“Teen-agers, bohos, camp culturati, photographers – they have won by default, because, after all, they do create styles.” — Tom Wolfe
One of the blazing revelations I’ve had over the last few whirligig weeks of reading about, seeking out and conversing with the progenitors of our favorite old Nickelodeon shows is that, for the most part, this was a bunch of ragtag art kids in their twenties and thirties who — in lieu of heading to the West Coast to fuse a punk-rock ethos to mainstream accessibility in music — brought the “alternative” sensibility to an even more unlikely place than the radio: shows for kids (and, when they really nailed it, shows for each other).
They worked together, played together, traveled similar circles and many of them have maintained their friendships twenty years later.
The Adventures of Pete & Pete remains a gleaming paragon of this DIY/indie/punk-integrated-into-children’s-programming mentality.
“It was that downtown Manhattan sensibility,” said Katherine Dieckmann (that’s “Deekman,” to you), who originally worked with her Pete & Pete cohorts to create the show, would later have her hand in more episodes than any other director of the series and bestowed upon the program that “pre-Emo/hipster/indie” sensibility it has become known for.
“That show could not have come out of LA,” Dieckmann continued. “It couldn’t have come out of any number of cities you could mention. The sensibility was very much the world where Hal Hartley was making movies and where Jim Jarmusch made Stranger Than Paradise and where Steve Buscemi was doing these performance art pieces.”
“All of us had come of age with the eighties New York sensibility in music and film and style and everything else, and we were all living in the same world. It was all part of one gestalt that was filtered into a children’s show,” Dieckmann said.
“I was here in New York doing SNL, and Pete & Pete was something you would notice if you were flipping through the channels,” recalls Janeane Garofalo when I asked her how she came to be one of many (at least at the time) “indie” celeb cameos on Pete & Pete.
“It’s not like it was the buzz about town,” Garofalo added, “but obviously it was something like, ‘Hey did you see that show?’ The Adventures of Pete & Pete was coming from an extremely creative place that appealed to both kids and I assume other adults because I know I had friends who watched it as well.”
Confessing that she never ended up watching herself as “Ms. Brackett” in 1994’s “X=WHY” because “I can’t look at me” (even when it came to “animated Janeane” on her two appearances in The Simpsons, she told me), Garofalo explained that she was thrilled when she and Chris Elliot (also on SNL at the time) were called in to be on Pete & Pete.
Turns out she was already a fan of the show namely because of the work of Toby Huss who, amongst other characters on Pete & Pete, is best known for his role as Artie, the Strongest Man in the World.
“Especially at the time, he was the king of the downtown Lower East Side scene,” Garofalo said. “I don’t know if they were trying to imbue it with that; it’s just that the people involved were of that ilk.”
Being a fan of Mark Mulcahy of Miracle Legion (as was everyone intimately involved in the show), Garofalo says she was particularly impressed by Pete & Pete getting Mulcahy to band together with his Legion boys to become “Polaris,” which produced the show’s anthemic theme song, “Hey Sandy.”
Other musicians such as Iggy Pop, Michael Stipe, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, Debbie Harry, the Magnetic Fields and Apples in Stereo were integrated into the various incarnations of the show over its six-year run. Some more than once.
New York Dolls frontman and recording artist David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter, aka the Ghost of Christmas Past from Scrooged) was one of the titans of the New York arts and culture scene when he was asked to come aboard Pete & Pete as the unlikely Park Ranger Thorsen in episode “On Golden Pete.”
“Those kids hung out in the scene,” Johansen told me. “It was a good show. Very kind of avant-garde. It had a nice dreamlike vibe to it. It was like working on an indie movie — low key, very enjoyable. Like being in a camp, was fun. Real people: Funky, cool; no one was a blowhard.”
When I asked series co-creator Chris Viscardi about this sense of “imbuing” a children’s show with the downtown New York scene of the eighties, he revealed that, “I don’t think it was anything that we were conscious of doing. We were always into things like punk and punk rock and post-punk and people like Iggy, and we just wanted to bring those people to it.”
“And I think Will [McRobb, Viscardi’s production partner and the third wheel in the merry tricycle of Pete & Pete’s initial wobbly ride onward] and Katherine had a similar reaction. We were just bringing in things that made us laugh or interested us or we thought were cool.”
Perhaps this bringing a “punk rock” twenty-something mindset to a children’s show is one of the key reasons that the series has lasted over the years, even after many of us still obsessed with the show have grown-up. (So to speak.)
“It sort of transcended age,” Garofalo said.
“The demographic was like ‘Under Ten Years’ and ‘College Kids’ or something,” chuckled Alison Maclean (with some sobriety) when I asked her about directing episode “Dance Fever.”
Today, Maclean remains friends with (and in fact is a neighbor of) Dieckmann. But back before she would go on to direct the luminous Billy Crudup/Samantha Morton starrer Jesus’ Son and TV shows as varied as Sex and the City and The Tudors, she was tapped by McRobb and Viscardi after they “somehow” got a copy of her short film Kitchen Sink which, once again, brought Pete & Pete a modicum of unconventionality: a recent Cannes Palme d’Or-nominated director now working on a children’s show.
“It somehow managed to have a strangely split sensibility that had a silly side — obviously a youthful side — but in another way, there was something sophisticated about it, too,” Maclean said.
Although Maclean recounted to me her being (unashamedly) “a little star-struck” when she directed Iggy Pop in her episode, she went on to describe the punk pioneer as “lovely and respectful, with no ego, just fitting in. Like everyone else on the show.”
Indeed, as with Johansen’s recollection (along with everyone else I spoke to), Maclean found her Pete & Pete experience to be “very free, very playful and something that had an absurdist side to it. [The creators] were sort of unafraid. Anything you thought was funny or cool or silly, you could put in there.”
“I think it was incredibly original, drawing on all that downtown sensibility at the time,” Maclean affirmed.
Although Dieckmann and McRobb had been informally familiar with one another in high school in Ithaca, it wasn’t until they reunited at their ten-year reunion that they came together as, in Dieckmann’s words, “kindred spirits.” McRobb and Viscardi had studied film together in grad school where, again, as Viscardi put it, they certainly knew each other and hung out but “weren’t really pals,” reacquainting when they both ended up at Nickelodeon in the late eighties.
“Chris and I got our start doing promos for Nick and Nick at Nite and that really felt like a ‘collective,’” McRobb noted in my interview with him. “All these different shows were doing great things and we basically had a real strong connection to the network, especially people like Chris and I who had come up in the ranks.”
“We really believed in Nickelodeon, and at the time it was designed to be the ‘anti-Disney,’” McRobb said. “Disney was about a certain way of looking at childhood and Nickelodeon was about trying to capture what was a little more real about being a kid. And so we felt fiercely proud of that identity, especially in the promo department. That analogy of a ‘collective,’ of independently-minded creative people banding together to do something that was subversive — that’s where, for me, it was the most powerful.”
“All the years that I was in the promo department, it really felt like we were an underdog team of commandos trying to do something that was good, and everything that Pete & Pete became was really fueled by that same identity.”
While McRobb and Viscardi were reinvesting a youthful spirit and value into the “old cast-off shows” of their nonage, Dieckmann was meanwhile working as a “frustrated journalist” in her twenties, writing for The Village Voice (along with Rolling Stone, Vogue and others) “mostly on film, sometimes on music.”
In ’86 (“when we were certainly younger than we are now,” Dieckmann quipped), she did a piece on REM’s Stipe who would end up becoming lifelong friends with the writer-filmmaker… and stayed in her old apartment back in the day.
“Michael asked me — kind of out of the blue, really — to direct a music video for him,” Dieckmann said. This despite the fact that, aside from her interest in film and photography (especially when it came to Polaroids and found objects) and a few 16mm short films in high school, Dieckmann had never directed anything in her life.
She nonetheless took on her pal Stipe’s offer, made “Stand” in 1989 and attended that providential ten-year high school reunion where she ran into McRobb who — low and behold — had A) Seen and loved her video and B) Was about to direct a new series of 60-second interstitial spots for Nick’s on-air promotions department with his colleague Viscardi.
It just so happened that their original director had to drop out last minute and, hey, maybe Dieckmann could help out the team here?
“So I did a storyboard for them, for the first 60-second spot about Little Pete’s tattoo [Petunia], which Will had written,” Dieckmann said. “The reason I got the job was when Mom sees Pete’s tattoo, my drawing for her face was a wooden spoon covered in chocolate pudding hitting the floor.”
(Admittedly, when I went on to question Dieckmann at least three more times about what exactly that meant, no explanation she gave me seemed to gel with any cogent visualization of what the hell she was talking about; but I gave it up to the ineffable “Pete-and-Pete-ness” with which the series would be suffused from then on in.)
“They loved that,” Dieckmann continued. “That’s really what got me the job. And then we started working together. They thought that was the total ‘Pete’ approach [see?] to storytelling.”
“The big idea was ‘Let’s tell a story the way kids tell stories,’” McRobb clarified. “You know how kids tell stories; they kind of go all over the place. And for that, they’re amazing.”
“Back in the day when we had 60 seconds to tell a story, we decided to cram as many ideas and images and non-sequiturs in as we could and capture part of childhood nobody seemed to be paying much attention to.”
“It probably sounds pretentious and I apologize,” Viscardi qualified, “but Will and I have a phrase we like to use regarding Pete & Pete and try to bring it to our work: A certain ‘ragged glory.’ Things don’t always add up and don’t always look very pretty and sometimes the dots don’t connect, but there’s a certain glory and beauty in that and we definitely strived to achieve that on Pete & Pete.”
“If things got neatly tied-up in a bow, we would untie them. Or we would do a funny cutaway to somebody that would disrupt the scene in a way. Or we would give Toby a chance to do some weirdo antics in the middle of the scene just to undercut some slightly sentimental dialogue. Things that would give it a certain weirdo edge, maybe not completely make sense in the long run, but something to us that felt kind of glorious and fun.”
“Kids are about mess and mud puddles and rolling around in the dirt and just being kids,” McRobb added. “It’s not an antiseptic, rigid, shiny-happy place. When you get past what’s innocent about childhood, there’s a lot of stuff to it that’s rough around the edges. The dream was to capture what was real and true, and the flipside of that is there’s an amazing amount of imagination to being a kid and it’s not always perfectly coherent.”
Fine. But, what did the kids think about these folks ten to twenty years their senior telling them what to do and to say in order to be, well, kids on The Adventures of Pete & Pete?
“It was sort of Will’s and Chris’ idea of their unique childhood fantasy world,” said Danny Tamberelli who played Little Pete on the show. “And that’s where [Pete & Pete setting] Wellsville and all the quirkiness, the left-of-the-dial humor came from.”
“It was unique because Pete & Pete was one of the only shows you could sit down with your parents to watch and they wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh man, stupid kid shows: I don’t really want to be here.’ Then they’d say, ‘Hey! There’s David Johansen!’ And they would get some of the jokes that I wouldn’t get” (such as the gag in which all the kids were more-or-less tripping after they got “brain-freeze from too many Orange Lazaruses, Tamberelli notably remembers).
Michael Maronna — who played Big Pete and whom Tamberelli still sees around their Brooklyn stomping grounds (though he also confessed to me that he doesn’t go to bars with the guy because “Mike gets weird”) — espouses a similar perspective to his on-screen little brother:
“When I got the show in the summer of ’89, I was 11 turning 12 and I had just started at a new school,” Maronna said. “Turning into an adolescent was part of my everyday life at that point and it’s not surprising that came out in the character. I’m grateful for that.”
“Chris, Will and Katherine in their twenties and thirties were still close enough where they could clearly feel that nostalgia and see what resonated, what was fake, what was being used by the next generation that maybe did or did not ring true.”
“And I saw that as well,” Tamberelli told me. “As a little kid, I believed in them because they were very passionate about what they were doing. They were cool people to me. They were in their twenty-somethings, like cool dudes. I was just enjoying it. As a kid, you don’t really look at it as a job in any way. It was just something I did.”
Tamberelli in fact grew up and lived in New Jersey close to where they shot Pete & Pete on location and told me that he worked in a bagel store on the weekends, played rec soccer and baseball throughout his time on the show and avoided the usual dangers/taunting of the “Michael Jackson upbringing” by inviting friends of his in his public school to the set to be cast as extras.
Maronna again agreed with his diminutive TV-universe namesake, grateful too of his parents never having “forced him” into acting and allowing him a “normal” life unlike some of the other “stage parents” he’d seen in his life. “There’s nothing more important when you’re that age to be a kid. You have all these pursuits and it’s not about growing up. Maybe not for all kids, but that was the spirit of Little Pete.”
And maybe this too — this naturalism lent to the show by “real” kids playing the program’s primary roles all those years — helped to establish that elusive Pete-and-Pete-ness. (Salient in this regard was no-nonsense Johansen’s admission to me that the actors on Pete & Pete were “good kids, not like your typical asshole kid stars. That was very refreshing.”)
McRobb told me that after Nickelodeon had done their preliminary filtering of the cast down to the best-of-the-best, Tamberelli — “a joke machine” — came to the show creators as an instant lock for the role of Little Pete. “We knew in a second it was him.”
Big Pete was a little harder to cast, McRobb described, “because we were going to count on that kid to do so much storytelling, so we needed to make sure it was right.” Maronna, McRobb then assured me, “was definitely our first choice by far, though. He brought so much nuance to how he said the lines.”
For Alison Fanelli (who played Big Pete’s would-be gal Ellen and left the world of Hollywood for good after her stint on Pete & Pete to work in medicine), McRobb continued, “we knew she was the one right away because she came in and looked kind of funky and she looked so normal and real and then we paired her with Michael and it was a no-brainer.”
“The show kind of evolved through our shared taste in terms of the way the kids looked and the way it was shot and the kinds of kids they were,” Dieckmann confirmed. “They weren’t going to be really ‘show-bizzy kids’ at all. And that helped set the tone for the show.”
Being that the three show creators were all in their twenties, and since none of them had kids or were really around any kids at the time of doing Pete & Pete, Dieckmann explained that “none of us had any idea what kids were like except maybe from our own childhood. Which Will and I referenced a lot.”
“Will would write a bully and it would be like, ‘Oh, he’s just like Donny Young.’ We knew all the kids from our childhood that these kids were based on, so we had those references in mind. Chris grew up in Auburn, which was like 30 miles away from Ithaca, so we all had a similar frame of what the childhood experience was and what mattered and how we wanted to express that.”
“It was more about the strange things that happen in childhood and how truthful those are. We put that idea into our downtown New York sensibility, and that’s really what Pete & Pete was.”
Funnily enough, the show — which started as a series of 26 interstitials before evolving into five half-hour specials, finally earning enough confidence and money from Nickelodeon to become three seasons of 34 episodes of half-hour shows about two ginger brothers named Pete living surrealistically prototypical lives in the suburbs of New Jersey circa early-nineties — initially found its provenance as a show with a much more conventional conceit.
“The show originally was conceived as the adventures of this boy named Pete and his dog named Pete,” Viscardi revealed. “And then I was attached as the producer and told Will, ‘Look, I love it, it’s great but the hardest thing to work with is kids and animals. This is going to kill us! What else can we do here?’”
“I suggested that we make Pete a brother and we give him the same first name and that made us both laugh and then we were off and running. I think even in the initial script [McRobb] wrote, there was still the mom with the plate in her head and various other oddities of the show, and Big Pete had the tattoo, and all the stuff was in there. The sensibility was already there, with just this one wild card element added to it that had us go down a certain path.”
Whereas neophytes might remember the show as being wholly different from others of its day due to its “sad and beautiful, surreal and true” tone of the McRobb/Viscardi/Dieckmann vision as well as its lack of an irritating laugh track, it’s also clear in the simple look of the show (single camera as opposed to three, on-location as opposed to in the studio, a more cinematic/filmy appearance as opposed to the more conventional staged/”TV” aesthetic) that something special was going on at Pete & Pete.
“We didn’t know a lot about making TV, but we knew that we wanted to make it look different than any other show on the air,” Viscardi said. “And that was one of the reasons we hired Katherine. She had a very distinct style. It was very playful and light and we loved her use of cutaways and found footage. It gave it a real arts-and-craftsy feel, which we really loved.”
“I think that’s part of the reason why all these years later, so many of the directors that worked on the show still say that Pete & Pete was one of their best TV directing experiences, because we really gave them free reign to bring their own sense of artistry to it. I think that’s also what made the crew people passionate about it too because they really got to spread their wings and do something different from other TV shows they worked on.”
Macclean concurred with Viscardi’s assessment, stating that throughout her years immersed in high-profile television direction, she’s pretty much never experienced the kind of freedom she was granted on Pete & Pete.
“It took me a little while to figure out what kind of show they wanted to make, but I remember it being a blast,” Maclean said. “There was only one other show (Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays, which does not air on American television) that comes close to being that creative and that much of a sense of a collaborative effort.”
“They really wanted my input, they wanted it all. That hasn’t been the case on other shows that I’ve done: It’s always been much more the industrial model of being kind of a director for hire. Pete & Pete was much more a sense of this little team of crazy people who believed in it and loved it. I remember the energy of that and how satisfying it was.”
As an actor “just doing [his] lines and if one way [he] read it didn’t work, [he’d] try another way,” Tamberelli strongly believes that “specifically because Pete & Pete had so many directors, the show stayed fresh. Things didn’t happen the same way every day. Not like a regular sitcom that’s shot specifically and everything looks exactly the same. It really had a life to it.”
And of course, then there’s that unnamable aspect of Pete & Pete that many feel led it to be a kind of presage to the whole hipster emotionality and aesthetic (especially in the show’s oftentimes wintry, “fashionable street urchin” appearance of Big Pete’s Thurston Moore likeness and Little Pete’s flannel trucker raiment; not to mention Toby Huss’s striped-shirted Rivers Cuomo geek chic that he devised himself along with everything else he did on the program).
When asked about this element of the show’s legacy — the fact that, well, so many of us today kinda look and emote like characters with a bit of Pete-and-Pete-ness of our own — Maronna said the same thing some will tell you about Madonna’s allegedly having created a style of her own in the eighties: Heck, everyone looked like that at the time; duh.
“Chris and Will are both Upstate New York preppies,” Maronna began when discussing this topic with me. “Katherine was a music video director and more bohemian with the crazy hats. Big Pete was dressed more like a preppy and Little Pete dressed more like a trucker or a mechanic. I guess Katherine ‘won’ in the case of Danny. I think it was also her projecting herself more on Alison who had a fun wardrobe.”
Maronna concluded that, “I remember when we were doing one of the specials in 1991 before we became a series and the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video came on the television when we were on location and I had never seen shit like that before. Whatever I was, 13 years old, it really took a hold and I definitely got into dressing like that.”
“My girlfriend and I just went out last night in Brooklyn and we commented on everyone on the wait staff wearing flannel, and I don’t think you can say it was influenced by that show. It was just what was around.”
Similarly, McRobb sees a definite Pete-and-Pete-ness pervading the realm of contemporary style and fashion, but agrees with Maronna that it was merely a sign of the time in which the show happened to be produced: “Little Pete wore plaid shirts, for sure. Outside of that, I don’t think there’s anything you could point to that says ‘cultural marker.’ We were trying to create a timeless universe that was anybody’s childhood. And we were trying to make Little Pete a badass. The hat was more about Holden Caulfield than grunge and he only wore long-sleeved shirts to cover his tattoo.”
But then, in accordance with so much Net buzz and the true believer feelings in so many viewers (like myself), McRobb did have to admit that, “You could definitely make the case it was the precursor to all of this hipster stuff. But we never intended it to be that and once ‘grunge’ took hold, I never for a second thought there was any connection.”
Truth be told, McRobb feels that — if anything — The Adventures of Pete & Pete was actually pretty “square,” assessing it as “a very square show masquerading as a hip show.”
“The values were really like ‘love your brother’ and ‘be good to people’ and ‘honor your imagination,’” he said. “There was some subversive behavior like staying up 11 nights in a row, but if you remember the end of that episode [“The Nightcrawlers,” directed by Dieckmann and her favorite episode, actually], it led to Pete and Mom being closer than ever and respecting each other’s boundaries.”
“I think we really honored the rituals of childhood. Maybe ‘square’ isn’t the right word. What was subversive I guess was the tone and the way we told the stories, but when you think about what we were trying to convey and what was at the heart of the show, it was really life-affirming.”
“I think strange was where we were going versus trying to be outrageous. I’m sure there’s an example of a place where we went too far, but I don’t think that was ever our intention.”
Aw, come on, now! We can all smirk smarmily and know that Pete & Pete was certainly more subversive than all of that, Will! It wasn’t just about staying up 11 nights in a row. It was also about fighting the International Adult Conspiracy! It was about taking over the radio waves! It was about taking down snooty British teachers during an explosive game of dodge ball that would go down in history books! It was about calling douchebags “blowholes”!
I mean, even Tamberelli noted that he still picks his nose and burps thanks to the obstreperous character he portrayed (though, all right, he laughed after saying that, coughing all through our conversation — after, well — “forgetting” to call me on the first attempt… Hmmm…).
In fact, McRobb illuminated for me the fact that Nickelodeon did at times get in his face about some of the show’s, um, rather colorful “kid argot.”
“We could say ‘blowhole’ and ‘fudgelicker,’” McRobb confirmed, “but we couldn’t say ‘nipple.’ Which was pretty arbitrary.” (For those wondering, it was during one of Little Pete’s volatile trash talk sessions in which ‘nipple’ reared its ugly head.)
“I don’t think we ever had an idea that was quashed, though” McRobb continued. “I know that once we had one season under our belt, we felt really confident about spreading our wings a little bit and during the second season, the network started getting concerned about the shows being less about a relatable kid experience and more about these kinds of fantastic ‘flights of fancy.’”
“We were strongly encouraged for the third season to be shows that were at least on some level connected to what the ‘kids’ life’ was all about.”
(Could this be why Little Pete’s wacky personal superhero Artie left at this point? This was one question I didn’t dare ask in reverence for the character’s indefatigable mystique.)
Same was true, by the way, when it came to the lyrics to Mulcahy’s enigmatic theme song, “Hey Sandy.” No one seems to know for sure what the hell the “Polaris” lead singer was saying or wrote in that one, but everyone I interviewed said they didn’t care and in fact love that we’re all trying to figure it out.
Dieckmann said that’s just the way he sings, after all, and that if Mulcahy could have come up with a way of purposely manufacturing lyrics that would be cryptic enough for folks to ponder over years later, he’d be doing that regularly. But, alas, Mulcahy — in Dieckmann’s own words — “isn’t that calculating.”)
Regardless, McRobb told me that, overall, Nickelodeon more or less let his group do their own thing, remain in their own bubble and work without much if any interference. But, then again, Nickelodeon was a different animal in those days. This was before the ratings became so important to the massive monolith the network’s become, before they were doing all they could to not so much be the anti-Disney but to be another Disney.
McRobb feels that if it came down to either having one of the brass come down to him in Jersey and congratulate him on nabbing Iggy Pop for an episode or not being interfered with at all, he’d quickly take the latter.
“Nobody had ever told us how to make a one-minute short film or how to make a half-hour special or series; we just did what felt right,” Viscardi opined to me as we finished up our conversation. “We didn’t know about rules of screenwriting and TV writing and how to get to commercial break or anything like that. There’s something extraordinarily liberating about that because you’re not hampered by rules or by your past experiences. You just do what feels right. And that’s a fantastic way to feel.”
“The sad part, of course, is once you do it a number of times, you start to understand the rules of the game, you know? You have that liberation a couple of times, then you find yourself fighting your instincts to make it a standard show. It was pretty wild to go through that experience in a very hands-on way.”
“Nickelodeon wasn’t making a lot of original shows at that time, so they didn’t really know how to give us notes or how to react to things either. Everyone was kind of learning as we went. We got incredible support from the key people we needed to get support from, though.”
And at last, here we have (potentially) the most apt portrait of the Pete-and-Pete-ness that McRobb says he and Viscardi still talk about on a daily basis as shorthand for their vision of what they want to put out into the world (even on larger productions like the film version of Alvin and The Chipmunks, which they co-wrote, and the Nickelodeon film Snow Day that was originally supposed to be the Pete & Pete movie but became, er, something else).
It was that truly childlike whimsy, that “we have no idea what we’re doing, but we’re going to do it anyway” attitude of not only all the folks involved in the show, but all the folks involved at the network in those early days of Nick.
McRobb lamented to me that over the span of Pete & Pete, he witnessed Nickelodeon’s transformation into something that it had originally been very consciously railing against. And, well, maybe — as with Artie needing to go on his way to keep Wellsville (which took its name, by the by, from a favorite song of McRobb’s by Wichita indie band the Embarrassment that sounds like anything you’d hear on Pete & Pete and was for McRobb “a song about getting off the main road and seeing the nooks and crannies of life”) a bit more like the “typical kids’ experience” — it was time to call it a day and move on to more adult pursuits (family, job, politics, groceries, laundry, cat food).
“We’ve tried many times over the years to create something with a Pete & Pete sensibility,” Viscardi sighed, “but ultimately it would not move forward. People don’t want anything that’s quirky anymore. Quirky means odd. Odd means weird. Weird means not for everybody. Not for everybody means lower ratings. Lower ratings means we don’t make as much money. ‘Uh, we can’t do that. Give us something that’s not quirky.’ And that’s just the way it is.”
“That’s always the nature of mainstream entertainment,” Garofalo, who spoke with me about seeing a similar sea change overtake the world of MTV and other earlier programming in which she was involved back in the day, said. “It rarely makes room for something interesting and when there is something interesting on, believe me it’s despite the network’s best efforts.”
“The nature of mainstream entertainment is to play it safe and to try to appeal to the most amount of people, which is a flawed paradigm because in the effort to appeal to the most amount of people, you usually end up being banal and not really appealing to anyone, although I’ve been proven wrong in that area before. I think that network mainstream employees work on one emotion, which is a fear of getting fired. It makes people make very, very uncreative decisions.”
“Anything new has room to grow, anything new isn’t being watched as much by the adults, if you will. They’re hiring lots of young people (so they can pay them less) who haven’t picked up bad habits of working at networks yet. So they’re coming in with completely fresh ideas. And, also, you have some people who are willing to let it slide, because they’re not paying attention or because they care. Either way, it works out.”
“We knew we didn’t want to be mainstream,” Dieckmann said. “We never even really knew people watched it. So it’s really fascinating to see how many people were influenced by it when they were kids.”
And these days anyone can see the effect of Pete & Pete with a resurgence that has spawned infinite websites, band names and lyrics, knock-off YouTube videos, reunions and re-airings of shows all over the globe.
Viscardi told me that they did know the show had its fans during its original run, as they’d receive letters and phone calls about what they were doing from folks who were excited to see something they couldn’t really find anywhere else. But it’s still “shocking” to him that so many years after the show was taken off the air in 1996, “how many people would write to us and talk about the show with the passion that they had.”
“I guess it just goes to show how good the early nineties Nickelodeon programming was and that it actually meant something to the people who watched it,” Tamberelli suggested.
“It’s part of how I grew up, it’s part of how I’ve become who I am now. I’ve heard the same thing happened to me said to me by people who grew up on the show. They felt similar to how I felt; it directly changed their way of looking at things. It was OK to be weird and to be a little bit off and to not be completely status quo and to not follow the crowd.”
“And I find pretty much that people who come up to me or like the show are like me or are people I would relate to or would be friends with. Similar mindsets, you know? Those are the kinds of people who would be friends with Chris and Will and Katherine, too. It’s a universal mindset. That’s why I do take it seriously: it means a lot to me, it’s my adolescence, it’s how I was brought up.”
Tamberelli (who these days concentrates mostly on his music, playing bass and teaching music to such folks as All That comrade Kenan Thompson — something he says was partly inspired by Pete & Pete episode “Hard Day’s Pete”) told me that though he feels he’s smarter now and more experienced, he’s still very much the same person he was when he was on the show, with the same ideals and morals, that in fact it’s at times hard for him to look back and consider where Little Pete stopped and he as Danny Tamberelli began.
“Shows like Pete & Pete and Clarissa and Salute Your Shorts had sort of a quirky, not-straight-ahead way about them and that’s not how it is now,” Tamberelli said. “Back then it was entertainment but there was also something to get your brain going.”
“Doesn’t this sort of resurgence make sense?” Maronna asked me with a rhetorical edge. Though he’s lately taken to the more technical aspects of film and television in the electrical department of TV and film productions, he still seems to hold a special, altruistic fealty for the days when he was the center of attention on Pete & Pete.
“We did all grow up with each other, even if some people were watching the TV and other people were acting on it. Not surprisingly, the kids watching would identify with us and since we can’t freeze time, all these people in their thirties, dealing with their jobs, they still remember those times.”
“It’s the chance to relive their childhood, only a little weirder. And it’s immortalized on TV, so it’s more reinforced.”
Dieckmann sees the resurgence taking hold also, adding “because I teach grad school [Columbia University; she also continues making films, with her most recent being the Uma Thurman starrer Motherhood], I’ve had students who saw Pete & Pete when they were kids. It’s really interesting to me when they’re so passionate about it. It lets me see the effect of how it shaped people’s sensibilities. You don’t really know that when you’re making it.”
“To see that this thing that we did — that we didn’t know if it was having any effect or not, out of the love of it, in a very kind of loose, collaborative, fun way — really had meaning for people is fantastic.”
“It’s almost like a privilege in a way,” McRobb said before wrapping up our conversation with a notion chock-full of his “ragged glory” Pete-and-Pete-ness. “You make something, you go into the time machine, and you come out 17 years later and you get to see what happens; and unbelievably, it happened! And it’s pretty amazing to consider. Maybe we got a 2.1 rating and they took us off the air, but 17 years later, there’re all these 26-year-olds who are saying, ‘Thank you so much,’ and we feel like we did something that meant something.”
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.