For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays. Today: 1977’s A Doonesbury Special.
On the back porch of a country house on an autumn evening in 1977, a ponytailed blond girl named Ellie explains what she thinks the “revolution” of the 1960s was all about. “Well, it was against, um, what’s-his-name, Nixon,” she says. “And it was… fun. And usually held outdoors.” Perennial college student Mike Doonesbury tells Ellie that the 1960s were “more complicated than that,” adding, “We’re still all trying to figure it out.” To which Ellie asks, “What happened to everyone after it was over? Do you keep in touch? Do you have a newsletter or something?”
For millions of people in the 1970s, Doonesbury was that newsletter. Garry Trudeau’s comic strip debuted in newspapers in October of 1970, and by 1975 had become the first strip to win a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning—to the consternation of both editorial cartoonists and Trudeau’s colleagues in the funny pages. Doonesbury tackled the issues of the day, from Watergate to Vietnam, with the righteous wit that people today look for from the likes of Jon Stewart and John Oliver. But it was also a character-driven strip, about a group of activists, feminists, reactionaries, and stoners living on a commune outside fictional Walden College. In its early years, Doonesbury covered the long hangover from the heady rush of the hippie era, and dug into how a generation was clinging desperately to what it had accomplished even as the rest of the culture lurched ahead. Trudeau struck a measured tone toward these lost souls and stubborn holdouts. He was at once critical and affectionate—and more than a little wistful.
On November 27, 1977—a Sunday night, at the end of a long Thanksgiving weekend—NBC aired A Doonesbury Special, a half-hour cartoon written and co-directed by Trudeau, working with animators Bill Littlejohn and Faith and John Hubley. In the wake of the phenomenal success of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’d become something of a rite of passage for a popular comic strip to get its own animated special, even when the strip was as offbeat as Trudeau’s. So A Doonesbury Special was a major event. It was John Hubley’s last project—he died while the cartoon was in the early stages of production—and it was taken seriously as a short film, picking up an Oscar nomination and winning a special jury prize at Cannes.
The acclaim was justified. A Doonesbury Special is magnificent, even just as piece of animation. The Hubleys and Littlejohn retain the light, loose illustrations of the 1970s Doonesbury, while adding movement in multiple dimensions. Trudeau was reportedly convinced that a TV special would work after he saw a test sequence animated by Littlejohn, who didn’t just move the characters in the flat, left-to-right way of most low-budget television animation, but instead had Trudeau’s creations turning and gesturing with a convincing naturalism. The cartoon’s voice-work matches the art, as characters speak softly and often talk over each other, Robert Altman-style. There’s a gentleness to A Doonesbury Special that captures Trudeau’s spirit. For a strip that engaged directly and provocatively with politics, Doonesbury was remarkably non-strident. Trudeau had a slant, but he tended toward empathy with both his own characters and with the real public figures that he spoofed.
A Doonesbury Special isn’t holiday programming in the usual sense. It does contain one short sequence—taken directly from the comic—set at Reverend Scot Sloan’s “rock ’n’ roll Christmas pageant,” and it does begin with a communal meal. Otherwise, it flows from one set piece to another, mostly adapted from popular Doonesbury strips and recurring gags. There’s a scene of free-spirited weed enthusiast Zonker disrupting the conservative football hero B.D.’s huddle with his philosophical discussions. There’s a scene of middle-aged middle-class dropout Joanie Caucus adjudicating a dispute about women’s lib at the daycare center where she works. There’s a musical number from soft-rock superstar sellout Jimmy Thudpucker, styled to look like a mid-1970s Stephen Stills, complete with football jersey and feathered hair. All of these bits are in line with Doonesbury’s sense of humor, which often dropped the rhetoric of true-believers into unexpected places, to call attention to the comic rhythms of speech among people who talk at rather than with each other.
But the most remarkable sequence in A Doonesbury Special is the most out-of-character for the strip: It’s an impressionistic tour through the late 1960s Walden College campus, showing Doonesbury’s various characters engaged in protests while a younger, more Dylan-esque Thudpucker sings an activist folk song. It’s a dreamy, poignant flashback to moments suggested in Doonesbury, but rarely shown.
The flashback is cued by the disillusioned Mike asking his housemate Mark Slackmeyer whether they’ve permanently lost their purpose. At the start of A Doonesbury Special, over dinner, Zonker proposes that Walden Commune disband, since none of them do “commune” things any more: no organic gardening, no macrame, and no group sex. For the rest of the special, Mike stews, all the way up to that final moment on the porch with Ellie. He’s like Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas, looking for meaning. Except that Mike has no Linus to set him straight. The benedictory scene in A Doonesbury Special features Zonker, by himself, swimming in his favorite puddle, feeling fine but not sharing his mellow with Mike.
The spiritual similarities between A Doonesbury Special and A Charlie Brown Christmas are somewhat ironic, given that while Trudeau was a huge fan of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, the feeling wasn’t mutual. In a 1997 Comics Journal interview, Schulz was asked about how Trudeau had leveraged his popularity to get certain concessions from his syndicate, including hiatuses. Schulz confessed that he’d never really thought much of Doonesbury, and said that Trudeau’s “never been professional.”
But while Trudeau’s peers and elders bristled at his unconventional approach, his methods did help him to keep the strip fresh. After Doonesbury’s first big vacation from the comics pages in the 1980s, Trudeau moved the cast from Walden Commune to the outside world, and after that he had them continue to grow older and keep adapting to change. In the hefty 2010 book 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, Trudeau wrote, “The matrix of relationships at the heart of Doonesbury yielded endless narrative possibilities. I didn’t have to find a new twist on old themes as most legacy strips do—or rethread the needle every day like a gag cartoonist. I simply followed the characters into their quotidian lives, played out against a scrim of cultural and political context.”
On the whole, the quality of Doonesbury hasn’t dipped much since 1970. But that doesn’t mean the strip is the same as it ever was. The artwork has gotten more detailed over the years, with stiffer, thicker lines. The politics have gotten wonkier too, moving from the general generational themes of the early days to cover more specific policies and trends. A Doonesbury Special is a capper of sorts to the strip’s initial success, before it really began to evolve.
Or at least it would be, if Doonesbury fans could actually see the special. A Doonesbury Special isn’t available on DVD or Blu-ray, and while VHS copies aren’t too hard to find, it’d take a working VCR to play them. A Doonesbury Special didn’t exactly become a television staple, either—perhaps because it belongs squarely in the era of All In The Family and the early Saturday Night Live, when frank drug humor and political jokes were more common.
Still, in a way that’s what makes A Doonesbury Special so much more poignant now. Intended as a document of an aging youth movement, A Doonesbury Special has instead become a document of a time when Doonesbury itself was as mainstream as M*A*S*H. Throughout the Nixon era, the so-called “silent majority” fretted that their children were rejecting their values, and that the culture was leaving social conservatives behind. Yet in 1977, on one of the biggest family weekends of the year, NBC aired a special that revealed how the new breed of radicals celebrate Christmas, play football, worry about their kids, and feel alienated from a society that keeps moving forward, just when they’re in the mood to look back.