The Adventures Of Pete And Pete creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi recently spoke with The A.V. Club about 15 episodes of their mid-’90s cult-hit show. Following part one, this section covers four episodes from the series’ first season: “Day Of The Dot,” “The Nightcrawlers,” “Tool And Die,” and “Hard Day’s Pete.” Check out part one, part three, and part four.
After being selected to dot the “I” in “Squid” in a marching-band competition, Ellen pulls away from Pete. Pete tries to bring her back to the way of the weird, but nothing works until he harnesses the power of pure nuclear energy.
The A.V. Club: “Day Of The Dot” is kind of the beginning of the Ellen and Pete romance story, if there’s a romance to speak of.
Will McRobb: If you watch the very first 60 [60-second film] when they were really little, we established the language of “you’re a girl and you’re a friend, but you’re not a girlfriend.” That was in the very, very beginning, this idea that she wanted more from him than he wanted her. And “Valentine’s Day” was obviously very much about that, so we had built that into the show’s DNA from the very beginning. And “Day Of The Dot” was the first show we shot for the series, and we decided to dig in deeper into that story. Though we probably shouldn’t have had them kiss in the very first episode of the very first season [Laughs.]
Chris Viscardi: Was that episode one?
WM: It was the second one we aired but the first one we shot.
All of us had been working on the show for five years at that point, and we were like, “I know it’s the first episode,” or the second episode, “but we’ve got to get them to kiss.” [Laughs.] We’re just like, “We’ve been waiting so long,” to get them to kiss, we didn’t care. For the audience it was the first or second episode; to us, it’s like a moment five years in the making. So, Joe Stillman wrote that episode, one of the unsung heroes of the show. He wrote most of the episodes that people remember best. And, we basically said, “This is that episode where they’re going to kiss,” and I think we just tried to figure out how to get to that ending with the story that we told. And we had “The Dot” the 60; we loved that existential idea of someone wanting to be a dot and inhabit a dot, and I think that launched us into making a marching-band story.
CV: It’s also a pretty good example of really not knowing how to tell stories when it comes to series television, because if you look at the Pete and Ellen trajectory prior to that, it was inconsistent at best. [Laughs.] In the “Apocalypse Pete” episode, there’s a pretty wrenching story in the middle of that about how they were separated, and Ellen was writing him love notes, and he was getting these love notes through Martin Donovan. [Laughs.] It was all this angst about how they were unable to be with one another. And some of the other specials and 60s, we play with that as well. And then here we are where we get our first order for a series, and cardinal rule No. 1 when it comes to romantic stories in a series, like Sam and Diane in Cheers: Never get them together, because once you get them together, there’s a certain magic that’s gone. But we didn’t know that. Like Will was saying, it was like, “Sure! We’ve got to have them kiss!”
WM: I think we did know that, we just didn’t care. [Laughs.] We just had to do it.
CV: And then we had them kiss in that episode, and then we’d pull them apart again and pull them back together over the course of the next couple years. [Laughs.] I think, looking back at it, we probably would not have done it the same way we would now, but that’s what made it probably great, that we didn’t know, and we didn’t really care, but we just felt like it was right.
AVC: Damian Young was great in “Day Of The Dot,” as bus driver Stu Benedict.
WM: Yeah, that was his debut. Toby as Artie deserves the spotlight as the star weirdo, but I think Damian is a very close second as Driver Stu. He brought, in every episode that he was in, other than just his obsessive and peculiar behavior, that real lovelorn quality, which just made him so sympathetic. This one moment always comes to mind that I love: He’s talking to Sally while he’s in his bus, you know, talking to her over the bus microphone, and she’s listening to what he has to say and kind of falling in love with him, and then there’s this overhead shot where the buses kind of inch a little closer together. It’s just two buses moving toward each other, but in the context of that show, there’s something so crazily romantic about it. I always loved how that ended up just feeling like something epic; it’s just two buses moving 2 feet closer to each other.
CV: I think one of the things I’m really proud about that episode is, back when we made that show, the fact that an African-American woman is kissing a white guy on a kids’ show that goes on Nickelodeon was certainly not something that you had seen before. And to the credit of almost all the executives at Nickelodeon, I don’t think they ever said a word about it, but you just knew that it was something that made a number of them pretty uncomfortable. [Laughs.]
WM: Well if you think about it, think of any show that was on Nickelodeon at the time, or maybe since; there’s this big scene where two grown people run toward each other and, like, make out, you know? Forget the fact that they’re of different color. [Laughs.] Sometimes you forget that that just wasn’t something you would typically see on any show.
CV: But it’s a good example of how we really did try to make the show work on two levels, both for kids and adults. And obviously we were wise enough in our innocence [Laughs.] to know that kids would not want to watch a show about two grown adults in love, but we knew that if we kept it lighthearted and funny and silly that kids would laugh at it and laugh along with it. And if they could really feel something for what this guy is going through, all the better. But we all knew that adults would really love it, and it would give them an extra reason to want to watch the show, and that’s definitely something we tried to do throughout the full run of making the series; just try to find ways to have parents who are watching the show, or older siblings who are watching the show with the audience who the show is really for, find something in it that was really for them and get a kick out of it, too.
WM: I would say, Chris, just thinking about that episode, that generally says to me we weren’t thinking too much about, “What’s a kid going to like? What’s an adult going to like?” And maybe that’s why the show always remained kind of a cult show and never really broke out with its ratings, because in this episode alone, you’ve got two separate love stories, one between two teenagers and then two adults. But this central metaphor to the kids’ story is an actual atomic reaction where we actually show molecules combining. That’s theoretically the kids’ story, but who could follow that metaphor? But it just didn’t matter at the time. That’s why I think it’s lived on—if we had half the attention then that we’ve been getting now, we probably would have been on a few more seasons.
CV: And one final note on that episode that I think is worth mentioning: The character that helped give that show so much appeal, at least to me, is the town of Bayonne, New Jersey. The football field, the bleachers, the Kill Van Kull [a tidal strait between Staten Island and Bayonne]. There’s a certain feel of that kind of New Jersey town that is kind of beautiful, and kind of sad, and kind of lonely. Even when it’s sunny, it’s not completely sunny; there’s always something a little bit shaded about it. I definitely feel like in that episode, more than in some of the others, it really comes through in shining colors, and I always feel like I’m in a really interesting place when I watch that episode.
WM: That’s true. There was a lot of personality to those New Jersey towns that we worked in.
CV: And that’s the glory of and the benefit of shooting a show on location and trying to get the most that you can out of that. Really, it was like shooting a show like you were shooting a movie and not worrying too much about what the next episode was going to look like.
WM: We shot those shows for like, $250,000 each, which is a ridiculously low number. We didn’t think so at the time, but later on we were definitely trying to do other shows for other people; you couldn’t do two days for $250,000. The whole operation had a guerilla feel to it. [Laughs.] I laugh now because Dan Fisher, the prop guy who’s had such a big voice in responding to the episode recaps you’ve done for The A.V. Club—through people like him I’m finally getting the real story of just what a brutal job it was for everybody who had to work for these really long hours and terrible wages. It just brings to mind the reality of what it took to make that show for such a small amount of money and the sacrifices that people made; that didn’t even really occur to me at the time.
Annoyed by years of arbitrary bedtimes and stupid parental rules, Little Pete and his friends try to buck the system by staying up for 11 nights straight and thus breaking the world record.
CV: We shot that one in all nights. After my rhapsodic run about Bayonne, I can’t remember—where’d we shoot that, Will?
WM: Leonia, maybe?
CV: Cranston, maybe?
WM: Cranston? Cranford?
CV: No, we weren’t in the Oranges? I don’t know. Who knows? We never had any sets. Everything was shot on location. Maybe we built a little bit of a set inside somebody’s house, but we never had sets that were built for the show at all. Yeah, so we did shoot that all on location—
WM: But there’s really strict rules about how late you can work with kids, so it wasn’t like we stayed up all night to shoot it. We probably could only work until, like, 8:00 or something. Or did we start late? Maybe we just started the days late and worked until midnight. How did we do it?
CV: Yeah, I think that’s the way we did it. It was also maybe the summertime when we shot it, so we had a little bit more leeway. We were shooting that show on location in New Jersey in suburban towns and didn’t really know what it was like to have a production there. And we would shoot late into the night. You do that for about eight to 10 weeks, and when that’s over, the last thing that town wants is for you to come back, which is why we shot in a different town in New Jersey every single season. We had a different house for the Wrigleys every single season because we just kind of got run out of town by the townsfolk by the time that season was over. [Laughs.]
WM: These 10-million-watt Klieg lights lighting up the entire half of a town on a Thursday night started to wear people down who were trying to get some sleep.
AVC: How long did it take to film an episode?
WM: Five days. Sometimes we would do a sixth day, but it was typically Monday through Friday. And there were aspects of making the show that were just like making a real show. You needed a script ready two weeks before you shot it; it got prepped, and then that got shot. It’s not like we just made one [episode] here and made one there. We had a pretty strict and pretty difficult schedule to meet, and for three seasons, somehow we did it; we certainly didn’t have a very big staff, but it was regular episodic TV-making when it actually came down to the schedule and how we had to shoot it and edit it and put it on the air.
AVC: Danny Tamberelli as Little Pete really shines in “Nightcrawlers” in particular.
WM: I think the kids were growing up in different ways, and who knows if a fourth season would have even been any good, based on how quickly the kids were growing up and how they were changing. But for my money, Little Pete prime time, where he’s just the right age to do everything you need to do, was that first season. In “Nightcrawlers,” he was still cute and he was still little, but he had grown up enough so that he could actually play dramatic. He was mostly just a fountain of great one-liners for a while, but in that episode he was really acting. And he was also a little kid, so I love that period of Little Pete, that first year of the show, because he was in that perfect place.
CV: But in terms of “Nightcrawlers,” I wrote that episode, and I always kind of gravitated more toward the Little Pete stories. There were a couple things I remember we were definitely wanting to explore a bit more, which we did in that episode. We had not really done that much with Mom as a character, in terms of giving her a lot more of a storyline, so that was certainly an inspiration for it. And I think we also really liked the notion of what we could do with Little Pete and Artie and some other of Little Pete’s friends from the neighborhood. And that was an episode where we explored both of those things, and, again, took something that was mundane, like being told to go to bed and not wanting to do it, and turning it into something much more mythic. I can’t even remember if any or all of those friends that Little Pete had in that episode came back for other episodes? Maybe one or two?
WM: I think Mort Mortenson’s in that episode?
CV: Mort [played by Carlton Beener] came back, and Clem [played by Aaron Schwartz] came back. But I don’t know if the others did. Obviously Artie did.
WM: What’s the name of that actress who ended up in the Todd Solondz movie?
CV: Heather Matarazzo.
WM: She was in a couple episodes [as Natasha].
CV: There was an element that we kind of played with a little bit but always talked about, and this was an episode where we pushed further into the forefront, and that was the whole notion of the International Adult Conspiracy, this group of adults who would decide how to keep their hands on kids and keep them down, keep them orderly. And we had fun exploring all those ideas in this episode.
Big Pete is forced to take shop class, where his approach to Danish Modern furniture-making isn’t exactly appreciated. While Ellen thrives, Pete must figure out how to win over diabolical classmate Endless Mike and teacher Mr. Slurm without losing any appendages to a table saw.
WM: I’ll just say one thing about that, because when I think of that show, which is one of my favorites, I think it has some of the best directing that we ever had. Peter Lauer directed that episode. We had our four or five directors we used again and again, and Peter directed probably three or four episodes—but that one is a real master’s class in working. Most of it was shot in a shop class, and there’s just something so artful and beautiful—there’s just kind of a cinematic feeling to that episode that I think in its own way is among the better episodes we ever shot, and I think that the way he shot it made the gripping tale we were telling even more gripping, just because it felt so real.
CV: We had loved working with Peter prior to that, and I had worked with Peter a few times when we were back in the promo days at Nickelodeon. He was a promo producer for MTV, and Peter had a certain style that really fit our show, but all of that really came together with us and Peter on “Tool And Die”—as well as “Halloweenie,” which is another one that Peter directed—but there could not have been a more perfect director for that story than Peter. And I remember that episode he really helped story-wise quite a bit more than directors often did because he was so familiar with being a shop-class kid himself, and really being in the tools, just how to use that stuff in a way that could really help us maximize the kind of gloomy, creepy interior of that space, and use those saws and things in terrifying ways.
And then we got Jude Ciccolella to play Mr. Slurm, and he was a really great actor who elevated the level of all the actors around him, particularly Michael. And the addition of Rick Gomez as Endless Mike was also great. He could not have been better in that episode. What’s interesting is when you think of that episode, it was a great Big Pete episode, really took place in the world of Big Pete. And it was a situation that we often find ourselves in, where we’re like, “Okay, now how do we put Little Pete in the episode?” Or sometimes we’d have the reverse, like with “Nightcrawlers.” “Okay, we’ve got Little Pete and all these great kids and this great story. What the hell do we do with Michael?” I love “Tool And Die,” but the Little Pete part of that story I often feel was tacked on.
WM: What, selling the insurance?
CV: We were just trying to wedge him into the story in a way that was ultimately amusing, but you take that out, and the story’s still pretty great.
WM: Something The A.V. Club said [in the recaps] about that episode really resonated with me, which was that it’s a story about a whiny teenager who just doesn’t give a shit about a certain class and is prepared to just not try. And I don’t think we were thinking about that when we were putting it together, but in every episode there was some lesson that was learned. [Laughs.] The lesson of that one was: “Hey, try! Try something that you maybe don’t think you’re that good at. Give a little more effort, you whiny bastard.” I think that was great that we could take our characters and not necessarily have them be so heroic in every episode.
After Little Pete hears the greatest song ever mysteriously pumping out of a neighborhood garage, he worries he’ll never be able to hear it again. He starts a band, The Blowholes, to try and figure out the song and recapture that memory.
CV: I remember we had a list of things that just kind of made us laugh or amused us, and I think one of the things on the list that you had had, Will, was just: What happens when you get a song stuck in your head? And I think we had a slightly different version of it, where it was kind of driving him crazy for a while, but that always seemed like a real kind of kid notion, just like, “Where does that song come from? It just pops into your head all of the sudden.” I think this story grew out of that notion.
WM: We always talk about how one of our goals in the show was to put mystery back into kids’ lives, because everything is so over-explained. That situation’s far worse now than it was back then, because there isn’t anything a kid doesn’t know about how things are actually done. And it just has a way of demystifying everything, and we were trying to mystify things more. So that idea that you saw a band, and for 10 seconds they changed your life, and then they just disappeared, never to be seen again, maybe they weren’t even real to begin with. I think that was one of our attempts to really create some suburban mystery; that just took that idea to the furthest degree. And also the idea of a garage band actually playing in a garage just felt like a way to get back to what we always thought was so romantic about the idea of a garage band in the first place.
AVC: The world of media is definitely less mysterious with the Internet. At the time, if you saw some Saturday Night Live sketch you liked, you’d just think, “When and how am I going to see this again? I’ll never know!” Now it’s just, “Oh, I’ll just look it up on YouTube or Google to see what the song was I heard.” At the time there was so much cultural cachet and frustration knowing you saw something that no one else saw.
WM: I think you were mentioning in one of your articles how hard it was to find the show; like it was on SNICK [Nickelodeon’s Saturday-night lineup] for a little while, and then they put it on in the afternoon on Sundays. They didn’t really give it a very high-profile time slot, and it was always changing, so what you’re talking about I think was sadly something that was more a product of Pete And Pete floating around the schedule than we would have liked. But, in retrospect, it added to that feeling of like, “Does this show actually exist?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Polaris has never played live, correct? It exists on the show and that’s it?
WM: They existed on the show, and they made the recordings, and there was a photo shoot [Laughs.], some of the pictures appearing on the back of whatever cereal that was that gave away the cassette, but they never played live. Mark [Mulcahy, who played “Muggy,” of Polaris] has played the songs over the years, but never with the original group. And you know, the two guys in the group—I can only remember their Polaris names: Harris Polaris, and I forget what the drummer’s name was—but both those guys played with Frank Black and the Catholics for many years, and they were pretty well-known for playing with Miracle Legion. I think both those guys have gone on to other things and haven’t played music in a while.
AVC: The Blowholes, Pete’s band, was stacked with talent, too. You had Syd Straw, who had been on the show previously as Ms. Fingerwood, and you had Marshall Crenshaw as Meterman Mel, and then you had Clem, who you said couldn’t drum in real life.
WM: [Laughs.] Syd, we fell in love with her. I’m not sure where we originally even saw her, but she seemed like the Pete-iest of Pete actresses and we were always happy to bring her back. And Marshall Crenshaw, we were just huge fans of his, and he was happy to do it. I don’t know if you got that impression talking to him and hanging out with him in New York [at the recent reunion], but his mind seemed completely blown that, like, some afternoon gig that he just did on a whim because his agent told him to do it in 1994—he could not believe all these years later what it had turned into. I don’t think he was in any way connected to the Pete nation or anything having to do with what it was or what it became, and so he was just like, “What the hell is going on here?” He was completely flummoxed; it was great to see him so surprised.
Check back tomorrow for part three.