Jun. 20—At the top of a virtual conference call on Tuesday that included Jean Schulz, I introduced myself and said I'm a writer for the Pioneer Press.
"Hi, Ross. This is Jean Schulz," she said. "Did you know that the Pioneer Press was the first paper that printed Sparky's 'Li'l Folks'?"
Indeed, the Pioneer Press did publish "Li'l Folks," the predecessor to what would become the world-famous comic strip "Peanuts." And Sparky was the nickname of its creator, Charles M. Schulz, the subject of the terrific new documentary "Who Are You, Charlie Brown?" which debuts June 25 exclusively on the Apple TV+ video-streaming service.
Narrated by Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong'o, the hourlong doc uses a new animated "Peanuts" story to frame a series of insightful interviews from the likes of Schulz's widow Jean Schulz, Drew Barrymore, Al Roker, Kevin Smith, Billie Jean King, Paul Feig and Ira Glass.
The animated tale sees Charlie Brown struggle with a school assignment about self-reflection, while the interviews — as well as vintage footage of Schulz, who died of colon cancer in 2000 at the age of 77 — attempt to flesh out Schulz, a man who spent five decades drawing "Peanuts" and overseeing an ever-expanding dynasty that reached far beyond newsprint.
"We thought we could try doing an old-school 'Peanuts' special combined with a documentary, and from the very beginning we designed the whole piece around the interaction of those two elements," said director, writer and executive producer Michael Bonfiglio. "(While we were) scripting the animated story, we were outlining the documentary, looking for the places where we wanted to tell Schulz's story through the lens of his characters he created. He always said, 'If you want to know me, look at my work, look at my characters.' "
Among other things, "Who Are You, Charlie Brown?" goes into great detail about how each of the "Peanuts" characters reflected various parts of Schulz's personality or those close to him. During her time as the chief creative officer at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, executive producer Paige Braddock also discovered just how much of St. Paul itself informs the strip.
"When I started this job, I guess it was the first year after Schulz passed away, I wanted to have more of a connection to him and maybe understand him a little more," Braddock said. "I did a pilgrimage to St. Paul. I went to his haunts, like the barbershop (where he father worked). I remember the first time I stepped foot in the neighborhood he grew up in. I went, 'Oh my gosh, this is "Peanuts!" ' The little stoops on the houses, the little handrails that come down ... every time he drew part of a building or a corner or anything, suddenly I was seeing all of it in this neighborhood in St. Paul. As Jean has said, he always drew on those experiences from childhood. I don't know if the 'Peanuts' characters ever really left Minnesota."
Born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Paul, Schulz graduated from Central High School and went on to serve as a staff sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe during World War II. When he returned to Minnesota, he focused on making a career as an illustrator, one of his early passions. Schulz found some success selling pieces to various publications. In June 1947, he landed a regular gig drawing "Li'l Folks" for the Pioneer Press.
In early 1950, Jean Schulz said, he had a meeting with his editor. "He'd been trained by the people who counsel veterans that you need to ask for what you want," she said. "He said, 'Could I get more money for the strip, could I get a better position in the paper and could I run it five days a week?' When they said no to all three, he did what he was trained to do and said, 'Well, then, I guess I quit.' "
Still, Jean Schulz said her husband's memories of St. Paul were fond ones. "He always went back to that barbershop on the corner of Selby and Snelling that formed so much of his life," she said. "And he talked about the neighborhoods and Gordon School and the playground, the golf course, Highland Park. He was both loyal to and grateful for his life there."
In October 2020, Apple TV+ acquired exclusive rights to all "Peanuts"-related media, including its holiday specials "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." (After some criticism for pulling the much-loved specials from broadcast television, the company agreed to allow PBS stations to air three of them each year.) The deal also allowed Apple TV+ to create new content. The streamer has since launched two new series — "Snoopy in Space" and "The Snoopy Show" — as well as the documentary "Peanuts in Space: Secrets of Apollo 10," with more projects in the works.
Why does Schulz's work continue to resonate with audiences after more than seven decades?
"Sparky was brave enough to be really honest with his work and talk about things people don't normally talk about," Braddock said. "Feeling insecure, failing at something, not getting what you want and even talking about friendship and sibling rivalry, he managed to tap into the human condition in a way that feels very personal. It was not world hunger human conditions or war and peace conditions, but really, the day-to-day small things that we all have in common."