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December 31, 1999
FROM HOWDY TO CHARLIE BROWN, WE HATE TO SAY GOODBYE
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
In American popular culture, all good things come to an end. Or do they?
Actually, more often than not, they don't. Most comic strips fizzle out, and most TV shows get cancelled without anyone paying much attention.
Even great and much-beloved comic strips like "Blondie," "Dick Tracy," "Gasoline Alley," "Snuffy Smith" and scores of others don't end with either a big "Peanuts"-type bang OR with a whimper - they get passed on to a new generation of artists and writers, and their characters live forever.
Or a wildly popular strip like "Bloom County" will be transmuted by its creator, Berkeley Breathed, into a Sunday-only color outing called "Outland," with some of the same characters, obviating the need for tearful farewells. Or an irreplaceable TV show like "All in the Family" will go through a series of changes to become "Archie Bunker's Place."
But when a popular strip or a show has a definitive conclusion - as when Charles Schulz determined that Charlie Brown and the gang would retire with him, rather than being passed along to any team of creative pretenders (the last daily "Peanuts" strip appears Monday) - it's a gigantically big deal. Here's a look at some memorable examples.
- THE HOWDY DOODY SHOW, 1960: After 11 highly successful and lucrative seasons on the air, "Buffalo" Bob Smith's marionette and human pals bade farewell to their devoted Peanut Gallery public (whence the title, by the way, of the Schulz strip), with Clarabelle the mute clown closing the show by actually speaking for the first time: “Goodbye, kids."
- THE FUGITIVE, 1967: It's not so much that "The Fugitive," with David Janssen as a physician on the lam after being wrongly accused of murdering his wife, was "beloved" in the way that Howdy and Charlie Brown are. But it was a popular show, and the producers capitalized on the suspense element of the ongoing plot - who was "the one-armed man," and would he ever be brought to justice as the true killer of Mrs. Fugitive? - by resolving it in the last act, which won an unprecedented 72 share of the TV audience.
- THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, 1977: She could, and did, turn the world on with her smile for seven glorious seasons in one of the best-loved sitcoms in TV history. In the last episode, Mary Richards and all her pals at the Twin Cities TV station where they worked got fired by new owners. Before going their separate ways, they made the "group hug" an indelible part of American culture by putting their arms around one another and then tearfully moving en masse across the newsroom so Mary could get a Kleenex.
- MASH, 1983: Hawkeye, BJ, Radar, Hot Lips and the others all returned from Korea to the States without anyone ever explaining how they managed to age 11 years during a war that lasted three.
- NEWHART, 1990: Bob Newhart's second successful sitcom wasn't nearly as beloved as his first, "The Bob Newhart Show," which had brilliantly cast him as a Chicago psychologist equipped with the most unforgettable encounter group in history. Now "Bob" was a self-help author running a bed-and-breakfast in picturesque Vermont. During the show's run, semi-enthusiastic critics couldn't help pointing out at every opportunity that the new show was pretty much the same as the old one, with a different location and occupation. So the final "Newhart" episode had Bob the self-help author waking up to realize that he was really Bob the Chicago psychologist whose life in Vermont was only a dream.
- CALVIN AND HOBBES, 1996: Bill Watterson is the only latter-day comic-strip artist who could compete with Schulz at his own game - presenting the adventures of a boy and his quasi-imaginary pet tiger in a manner that was at once hilarious and heart-warming. Wearied with the huge pressures of turning out a daily strip and disillusioned by shrinking space for creative cartoonery in the nation's newspapers, he ended the strip on Jan. 1, 1996, with Calvin and Hobbes sledding off into a winter wonderland with the words: "Let's go exploring ... "
- SEINFELD, 1998: The most beloved of totally unlovable television sitcoms, "Seinfeld" was like a TV version of "Peanuts" in which all the characters were modeled on Lucy. The final episode was one of the most touted events in broadcast history, landing the characters in prison for breaking a "good Samaritan" law.
- PEANUTS, 2000: Just a few short breaths shy of a full half-century, Charles Schulz calls his little rascals in for hot cocoa and a long nap.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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