If you were a kid who grew up during the ’90s, chances are you were probably watching either MTV or Nickelodeon to get your fix of entertainment for the day. And if you watched Nickelodeon, you were probably a fan of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” the oddball series featuring two brothers both named Pete and their sometimes surreal adventures growing up in the suburb of Wellsville. Created by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi — who were working in the promo department at the still-fledgling network — ‘Pete & Pete’ had begun as a series of shorts in 1989 before becoming a regular series several years later. But this wasn’t just any kids program. Not only did it feature an 8-year-old with a tattoo of a topless mermaid named Petunia and a personal superhero wildly gesticulating in skin tight pants but featured recurring guest stars, including Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Adam West, Chris Elliott, Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe, LL Cool J, Luscious Jackson, Kate Pierson of The B-52’s and New York Dolls’ David Johansen. And if the guest stars alone didn’t garner the show enough cool points with the older crowd who was also watching at the time, it also featured music from indie icon Stephin Merritt’s bands The Magnetic Fields, The 6ths and The Gothic Archies as well as Polaris (led by Miracle Legion’s Mark Mulcahy) who composed the show’s memorable theme.
‘Pete & Pete’ ran from 1993-1996 and developed a sizable cult following before being cancelled by the network after its third season. Things went quiet for a number of years until the first two seasons were released on DVD in 2005 and gave fans who had grown up with the show a chance to revisit the series. Not only did it hold up but was quite possibly even better than the show they had remembered. Because ‘Pete & Pete’ had always been aimed both at kids and adults, it has aged surprisingly well so its fans have become nostalgic for the old series. After a reunion in L.A. a few months back, The AV Club decided to bring together the cast and creators behind the show back to the East Coast where the series originated for one night only at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC. After the first show sold out in under two minutes a second show was added and tickets were snapped up just as quickly. The evening featured appearances from creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, director Katherine Dieckmann and the show’s principal cast: Michael C. Maronna (Big Pete), Danny Tamberelli (Little Pete), Judy Grafe (Mom) and Hardy Rawls (Dad), Alison Fanelli (Ellen) and Toby Huss (Artie, The Strongest Man in the World).
To the delight of the capacity crowd, the cast seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company during the lively Q&A session. Catchphrases were shouted to the stages and behind-the-scenes tales of the show were interspersed with good-natured ribbing. The former onscreen brothers doubled each others sentences and at one point Hardy Rawls stood up to reveal his Artie shirt to the crowd. (It reads aptly “Don’t Give Up Hope.”) The celebration even featured a surprise appearance by The Blowholes (who fans will remember as Little Pete’s band from the episode “A Hard Day’s Pete”), which featured Tamberelli alongside musicians Marshall Crenshaw and Syd Straw, both reprising their roles from the series. The band opened and closed the show with four songs from the series including the theme song “Hey Sandy” and “Summerbaby” which they had performed together nearly 20 years ago onscreen. (Unfortunately Aaron Schwartz who played Clem, their drummer, did not attend.) That small disappointment aside, it was everything a ‘Pete & Pete’ fan could’ve dreamed of.
It’s been 17 years since ‘Pete & Pete’ went off the air and though its still painful for the cast and crew, the passing of time has softened the blow of being cancelled after the show’s third season.
“It’s funny, as time goes on obviously you get a little nostalgic about things and your memory gets a little foggy,” co-creator Chris Viscardi said. “Will [McRobb] and I were talking in the cab on the way from the airport last night and he was like, ‘Funny how the show just kinda ended after that third season, just drifted away.’ and I’m like, ‘No, executives at Nickelodeon took us out to lunch and said ‘You’re cancelled.’ That’s what really happened. But 17 years later [you think], ‘Yeah, maybe we did just drift off in the sunset.’ ”
The silver lining on the cancellation is that the show’s fans are still rabid for the series. “We did something like this in L.A. in November and it was kind of unbelievable to see that so many people still cared so much about [the show],” co-creator Will McRobb said. “I guess the happy ending is [to] look at all these people [here tonight],” he said to much applause from the crowd. “The DVDs came out in 2005 and that got everyone excited. And then everyone got mad because the third season didn’t come out,” he continued citing a sore subject among fans of the show. The Season 3 DVDs were slated to come out shortly following the first two seasons but the like the show, that release too was abruptly cancelled and Viscardi and McRobb have no idea why. According to them the discs are done, complete with commentary tracks and cover art, sitting in a warehouse somewhere. So come on, Nickelodeon, can we get the discs already?
Flashing back to the beginnings of the show, the creators revealed the show’s unconventional road to the small screen beginning as a series of shorts and specials before finally receiving a full season order.
The show came out of the promo department where Viscardi and McRobb were making short promotional clips for the channel’s stable of reruns like “Mr. Ed” and “Dennis The Menace,” until they began to write their own promos just to set the attitude for what the channel could be. McRobb explained, “Someone had the good idea of letting us do some 60 second spots that were meant to inform the audience of what the spirit of Nickelodeon really was and we were true believers at the time. And we made these mini shows to define what we thought childhood was all about and how it intersected with what Nickelodeon was trying to be. And those 60 [second spots] created their own momentum, then we did the [30 minute] specials starting with ‘Valentine’s Day.’ And we did five of those and eventually after three years of creating a snowball effect they finally decided to do the series and we did 39 full episodes of the show,” with Viscardi interrupting to say, “And then we were cancelled.”
As to where they got the idea for the town of Wellsville, where the show is set, McRobb cited some musical inspiration. “ ‘Wellsville’ is a song by [the band] The Embarassment from Wichita, [Kansas] in the late ’70s/early ’80s,” McRobb said. “And there’s a song called ‘Wellsville’ about a little town off the highway where if you just care to pull off the highway you might see some amazing things. And that’s one of the ways we look at ‘Pete & Pete,’ if you just pay attention to what’s going on in the case of our show, the back yard, you might be amazed. That was the guiding spirit of the show. Let’s trade on the backyard, your neighborhood, what’s going on down the street and let’s turn that into a magical place.”
It may have been ostensibly a “kids show,” but ‘Pete & Pete,’ with it’s made-up curse words and surreal transgressions was definitely pushing the boundaries of what you could show on Nickelodeon at the time mostly because the creators didn’t know any better.
In addition to its general weirdness, the show featured an array of seemingly salty language that ran up against standards and practices just for sounding dirty. “I would say that the insult ‘Blowhole’ is the quintessential ‘Pete & Pete’ insult.” Viscardi said. “We really prided ourselves in coming up with stuff that they couldn’t really say no to but seemed like things you shouldn’t say on television. And I remember the standards and practices person saying [incredulously], ‘Blowhole, really?’” McRobb added that the name of the teacher, Ms. Fingerwood, started even dirtier sounding. “The truth was we named her Ms. Fingerhut and Nickelodeon decided, ‘There’s something about that that’s wrong. We’re not sure what it is’ so we had to change it to Fingerwood.” Fingerwood was apparently suggested by the actress Syd Straw who played her, who knew an Iris Fingerwood.
As far as subjecting their young cast to this kind of thing Viscardi said they were always game. “It’s one thing to cast somebody and it’s another to get them on the set and you realize what they really can and cannot do,” Viscardi said before he and McRobb told a story involving a 7-year-old Danny Tamberelli being buried up to his neck in a hole in the ground as written in their script. All of this happened on the first day of shooting, no less, but luckily Tamberelli responded to the situation enthusiastically and they knew they wouldn’t have to worry about subjecting him to any future stunts. Frequent director Katherine Dieckmann described the freewheeling spirit of making the show. “None of us really knew what we were doing but I think that was a real attribute for ‘Pete & Pete,’ cause we didn’t know better,” she said.
Will McRobb added, “It was a time in Nickelodeon where we didn’t know anything and there weren’t too many restrictions.” Because the show been developed through the promo department, instead of through the more traditional programming wing, it had a much more “rogue” spirit. “It seems amazing to me now, now that I’ve been in showbusiness all these years, that I would go to the Lower East Side, I’d see a guy in long underwear doing a very very blue version of the Artie routine and a month later he was calling a kid a Schwinn Rider in a spot we did.” The actor who played Artie, Toby Huss concluded, “It’s the American dream.”
Speaking of Artie, Little Pete’s personal superhero was a big topic of conversation for fans and the actor behind him Toby Huss, candidly discussed the character’s Lower East Side origins and his decision to leave the show early.
If you ask a fan of the show who his or her favorite character is you’re very likely to hear one name: Artie, The Strongest Man [pause for effect] In The World. The eccentric character took the show in a drastically different direction thanks to the characterization and improvisation from actor Toby Huss. He described the character’s origins as such, “I did this character in Iowa City years ago and then I did it [as] performance stuff around here on the Lower East Side in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Will [McRobb] saw me. And I had these red long underwear and I was going out with a girl and I used to pull them up really high and for some reason there was always a really substantial crotch. The legs were super tight but the crotch? You could pull that fucker up to your chest. So I pulled it up to my chest and I thought, ‘Well, that’s funny. Maybe I’ll do this onstage somewhere.’” Then McRobb saw him and offered him a spot on the show to which Huss thought casually, “Well that seems like a progression, sure.”
When asked about how Huss felt wearing his character’s signature outfit: a red and blue striped shirt with tight red pants pulled up past his waist, he replied, “Great and ashamed. Ashamedly great.” He then addressed the crowd directly, “When you were a little kid watching it you probably thought it was funny and weird and when you got older you thought, ‘Aw, c’mon.’ ” Nickelodeon had been happy with the shorts McRobb and Viscardi had been working on but were somewhat shocked when they saw Artie. As Viscardi tells it their reaction was somewhere along the lines of, “What are you guys doing?” The character sent the show in a completely different direction sending the strangeness directly to the surface of the show which the creators says is chiefly thanks to Huss’ performance.
Chris Viscardi said, “After the first episode working with Toby where he didn’t say anything we had written, he just said what he wanted to say, which was a million times better than what we had written, from that point on we would just [write in the scripts] ‘Artie’ and then we would have in parenthesis ‘make something up’ ” Huss added, “And it got weird too…” before describing his improvisations as a “jumble of madness.” When describing his hasty exit from the show at the end of Season 2 Huss explained, “I thought well two seasons was enough and I had to go. It was a mistake but…” before trailing off. He chalked up his decision to the contrast between being a 28-year-old living on the Lower East Side and all the “dirty filthy shit” that went along with it to his day job of acting alongside youngsters while wearing very, very tight fitting clothing. “Well this is too weird,” he concluded, putting the character to rest much to the dismay of Little Vikings everywhere.
One of the most impressive things about revisiting the show as an adult are the guest stars, most of which were too obscure to pick up on as a youngster but give the show some sizable indie cred now.
While discussing how they were able to draw such high profile guest stars like Michael Stipe or Iggy Pop, frequent director Katherine Dieckmann said, “When we did our first special, which was ‘Valentine’s Day [Massacre],’ [Chris & Rob] wrote the character of this math teacher and I thought to bring Syd [Straw, a singer/songwriter who had performed in bands with Michael Stipe and Matthew Sweet among others] who I knew really well,” she continued. “And I knew this actor Richard Edson who was in ‘Stranger Than Paradise,’ who I knew from downtown New York. So we cast them and that was the start of it all because it set the tone for the kind of cameos we would have. And then the second special we did was ‘[What We Did On] Summer Vacation‘ and I knew [Michael] Stipe because I’d made videos for R.E.M. and he was very reluctant [at first to appear on the show]. He was really nervous, actually about doing it. He was extremely intimidated by the whole thing” but ended up getting a hold of his nerves for his brief performance as an ice cream man.
“So I think that was the start of it and once Stipe was on and Kate Pierson from The B-52’s who were both in that episode and were both people I knew, once they were on, that opened the door,” Dieckmann continued. “After that it was really easy [to get guest stars]. People were like, ‘Oh that show’s kinda interesting and why not? You only have to come out for a little while and it’s kinda goofy, so sure.’ ” Co-creator Chris Viscardi concurred, “Once we got Stipe, it was very easy to get all the guest stars after that. Iggy [Pop] was amazing because he came the first day on the set and he shoots for an hour or two and hangs around for lunch. And then we get a call on the set [saying] ‘Iggy wants to be in more scenes.’ ‘Does he want to come by tomorrow?’ ‘Iggy wants to come by tomorrow.’ And we just kept calling him and he just kept showing up. Everything he threw at him he would do it, he was just having a blast. It would always crack me up to see Iggy Pop hanging around the set with an 8-year-old kid.”
McRobb said that although they were able to get such great guest stars he was rarely able to get up the nerve to interact with them. “We had so many amazing guest stars from Iggy Pop to Michael Stipe and people always wonder what it was like and how it felt and what went down with those guys.” McRobb said. “And I was always so nervous I never talked to anybody at any point for any reason. And Stipe was the first guy that I didn’t talk to.” Hardy Rawls, who portrayed Don Wrigley, had his own memory of one of his famous costars. “Iggy [Pop] was such a great guy. Here’s this hard rocker who’s the nicest man in the world! But I love it when he comes up to me and goes, ‘That Artie guy’s really weird.’ ” Toby Huss, who played Artie beamed, “I didn’t know that. I freaked out Iggy Pop, that’s alright.”
Two decades after the show was on the air, the legacy of ‘Pete & Pete’ remains in tact as one of the most well-written kids shows of all time. The cast and creators were asked to reflect on why the show was so special and each spoke about what they think made the show such an enduring piece of television.
“We shot every single episode differently from the previous one,” co-creator Chris Viscardi said, trying to pinpoint the show’s lasting appeal. “Different directors brought their own style to it. No two episodes looked the same. And I think it was really different for the audience to see. Every week you literally had no idea what you were going to get. We just did it because it felt right but I can imagine for fans watching the show it added an sense of eccentricity to it, really made it stand out and look different and be different from everything else on the air.” Judy Grafe who played Joyce Wrigley, pointed to the show’s outsider status as a reason for its appeal. “What I got from people who I knew who watched the show was that it celebrated those of you who feel different from the rest of the world,” she said.
Director Katherine Dieckmann thought it came down to the writing. “The show started with Will’s script,” she said. “I came to the show directing these 60 second scripts and they were so beautifully written in this completely bizarre way. They were emotional but they also had these really completely surrealistic details and to me, the ethos of ‘Pete & Pete’ started with the writing. [For] the tone of it and the unusual juxtapositions we tried to find the visual style that went with that and the kids that fit that tone. We started using these bizarre stock music pieces and pull out all these old corny cues and layer them in like classical music then indie song and a weird brass ad sting from the ’50s. I think that whole instinct and the music we used came out of Will’s writing.”
But it was co-creator Will McRobb who summed it up best, “There aren’t too many shows that are about growing up. As weird as the stories were, they really at heart take the little things of growing up and make them really big,” he said. “Let’s take what was great and find a way to make it as magnificent as possible. Because when you’re a kid that stuff’s really important, as you get older it just doesn’t seem as important. We were adults at the time, at least ostensibly, and we did not want to lose sight of those things that made childhood great. We sort of dedicated the show to our own childhoods and it feels like a show that was nostalgic when we made it. Now the people who watched it are nostalgic about a nostalgic show. That’s like a supernova of nostalgia.” He then addressed the crowd saying, “I think you’re all at an age where you’re getting nostalgic about your own childhood’s and that’s why there’s so many people here.” McRobb concluded with a sentiment from the show that perfectly encapsulated its appeal. “I think the Artie goodbye episode encapsulated what we were trying to do. There was this great line, I didn’t write it [but it goes], ‘Artie made the world a little bit weirder and a little bit better,’ and I think that’s what the show tried to do.”