Some time around 1993 at a Nickelodeon research center in New Jersey, Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb were forced to sit behind a sheet of mirrored glass and observe a dozen kids watch their new half-hour TV show The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Eleven of those kids contorted their faces in such a way that the creators knew what they were thinking — “This is stupid.” But one kid, with rumpled clothes and unkempt hair and food stains on his shirt, was smiling.
When the show concluded and the pint-sized subjects were asked for their thoughts, the eleven pointed out that no brothers would ever share the same first name and that kids obviously can’t get tattoos. Viscardi and McRobb urged the group’s rumpled outlier to proclaim his love, save their show, for the love of God say anything. He didn’t.
Fortunately for rumpled outliers everywhere, the show received the go-ahead anyway and ran from 1993-1996. Twenty years later, at the Marine Memorial Theater as part of the 12th annual SF Sketchfest, a live comedy festival spanning seventeen nights, 600 of those kids — all grown up now and clothes a little tighter — got to band together and revel in each other’s strangeness. Viscardi and McRobb served as MCs Friday night, telling the story of the Nickelodeon research center before welcoming Michael C. Maronna (Big Pete), Danny Tamberelli (Little Pete), Toby Huss (Artie, “the strongest man … in the wooorld”), Rick Gomez (Endless Mike), and Mark Mulcahy, who provided much of the music that defined the show including the title song “Hey Sandy.” Together they read scenes, shared stories, and more or less acted like their 1993 weirdo selves again.
If you closed your eyes for most the readings, all of them among the show’s most memorable scenes, it was easy to feel like you were 10 years old again sitting in front of a big, boxy television that Mom and Dad had just outfitted with a cable box. From Maronna’s guiding narration of a squid murder — his voice and cadence hasn’t changed a bit — to Huss’s uncanny delivery of every line (“I don’t believe you can catch me for I … am super freaky!”), it was clear the actors were legitimately having fun retrieving these characters from the attic, like a box of old G.I. Joes. It became increasingly clear as the night wore on that Pete & Pete was not the product of typical writers and actors deciding to make a slightly strange kids show; it was a bunch of slightly strange writers and actors making a kids show that felt normal to them. How else could it have seemed so natural for a stage full of grown men performing for adults tell one another to suck chowder or bite my scab? At one point, the crowd of hundreds loudly cheered a video montage of a man in red pajamas fighting a bowling ball.
Little Pete’s catchphrases and Artie montages may have been expected, but that’s not to say that super fans weren’t treated to some insider information to contribute to their next nostalgic SNICK conversation. Everyone learned that Huss’s Artie character came to life in an Iowa City bedroom with a girl named Mary Jo Berry, where Huss, perhaps a little stir crazy in the frigid winter, hiked his long underwear up to his armpits and declared himself “the strongest man … in the wooorld!” in order to get a laugh. We learned that Tamberelli got his first kiss in the back of a car while a production assistant drove the eighth-grade make-out artists back to their waiting parents. And we learned that “blowhole” used as a derisive term will get the attention of the Nickelodeon standards and practices team (but playing dumb and pointing out that it’s just a muscular flap on a sea mammal will get it by them).
The most unexpected surprise of the night, however, came in the form of special guests Colin Hanks, Doug Benson, James Urbaniak, and Paget Brewster, all of whom read bit parts as memorable supporting characters. Hanks shouted woefully as heartbroken bus driver Stu Benedict, and Benson stuck a flashlight out his right sleeve to mimic hook-handed, conditioned-air-obsessed shop teacher Mr. Slurm, while Brewster read as Ms. Fingerwood, a math teacher obsessed with the number two. But the performance of the night may have belonged to Urbaniak channeling his best Adam West to read the role of Principal Schwinger, declaring triumphantly that “Johnny Earwax opened my ears to the sound of life!”
When I first took my seat earlier in the evening, a man in the row behind me half-joked to his wife, “It’s a room full of people just like you.” More than an hour later, as the audience and cast members sang a song together from the episode “Hard Day’s Pete,” it was clear that that man in Row F was more right than he could have imagined.