Monday, December 2, 2013

We Don't Want This Very Successful Thing

It's not always possible to recognize the value of something the first time you see it.

Pop culture history is littered with stories of people we recognize as successes, works recognized as classics, that were summarily rejected when they first appeared. 

  • J.K. Rowling's tale of a boy wizard named Harry Potter was passed over by publisher after publisher before winding up as a publishing and cinematic icon.
  • 27 publishers rejected the first Dr. Seuss book. 
  • Oprah Winfrey was fired as a TV reporter for being "unfit for television".
  • Fred Astaire was once written off with the following assessment: "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little."
  • Known today as one of the world's most talented artists, Vincent Van Gogh spent his life facing debt, starvation and a deepening spiral into mental illness.
  • Elvis Presley was fired from the Grand Ole Opry with the advice that he should "go back to driving a truck".
For more info on these and other stories, click here.

Tonight (Monday, December 2, 2013) will see the airing of a TV special that falls under this category, a program almost universally recognized as a cultural treasure of the holiday season but almost did not see the light of day.

A Charlie Brown Christmas. 

Peanuts creator Charles Schultz was no stranger to rejection. The whole concept of Charlie Brown gained form during Schultz's formative years before coming to life out of Schultz's pencil. Geez, the man couldn't get a cartoon published in his high school yearbook, for crying out loud!

But by the mid-1960's, the comic strip world of the Peanuts gang was a cultural touchstone and getting it on TV seemed like a no-brainer to John Allen, an ad exec working on behalf of Coca-Cola. So Charlie Brown and company were brought to animated life for a Christmas special to air on CBS.

CBS did not like A Charlie Brown Christmas.

They did not like the animation, the music, the voices and they REALLY had a problem with Linus reciting stuff from the Bible. You know, all the stuff that made the special distinctive, unique and beloved for nearly 50 years. Thankfully, John Allen remained a passionate advocate for the program as produced and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. 

See Ken Levine's post for more on that subject.

The regular readers of this blog (both of you) are probably wondering when I'm going to bring this around to Doctor Who. That would be now.

In the excellent film by Mark Gatiss, An Adventure In Time and Space, a lot of people struggle to get Doctor Who on the air. But the upper management at the BBC are not exactly confident in what they see and the edict is delivered: Kill Doctor Who.

As we sit here 50 years removed from those events, it's easy to deride that decision. After all, Doctor Who is more popular now than it ever has been. But here's a thought that will certainly seem counter-intuitive from the perspective of history but here it is.

That decision was not wrong.


Consider the situation: a untested producer overseeing a strange production that is over-budget. From a practical stand point, the reasonable solution for the BBC was to cut its losses and move on. The advocacy of Doctor Who by Verity Lambert and Sidney Newman owed less to any practical assessment than a leap of faith, a fervent belief that, as Lambert put it, "we have something special here".

Consider the other examples above. The charms and strengths of A Charlie Brown Christmas are not readily apparent to someone seeing it for the first time, particularly from someone seeing it from a purely commercial perspective. It took people like John Allen to keep pushing, again not working from facts and numbers but from a belief that there was something special there.

The empathy and personal style that made Oprah Winfrey an outstanding talk show host probably were not apparent or even desired in the work of a TV reporter. The guy who fired Elvis Presley from the Grand Ole Opry may have been short sighted to Elvis's talents but was Elvis really Grand Ole Opry material?

While its easy to mock those who passed on people or things that became major successes, think about all the things they passed on that were truly not good, not right or not ready. And yes, there are shows and movies and books and plays that have seen the light of day that were not good at all. How did these things get made? Good grief!

No one said these decisions were easy.

When judging the future viability of a person, their talents and their creations, there may be considerations beyond the obvious, beyond the practical when agreeing to take a chance on something. But that's where the advocacy of belief comes in. 

And that is what it is: belief.

There are no flow charts, no accepted aesthetic standards, no numbers, no data. Just belief. And that is the truly remarkable part of the stories of Doctor Who, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, Elvis and many, many more. Not that someone said no; it's possible to see why someone said no. But that someone said, "I believe in this." In the face of a long list of reasons why someone should say no, instead "I believe" prevails.

And that is the truly remarkable thing. 



Thanks to information from the following online sources:
...By Ken Levine

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