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 parts one, two, and three, this section covers three episodes from the series’ third and final season, “Dance Fever,” “Das Bus,” and “Saturday,” the series finale. Check out part one, part two, and part three.
Little Pete, the bravest kid in the whole world, is afraid of dancing. On the eve of his first school dance, he’s called to action to save Nona from the embarrassment of having to dance with her dad.
Will McRobb: That was directed by Alison Maclean, this Australian director who had only done some smaller films. She went on to direct the great Jesus’ Son.
Chris Viscardi: I think Joe Stillman wrote that episode.
WM: It was time to do a high-school dance, and we were lucky to get Luscious Jackson to play. I’m trying to remember what were the highlights and lowlights of that episode.
CV: We really loved Little Pete, Nona, Monica the Kreb Scout, and Wayne the Pain as a foursome. They were just very funny. They played off of one another very well. For Danny, as an actor, those other three characters really gave him somebody to play off of, and we saw a lot of great stuff out of Danny. We were just looking for ways we could explore using those kids, and a school dance is an obvious place to go. We didn’t do too much school stuff. Sometimes we did, but I think we also felt, “Well, maybe there’s a place we can get a cool band to be in the show as well.” So all those things came together in a pretty great way. And Luscious Jackson, yeah, they did a couple of their songs.
The A.V. Club: Big Pete had a crush on one of the ladies in the band.
WM: That’s right, on Gabby [Glaser].
CV: And then Iggy Pop got up there and did some stuff, and I think we were definitely looking for ways we could play with Iggy and Nona in an interesting way. If you know who Iggy Pop is as an adult, the fact that Iggy, in the show, would have a daughter who would be utterly mortified by him, by his rock ’n’ roll qualities, just really made us laugh. I think that played out really, really well.
AVC: There’s an extended chase scene in that episode where Little Pete covers himself in floor wax and slides all over the school.
WM: There’s a chase sequence where he and Pit Stain are chasing each other while sliding through the hallways. Little Pete has a decision to make: “Do I escape and avoid getting beat up, or do I go back into the dance and help out Nona and dance with her so his father doesn’t dance with her?” And he makes the right call.
CV: That’s something that probably most boys shared growing up and being in grade school and middle school: having to go to those dances and just being utterly horrified with the potential that somebody would ask you to dance, that you’d have to get on the dance floor. We felt it was really funny, like, “What if we give that fear to Little Pete, a kid who has no fear whatsoever?” Having him being terrified of dancing just felt like a very funny contrast for that kid. So he was trying to do everything he could to get out of that dance, but eventually he did go back and dance in his own dorky way. It’s kind of charming. [Laughs.]
For career week, Big Pete decides to become a school bus driver to get near his crush. Along the way, he makes friends with Stu Benedict, full-time bus driver and psychopath.
CV: That was an episode where, obviously, we were swinging the story more in the Big Pete direction and trying to play with Career Days and “What do you want to do in the future?” We had our great guest star Selma Blair in that episode.
WM: It features one of my favorite lines ever from that season. During Career Day, Stu is feeling really neglected and resentful and he says, “Why would you want to be a bus driver when you can be a bear?” ’Cause there was a bear behind one of the tables.
CV: Joe Stillman wrote that episode, and it was just a fine piece of work. One of my favorite lines is, “Call it a cake,” when he baked a cake on the engine block. [Laughs.]
WM: And another hall-of-fame line was, of course, “Carrot Top Judas!” That whole sequence where Stu learns of Pete’s betrayal, destroys the cake, and goes on a rampage leading to a montage where he’s flying a kite with all these Catholic schoolgirls running behind him is among the best sequences of the whole series.
CV: Does he jump out of an airplane in that episode?
WM: No, he pushes a pizza guy, and there’s a football game going on and he grabs the football and pushes some people over.
CV: I know at one point in the early draft, which we had to scuttle, his manic state took him into an airplane, and he leapt out of the airplane, and while he was floating to the ground, he saw what Big Pete was doing and kind of landed and caught him. [Laughs.]
I think overall, we wanted to do a Big Pete story and get Ellen in there, and get Big Pete hooked up with another girl and really play with his flirtation with her. It was a good way for us to get both Big Pete and Little Pete in the same story together. But I think we were really also hungry to do something with Damian Young, who played Driver Stu. Everything that guy does made us laugh and continues to make us laugh. I think the notion of going to a school fair and all these tables are filled with a bunch of people interested in lots of careers, and there’s Driver Stu, sitting there at his table. No one wants to be a bus driver until Pete shows up.
WM: One of the great, unscripted moments that actually made it in happens in that episode. It’s at the very end, in the epilogue of that episode, where Pete and Stu have made up and they’re just sitting in the locker room of the depot, and Stu says, “You know, I never liked donuts,” and Pete just starts cracking up. That was totally improvised—it’s a great moment.
CV: That episode and “Last Laugh” and a few others of that season—I think because the third season DVDs never came out—just kind of drifted away in the memory banks, including my own. But I do think about that one and “Last Laugh” being two of my favorite episodes ever, in part because of the great performances we got out of the guest stars, and Damian was one of them. Something about being on that bus, and Pete’s love affair with the girl, and Driver Stu going just completely off-the-wall berserk towards the end—just endless, endless enjoyment for me to watch.
I think also what that episode does well is the whole notion of friendship as an overarching theme, which is something we really explored a whole lot throughout all three seasons of the show. I think this episode was definitely one of the ways we did that with Driver Stu. Driver Stu, as we know, is a pretty lonely guy. He’s always pining for the girl that got away, so he’s a real brokenhearted guy. You definitely got the feeling with Driver Stu that the only thing he had in his life is his bus and the kids that rode the bus. So when he opened up his life a bit and started to mentor Big Pete, and when Big Pete hurts Stu, it’s really funny and really kind of painful. It was a great way to explore friendship. Like, “You let me down,” in a way that’s kind of unexpected.
WM: It’s seems like the thing about Stu is that he’s kind of a complicated character. Everything you just said about him, Chris, makes me love him more than ever, like how much he cares about his job, and he lives by that motto of niceness and loyalty and friendship. He’s clearly a guy that is sincere as it gets, but at the same time, as in “Yellow Fever,” he’s not a big fan of kids acting up on the bus. There’s that sequence in “Das Bus” where he turns up the feedback just so the kids recoil with the sound. He tortures them to keep them in line, so he has that dark side, too.
CV: It’s funny, because Artie and Driver Stu are the twin pillars of adult weirdness in the show. With Artie, to me it was always a more comfortable weirdness, because whatever position you take on whether he was real or imagined or what, he was crazy. Because he’d already crossed the line into crazy land, you just enjoyed and watched where he was. There wasn’t any darkness to him; it was all very lighthearted and funny. There’s a little tiny bit of tragedy, but with Driver Stu, you’ve got a guy who is constantly teetering on the edge of madness and swinging wildly back and forth from being really happy to being really depressed. That always felt way more dangerous than Artie, you know? [Laughs.] But it was weirdly poignant in its own way as well. It’s amazing that we got away with both those guys for as long as we did.
AVC: In almost every episode in season three, Big Pete has a crush on another girl. Is there a reason for that?
WM: When I reflect upon the “girl of the week” approach we took to the third season, I sometimes wonder why we took that route. I guess we decided that we wanted to go deeply into what it’s like to be that age and have crushes. Nothing’s more synonymous with that age than crushes, so we wanted to go there with that.
CV: We were so fucking tired of playing the Pete/Ellen thing.
WM: I remember being like, “Let’s just take the most attractive girl and plug her into each episode,” but Selma Blair was pretty fantastic, of all the hot girls we put in there.
CV: Yeah, she was adorable. Like when we hired Steve Buscemi, she had not completely become “Selma Blair” yet. She was this girl we cast, and she showed up and came to our wrap party, and then everything blew up after that.
WM: She was a 28-year-old actress [Blair was 24 —ed.] who took a school bus with 8-year-olds, for some reason. It’s one of the cheats, like, “What are those big kids doing with those little kids on that bus?”
The series comes to an end with a sequence of interweaving storylines about what Big Pete, Ellen, Wayne, Monica, and Stu Benedict are doing on a typical Saturday in Wellsville.
AVC: Did you guys know “Saturday” was the last episode ever?
CV: I don’t think we ever knew if we were going to come back for any season after the one we were working on, but I think we had the feeling that it might be ending. To speak for myself, I think I was at the point where I was burned out by it all, just constantly jumping through hoops every season. We’d been working on the show and working on those characters and being in that world for how many years? Eight?
WM: Well, ’89 to ’95.
CV: So not that I was ready to move on, but I was feeling a little burned out by it for sure. I certainly would’ve done another season, but I too was ready to kind of think about other things. Of course, when we had that fateful meeting with the Nickelodeon executives and they told us they weren’t bringing it back, it was pretty heartbreaking. But I think we kind of knew the end was near, and I think we looked at that episode as an experiment of what the show would be like if it did come back for another season, because by that point in the run of the series, we had a number of actors who were really hitting their stride. It felt like a way to use those actors in ways where we could tell more stories, and maybe not have the brothers together or Ellen and Pete together. Maybe they could have their own stories and things would come together in the end. I’m always proud of that episode, because it was something very different. I really like how everyone has their own stories and comes together; there’s something really cinematic and cool about it. I don’t know if it ever would’ve worked to do a whole season like that. Maybe it would’ve been too different. But I know that when that episode was over, and all the kids were together, they go outside and they help Driver Stu push the back of the bus and the camera pulled back, it just said so much about what the series was about—that sense of friendship in suburbia with a bunch of strange characters. Big Pete had his hair lopped off, and Ellen was wearing a beaten-up bunny suit, and they’re eating pizza. A kid had sneakers on that he didn’t want to get spotty, and a girl was dressed as a ninja—there was just so much weirdness in that shot. It was cold, it was wintertime. It definitely felt like a fitting end, if it was going to be the end, and it turned out that it was.
WM: And if we had known that was the last episode, and we tried to write a goodbye episode, I don’t think it would have been nearly as good as it was with us not knowing. We would’ve tried too hard to do more with the goodbye rather than just write a great episode. I think that ending moment you mentioned, Chris, and also the fact that it was that kind of weather where it had snowed a couple days earlier and then it had rained and everything was frozen and kind of hardscrabble and raw—there was nothing pretty about it. It was just patches of grass and crunchy snow, and nothing could’ve felt more real—nothing’s more real than those kinds of days. That wintry feeling just gives it an even more bittersweet than usual flavoring for one of our shows.
CV: It was directed by Chris Koch, and he was just so stellar from beginning to end. It’s one of my favorite episodes directorially, and he captured that winter-y element and isolation and suburban cold of that day. But I think if we knew it was going to be the last episode, we would’ve had Katherine Dieckmann direct it. We didn’t know that it was; we had a feeling that it might be, but we were hoping that it would come back. I think Koch did an amazing job, and it has that sequence in it that remains one of my favorite Driver Stu sequences, with all that stuff on the bus and the radio and the light that won’t change. The way that was shot was so beautiful to me, and so haunting and funny. It was pretty great.
WM: It’s just another side of Stu. He’s damaged, he’s had his heart broken so many times he’s traumatized, and he doesn’t seem to have much of a life outside of the bus, but at the end of the day, he’s a stickler. It was very existential, on this cold day, that a guy would choose to put safety first even if it meant freezing to death in the middle of this empty street.
CV: And just to go back to something Will was saying, he’s absolutely right: If we knew that we had to write a final episode—I don’t know, it probably would’ve been satisfying in some way, but in other ways, it probably would not have been.
WM: It would’ve been hammy, for sure.
CV: It definitely would’ve been hammy, so I think it was fitting. We didn’t know, and there was a certain mystery to it, and we tried something a little bit different on that episode that amused us, and had all the characters in it that we really loved. It ended up being a great valentine to the show and to those characters, and in its own weird way, just a pretty good ending.
WM: I think the artistry of that storytelling was a product of being too far behind in our schedule. We didn’t have a lot of time to write it, so we divided the script amongst three writers—
CV: Four of us.
WM: Yeah, it was four of us—me, you, Chris, Joe Stillman, and [Dave] Hemingson. We all took a part, and we had to do it assembly-line style like that because we didn’t have time to do it the normal way. So sometimes out of necessity comes a great show.
AVC: It’s surprising that you didn’t know it was the last episode, considering that Big Pete cuts all his hair off.
WM: We assumed that between then and the six months before we’d be shooting again that he’d have time to grow it back. But I don’t know, maybe on some unconscious level we did know. It’s hard to say. We were talking before about how Michael [Maronna] was at an age at that point where he was really struggling with the Big Pete persona and how he was changing as a person and becoming more of a rebellious, East Village kind of person. I think that haircut was his defining moment of saying, “I officially am freeing myself from being Big Pete.” It was his way of saying, “I’m moving on.” Maybe he knew, deep down.
CV: I also think at that time, again, whether we were conscious of it or not—we probably were, but didn’t express it too much—that was the time when Nickelodeon started to make the shift into making a lot more straight-down-the-middle, mainstream programs. Ren & Stimpy was gone. It was the beginning of the Dan Schneider era. Nothing against Dan’s shows, but they’re definitely more mainstream, right-down-the-middle, very funny in their own ways, but very, very different than what we were trying to do. You could kind of see the writing on the wall that that was the direction the network wanted to take their programming. Pete And Pete was always a struggle to keep on the air from the beginning, and once the network started making the shift into even more of a straight, crowd-pleasing show that needed to be for everyone, not just a group of passionate fans, it was going to be a lot harder for us to stay on the air.
WM: As it turns out, we did 39 episodes, which is the exact same number of episodes they made of The Honeymooners. So that’s a pretty good number.