENNA.

During the show’s original run, the Cash Cab was a Toyota Sienna minivan, sporting the taxi number 1G12. According to the Associated Press, the specs were so well-known that fans would chant the taxi number at Bailey’s standup shows in New York.

10. THE OLD CASH CAB IS CURRENTLY IN BAILEY’S GARAGE.

When the old Cash Cab minivan retired, it wound up in Bailey’s own garage in Morristown, New Jersey. “My neighbors are like, ‘Are you a cab driver?’” he told Entertainment Weekly. Bailey admits that he sometimes takes the car out for a drive, to “get people excited just to disappoint them.”

11. NO ONE HAS EVER THROWN UP IN THE CASH CAB.

Bailey gets this question all the time and would like to set the record straight: Nobody has ever puked in the Cash Cab. “Surprisingly, no one has,” he told the New York Post. “Once in a while you get someone who is a little disgruntled when they lose, but no release of bodily [fluids] happens on my watch.”

Hopefully, that streak will continue with the show's return.

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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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