Exploring The Adventures Of Pete And Pete’s genesis and highlights (Part 1 of 4) 

Exploring The Adventures Of Pete And Pete’s genesis and highlights (Part 1 of 4) 

More than 20 years after The Adventures Of Pete And Pete’s first episode aired on Nickelodeon, the series is finally getting its due. Thousands of tweens watching back then—members of The A.V. Club staff included—have grown into smart, Internet-friendly adults who have rediscovered the children’s show and its weird, wonderful world. Pete And Pete’s Wellsville is much like Parks And Recreation’s Pawnee or Community’s Greendale in its eccentricity and depth of character. Like its modern-day, adult-oriented counterparts, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete is a love letter to individuality and self-discovery—with lots of oddball twists and loveable turns along the way.

Over the past year, The A.V. Club has banged the Pete gong hard, recapping each and every episode as part of T.V. Club Classic and even organizing a sold-out cast and crew reunion in New York City. Now, as part of the Walkthrough series, The A.V. Club talks to the show’s creators, Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, about 15 of our favorite episodes. Today’s installment covers the show’s creation and three of the episodes from the pilot season, “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” “Apocalypse Pete,” and “What We Did On Our Summer Vacation.” Check out part two, part three, and part four.

Valentine’s Day Massacre” (February 9, 1991) 
Big Pete vies for the love of the school's math teacher, Ms. Fingerwood, while fighting off nemesis Open-Face and romantic rival Mr. Beverly.

Will McRobb: There’s a couple interesting parts to how this all got on the air. We were just promo guys for Nickelodeon. We spent our days promoting Mister Ed and Donna Reed and Dennis The Menace, all the shows that were on Nickelodeon at the time. And because Nickelodeon wasn’t so much about, like, crushing Disney—it was just more about, “Let’s make a place that’s great for kids”—there was a lot of time in the commercial break to do image ads, as they were called, which didn’t have to be about the shows. They could just be about, “What is it like to be a kid?” At least that was our interpretation. 

We wanted to do little mini-movies, and Pete And Pete, which originally was about a boy named Pete and his dog named Pete, was born in like the spring of 1989. We initially were going to do it in a cheaper way; it was going to be more like a documentary-style approach, because that was cheaper, and we were going to do that with Adam Bernstein, the director. And then, at my high-school reunion, my 10-year high-school reunion at Ithaca High School that summer, I ran across [film and music-video director] Katherine Dieckmann, who was much cooler than I was in high school. We lived near each other, but even then, she was kind of what she ended up being, which is just like this super-cool, slightly spooky art chick. And I was a guy trying to figure out how to be preppy, so there wasn’t a lot of overlap there. But 10 years on, she was doing R.E.M. videos, and I was feeling like I was the king of Nickelodeon, and we connected. And once Chris met Katherine, it really felt like a great mix, and with Katherine’s input, we decided to make them into movies. We shot them like movies, and we launched ourselves into like 18 or 19 shorts over the course of, two years, Chris? 

Chris Viscardi: They would give us money to do three one-minute short films, and then we’d put them all together, and people would respond really positively. And they’d give us money to do two more, and then they’d give us money to do three more… So it just kind of dragged out for about two years.

WM: And then along the way, we had different villains. We got to experiment a lot with different things, and a couple of the 60s [60-second films] actually ended up turning into shows, like “Apocalypse Pete,” which is about a feud between two dads who start off racing a real car vs. a remote-control car; that was a 60 for its first incarnation. “Day Of The Dot” was a 60, and I’m sure there were a few more, but that kind of set the groundwork for what eventually became the special.

What was great about “Valentine’s Day” was that it didn’t go through the programming department; it was still under the fiefdom of the promo department. And back in those days, programming was just this big lumbering machine that made the shows and had a million people giving input, just like it is now. It wasn’t designed for speed [Laughs.] or creativity, really, and the promo department was just this little punk division in the midst of all this more corporate stuff, so it was free to do what it wanted to do. And in a way, it’s probably unprecedented; I doubt it’s ever happened again: The promo division was given permission to make a show. [Laughs.] Basically, they said, “Well, you’ve made 29 minute-long pieces, why don’t you just make a show now?” And our identity was really caught up at the time with being the little guys in the promo department who did things that nobody else could do, and we put that spirit into making “Valentine’s Day,” which—the funny thing about that is, if you compare that to any other one of the half-hour shows, it really was like six 30 [second]- to minute-long stories all crammed together. It’s a ton of story, a ton of voiceover; it was much faster and more complicated and more all over the place than any of the other shows, and that’s just because we were trying to make the transition from minute-long shows to a 30-minute show. And I think our mentality was, “Let’s just make one gigantic 60-second-long story, and expand it into 30 minutes.” 

CV: We didn’t have any real guidance from people who had made shows before. So we just did what felt right, which was, like Will said, just an expanded version of the 60s. And, yeah, we didn’t know how to write that; Will didn’t know how to write it in a proper half-hour script format; we didn’t really know how to produce it, other than the way we did those 60-second shorts. [Laughs.] So that’s the way we approached it. We were incredibly naïve—delightfully naïve—just because it was a completely different form of storytelling. And also, what’s interesting about it is, like the short films, we made this “Valentine’s Day Massacre” episode, but we never thought we’d get the chance to make more, just like when we were making the 60-second short films. We never really felt like we were going to get a chance to make more, so we would just try to put everything in there that we could, and then, like the 60s, more half-hour specials came along after a little while. 

WM: Each show we successively did was a better story because they—it’s like your first record you make, where you have to put everything you’ve ever felt into your first record. I think that’s what “Valentine’s Day” was. And then after that, your second and third and others—you start to realize you can take a breath and maybe bring more artistic control to your work. We loved them all, but when you’re asking us to super-analyze them, it’s easy to talk about it this way. But I will say this: Along the way, there were so many different moments where the show could have died, and we just got lucky breaks again and again. I mean, we would have never had a chance to do the “Valentine’s Day” special if the 60s hadn’t been so popular. And the 60s won a whole bunch of awards along the way, and that always gets people’s attention. I don’t think we would have done another special if the “Valentine’s Day” special hadn’t won an ACE [CableACE] award for Best Kids’ Show. 

CV: They used to have the ACE awards, which were the cable’s Emmys—and somehow, some way, the one half-hour special that we did, “Valentine’s Day,” was nominated into the Best Children’s Television Series category, even though there was just one. [Laughs.] I don’t know how, but we won for Best Children’s Series even though there was just one episode, and Will’s right; we probably would not have made more if it hadn’t won. And it was a really big deal back at the time, because Nickelodeon had never won an ACE award, I don’t think, for any of their shows. I could be wrong about that, but the executives were certainly acting like they had never won before. It was a really big deal, and I think there were so many people at the executive level that were really champions of Pete And Pete just because it came from in-house. They didn’t really maybe know what to make of it, but they knew that everybody thought it was pretty cool. That didn’t hurt, also, in us getting a little bit more money to make two more specials after that.

WM: And just jumping ahead to give the real story about how it went from specials to a series, despite doing five specials and having won an award and have each special, I think, do pretty well in getting critical acclaim, Nickelodeon still would not have gone to series without a producer that had done shows for them. I think he was doing [The Secret World Of] Alex Mack at the time—Tommy Lynch, who’s a friend of ours and became like the ultimate friend of the show. He was putting together a deal with Nickelodeon to do more shows; he saw the specials and said, “Well, how come this isn’t a series?” And we’re like, “Well, you know, they work fine in specials, but we’re not sure we want to invest in it as a series.” And he’s like, “Well, hell, if I’m making a deal with you guys, I want this to be one of the shows. I will turn this into a show; I will be the executive producer of this show and get it on the air.” And at that point, [Nickelodeon] thought, “Well, if Tommy Lynch thinks it’s good enough to make into a series, why should we give it to him? Maybe we’ll make it.” And that’s the real story. It took somebody else wanting to make it for them to think, “Well, maybe we’ll make it,” and that’s really what got it to the first season. 

AVC: So much of the show’s success relies on the casting. If the Petes hadn’t been who they ended up being, or if Ellen was less of an everygirl, it would have been a completely different show. What was the casting process? 

CV: I think we’d done enough casting over the years to know you know it when you see it.  It totally passes the eye test. [Laughs.] And with Danny [Tamberelli], for Little Pete, he just came in the room, and he was the kid. He just had that kind of firecracker quality to him; he was funny, and he was adorable, and he was small, and you just know it. The kid had a certain electricity to him. And with Michael [Maronna, Big Pete], there are many things we could say about Michael with the casting, but his energy was just very different than Danny, and the contrast between them was very funny. Michael was definitely much more cerebral—not that Danny’s not smart, but he just approaches things in much more of a cerebral way. He’s a little bit more sarcastic and wry and dry; you contrast that with Daniel and his character, who’s just a little bit more of a punch-you-in-the-face kind of kid—it was just a pretty great combination, and I don’t know if we knew right away that Michael was the one, but we definitely knew he was in the top two or three.

And then we just kept casting. Then we found Alison [Fanelli] for Ellen, and we knew right away when we saw her, because she was just so different and so quirky and so charming, and so much like a little adorable girl-next-door. So casting can be a brutal process, because you can see hundreds upon hundreds of people who are just wrong the minute you lay your eyes on them, but then somebody walks through the door, and it’s like, “Hallelujah. That’s the one.” [Laughs.] And I feel like in our career, 95 percent of the time, you know as soon as you see the person. 

WM: And sometimes it can even change what you had in mind for the show. A lot of times, the person you find can shift what you originally intended to do. You work with what you find. You could discover something you never thought existed, then realize, “Well, we’ve got to change the show to fit this character, just because it’s going to be better with it; working around this person and this talent is more important than our original idea.” What the show really is, if you boil it down—other than trying to tell a story the way kids tell stories—was, “Let’s tell stories about two brothers who are five years apart who are really good friends.” And in a lot of the early 60s and a lot of the early half-hour shows, Big Pete is kind of telling heroic stories about his little brother. He’s almost like the storyteller, and Little Pete’s the hero of the story, so he kind of looks up to his little brother and all the amazing things he can do. I don’t think we initially thought, “We’ve got to find an older brother who’s really deadpan and wide-eyed and matter-of-fact,” but that’s what Michael was, and it really shaped how we ended up telling the stories.

AVC: The whole premise of the show is based in a world that’s a little absurd. In “Valentine’s Day,” for example, the school’s mascot is a squid, and the line-painter is in love with the math teacher. How did you take a show about two brothers, put it in a strange world, and have everything make sense?

WM: Well, as we’ve learned in trying to make shows that were like Pete And Pete post-Pete And Pete, the reason Pete And Pete succeeds, with its mixture of sentimentality and absurdity and nostalgia and adventurous comedy, is that it’s told through kids’ point of view, and if you try to do Pete And Pete through an adult’s point of view, it doesn’t work as well. I think we felt like we’d found a really good voice in the 60s, because the 60s were like, we were trying to make movies in a minute, so everything was smashed together, and everything had the same weight to it. Completely absurd things were right next to things that were completely normal. I was thinking about the 60 where Pete’s cutting the grass, and it just seems like a story about a boring summer job, and right in the middle, he seems to blow up a car with his mind, and then you just go right on to like, “Hey, Ellen.” “Hey! Let’s go have a popsicle.” And that kind of mix just felt perfect to us, and reflected a lot of influences that we felt inspired us. It felt like we’d found a way to do it our own way in the 60s, and we’d just try to find a way to carry that forward into the half-hour shows. What everyone loves about the tone is purely a product of the nature of making something that’s 60 seconds long.

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CV: There’s something even more organic about it all; I don’t think we set out to make something off-center and weird and really different from everything else. I think everything from the squid as the mascot to Nona’s cast to the kind of music to the line-painter at school being in love with the math teacher, and the bully—all those things just made us laugh, and things that came out of a shared sensibility that Will and I and certainly Katherine Dieckmann had. So I think we were really just doing things that amused us and entertained us, and that we thought were funny. I don’t think—Will, maybe you differ—but I never approached it consciously like, “Ah, we have to try to do this, because then it’s really going to be different from everything else that’s out there.” I just think those are a shared sensibility that we had that made us laugh, and things that made us think, “Oh, that’s kind of weird and cool; let’s try that.” Maybe as the seasons went on, when you’re put in a position where you’re forced to be more aware of the things you’ve done, and you’re forced to be more aware of other kids’ shows that are out there, there probably is more consciousness in it. But certainly at the beginning, it was like, “Yeah, that’s funny! Let’s do that!” [Laughs.] Why not have a squid be a mascot? Why not?

WM: I think even the stories that seem the strangest, when you boil it down, the entry point’s actually pretty normal. I was just thinking about “Valentine’s Day”; what that show really is about is something we’ve all felt, when you’re like 12 and you get a crush on your teacher. That’s right out of the big book of things you feel when you’re a kid. That’s the starting point for a story that ended up getting pretty warped when you bring the bully into it, and it ends up being this love triangle with all these conspiracies and bullies with supervillain Dick Tracy names and so on. But really, at the core, it’s like [Laughs.], “I love my teacher, and she doesn’t know, and she just thinks of me as a kid.” And typically, we would try to come at it from a feeling angle, like what are the big feelings you have when you were that age? And man, having a crush on a teacher was a big one, and I think everything just spiraled out from there. 

CV: Something we definitely were aware of and wanted to do and pushed [for] as much as we could at the time was, we all really loved the idea of taking things in the kid world that are relatively everyday and blowing them up until they were very mythic. Taking something like those things that Will’s just described—whether it’s a crush, or the way you interact with your brother, or a mascot—something that seems really normal and seeing how far we could go with playing it on a much more mythic level. That was definitely a conscious thing we had in mind, but a lot of it came out of just a sensibility that we had.

WM: And one last thing—we’ve gotten to know our audience as they’ve turned into 26-, 27-, 28-year-olds. I think the reason these [recent reunion] events feel like love-ins is because we were that age when we were making the show. That’s the age where you start to really get nostalgic about your childhood. You go through all the stages you have to go through: hating your childhood, hating your parents, wanting to be something different, all those things that go along with your maturation as a human being. But then I think you hit a point in your late 20s [Laughs.] where you really get nostalgic about those things that were so safe and secure about your childhood. So we were writing it from that perspective, and I guess it’s ultimately no surprise that everybody who’s grown up is feeling that way now, because they’re at that age where we were writing the show.

Apocalypse Pete” (1992) 
The Petes’ dad, Don Wrigley, and Ellen’s dad, Phil Hickle, start a prank war. While Little Pete uses his penchant for hijinks to get closer to Don, Big Pete and Ellen find their relationship in peril.

AVC: On a lot of kids’ shows, it’s always about how adults are buffoons, how they hold kids back, and so on. But on Pete And Pete, the Petes had good relationships with at least some adults, even if it was sometimes difficult. “Apocalypse Pete” is a good example.

CV: I think that’s true. The core of that story is a little kid who doesn’t feel his father understands him. Or you could flip it, and you say it’s about a father who has a little son he doesn’t understand. [Laughs.] And the father tries, and the son tries, but they cannot find a common ground; that’s a pretty common thing, and a very accessible thing. A lot of it is quite universal, and again, it kind of goes back to that earlier comment we had about taking something that seems pretty everyday and making it mythic. It’s like, “Okay, that’s a pretty great dynamic that we know Little Pete can have with his dad; what can we do with that? What can we do to play that out on a much bigger suburban canvas?” 

I don’t know where the inspiration was for the little car and the big car racing, but once that came into play, it just became a story about how a father and son who really don’t connect, connect in ways that are very detrimental to the family, to the neighborhood, and ultimately themselves before they realize what they’ve done. From my point of view, it was really an exploration of that through-line, seeing where we could go with it, seeing how that relationship between the father and son could really affect everybody in the family.

WM: When you’re a kid, your parents are a real mystery to you. Beyond just the way you interact with them, it’s just like, “What is a parent? What do they think about?” I didn’t know what my dad did for a living till I was like 12. He would tell me, but all I knew was, he went and worked in a building. And there’s that mystery of things like drinking coffee and going to work and jokes that your parents tell that you don’t understand for 10 years because you don’t get the double entendres. And I think we were trying to get at that, too, in that episode because you’re a kid, and these two grownups are having this rivalry about this race, and they’re so serious about it, and there’s so much antagonism about it. It’s just an exaggerated way of looking at how adults can behave. They’re supposed to be the people in charge who know everything, but if you look a little closer, you can see they don’t really have it figured out, and they’re just as immature and backward as anybody else. That’s part of that discovery path you’re on as a kid, realizing your parents don’t know everything. 

AVC: Another big part of this episode was the casting of Steve Buscemi as Ellen’s dad, Phil Hickle.

CV: At the time, Steve was kind of a downtown New York theater and movie actor who had some acclaim, but mostly in the New York City downtown film world—

WM: I think his partner was Mark Boone. They would do performance art.

CV: It was great to get Steve, because we had all seen him in certain things, but it wasn’t until a few years after he was on the show that his career totally blew up. So we definitely got him in the early days. We were really lucky, even after his career blew up, that he would come back and do a couple more episodes of the show. I mean, that was mindboggling to us that he would want to do it, but he really enjoyed it, and he was friends with Katherine Dieckmann. So it was a thrill to get him, but at the time, again, it seemed like, “Okay, great! Cool, we’ve got Steve Buscemi!” But we weren’t all doing backflips about it, because his career hadn’t blown up yet. 

WM: When we think of that show, I think getting Steve Buscemi—at least the way I remember it and react to that show—Steve Buscemi is like in fourth place in things that are amazing about that show, first place always being that we were allowed to blow up that car in midair. I think I still have like an eighth-grader’s view of what was great about that show. [Laughs.]

CV: I think, to me—this is nothing against Steve, I mean, Steve’s great—but I was so much more excited to have Martin Donovan on the show [as a crossing guard]. Because we were such Hal Hartley fans at the time, and Martin was in one of our favorite Hal Hartley movies, and we were working with a couple of crew members of the Hal Hartley world—we got a lot more of them much later on when we went to series—but we got Martin for a day, and he would love to smoke onscreen, which still makes me laugh.

WM: That’s true. Everybody talks about the music of the show; we basically could put on any song that we liked that we could afford, and at the time, everything that we liked that wasn’t huge, we could afford, so there were no restrictions on that. And it was the same with casting. We loved Martin Donovan in [the 1990 movie] Trust. That’s one of our favorite deadpan—and yet wildly broad—comedies, and we basically said, “Let’s have him play…” It was the same thing with Damian Young. If you think about his performance in Simple Men, that’s basically the starting point for [bus driver] Stu [Benedict]. How often can you take a character you love from a movie, just slightly revise it, and then plug him into kids’ show? [Laughs.] That was really fun.

CV: “Apocalypse” is one of my favorite half-hour specials, because I think you can see, if you dissect that show, story and production-wise, you can see us starting to settle in as storytellers and as moviemakers in that episode. The story is cleaner, it’s easier to track, there aren’t as many loose ends, and there’s a great build to that story. I feel like everyone was working on all cylinders—or as many cylinders as we had available to us back then—and there’s a real craftsmanship in that episode. Not that “Valentine’s Day” and some of the others prior to that did not have—but I could definitely see us starting to settle into what the show was going to be in a way that felt a little less ragged than it did in some of the other episodes. 

WM: I think that’s because it was the first show where Artie [Toby Huss] and Little Pete were like a team. He was in [the episode] “Summer Vacation,” but he was more just a wild-card character that just shows up. In that episode, they’re clearly co-conspirators, and that’s where that began to happen.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation” (May 17, 1992) 
After the Petes and Ellen unintentionally drive ice-cream man and local hero Mr. Tastee from town by asking too many personal questions, the trio tries to bring him back before summer ends.

AVC: Didn’t Toby also play Mr. Tastee in “What We Did On Our Summer Vacation”? 

CV: The physical body of Mr. Tastee is Toby, and there’s a gentleman—I apologize for not remembering his name—who did the voice of Mr. Tastee; we laid in that voice afterward. There were many Mr. Tastees over the years. I played Mr. Tastee once in an insert shot where I was waving in an episode. Somebody else from the crew did it once as well; whenever we couldn’t get Toby to be on set, people like myself would just don the head and the outfit and do what we needed to do. But yeah, that first time ever, it was definitely Toby in there. And if you watch it knowing that it’s Toby, you can kind of see that it’s Toby, because there are just certain Toby Huss mannerisms that Mr. Tastee has. There’s a kind of crispness to the way he moves sometimes [Laughs.], and like a loose-limb quality to some other things he does, which are very, very Huss-like.

WM: That plastic swirly Tastee head was very iconic to the show, and Chris, when you said you wore it once, that made me think; it was always around, and we were always trying to use it. It’s like one of the best props we ever built. There was something evocative and slightly haunting about that thing, and in terms of talismanic props from the show, that’s got to be on the top of the list. But I remember, like eight years after the show was over, I had to go to the locker in New York where all the Pete And Pete crap had been stored; all the paperwork, all the props, just all the leftover stuff that had been shoved into this small compartment basically to rot until someone decided what to do with it. And I had to go in there and find some ancient documents, and there it was in there, the head. It was just this big industrial storage facility, and I had never worn the head before, so I put it on, and it must have been quite a sight to see me in there with just the head on, looking through boxes and looking for files. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you still have it?

WM: The head has disappeared into the mists of history. I don’t know what happened to it. 

AVC: Did you land Michael Stipe to play Captain Scrummy because of Katherine Dieckmann’s connections to the band? 

WM: Yeah, that was probably another pivotal moment on the show. Stipe—I mean, who could be cooler? And he played a role that was really weird, and he played it his own way. I think once people saw that, they’re like, you know, “I’d like to do that, too.” Katherine and he were pretty tight at the time, and I don’t know how she talked him into it—he’s notoriously shy about doing stuff like that. How many cameos has Michael Stipe done in his whole career? I can’t think of too many, but he did that, and we’ll never forget it.


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