“King Of The Road,” originally aired November 28, 1993
I always wondered, growing up, why my parents didn’t fly my four-person family places like Myrtle Beach when we went for the summer. Instead, we’d be in the car for about 16 hours, sweating, fighting, and, in my case, throwing up a bunch of fried calabash food on my seven-year-old brother.
Now that I’m 30 and making the small to smallish-medium journalism bucks, I think I figured out why my folks went that route. For one, flying four people somewhere would be insanely expensive. (This is presumably also the reason why we didn’t do “family day at the movies” more than once a year.) If the adults are willing to drive, you can pack a cooler and a bunch of boogie boards and make stops. It’ll stink, but it won’t make that vacation any more expensive than it already is.
Second, of course, is character-building. Our parents’ parents went on long car trips and our parents went on long car trips. Therefore, we’re going to go on long car trips. We’re going to fight and puke and sweat because, well, that’s what you do. That’s what families do, so help us God.
That’s probably what Will McRobb was thinking about when he wrote “King Of The Road,” the first proper episode of Pete And Pete’s inaugural season. McRobb was one of the show’s producers, and so he was fully familiar with the show’s predilections toward the Hoover Dam and total absurdity. As the Wrigleys set out on their summer vacation, the annual 24-hour road trip to the aforementioned dam, the focus falls all on Don Wrigley. To some, Don might be better known as “Dad,” but to truckers and roof stack packing aficionados, Don was the King of the road, or, rather, the “King O Frod,” after he couldn’t get the license plate he really wanted.
Don, like many other dads, defined himself by three things on the open road:
1. Never ask for directions. No matter what.
2. Roof stack packing.
3. Making “good time” on the road.
Being a dad on the road is also about harnessing the power of the window-elbow. How far a dad’s elbow is out the window is “directly proportional to how full of himself he is.” With his elbow proudly cutting the wind, for example, Don spies a fellow highwayman with a shoddy roof stack and says, “I hope he’s not going to the Hoover Dam. It just wouldn’t be right. Hoover Dam’s too good for a family like that.” And because he’s calm, measured, and apparently really good at packing, we believe him.
Don’s into the dam because it harnesses nature. According to Big Pete, that’s what “Being a dad’s all about. [Don] wants to turn [the boys] into something useful like a dam makes water into electricity.” It might sound kind of domineering, but if you think about it, it’s kind of sweet. Like the dam, he just wanted to do the best he could with the raw materials, hopefully making sweet, sweet music along the way — just like the beautiful hum of the dam’s electricity — “the song of the dam,” if you will.
Of course, all’s not perfect on the road to the dam, or there wouldn’t be an episode. On the way to the dam, the Wrigleys run into the family who actually have the “king of road” license plate, and they’re seemingly perfect, from their roof stack piled high with matching luggage to their ability to sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” in a perfect round — and in French. Big Pete, of course, falls in love with the daughter. Don is threatened, and determined to beat them to the dam.
Ultimately, after some costly bathroom stops and getting totally lost, the competition comes down to one thing — a mile of dangerous driving and roof stack packing between Don and perfect, pipe-smoking other dad, played by Geoffrey Pierson, who’s been on Dexter and Boardwalk Empire recently. Just as it looks like the Wrigley clan are going to lose to the most perfect family in the world, Big Pete sees his dad as a man who’d “given all he had, not just for himself, but for all of us,” and realizes that families conquer teenage crushes. They’ve got to win this roof stack packing thing “the Wrigley way,” and that means not being perfect, but just being themselves — nude. (“We’re mutants!,” says Little Pete.) With all those clothes and shoes piled high, presumably by a very naked Don, the Wrigleys win the honor competition, as well as the coveted king of road license plate. It’s a naked victory, but it’s a victory all the same.
It doesn’t feel right to get super sappy and “oh, families are great and we’ve just got to be who we are” every week writing about Pete And Pete, because the show’s more than that. It’s smart jokes and music and casting, but really, at the heart of everything, it’s still meant to be a kids show. It was on a kids network, after all. Thus, it’s incredibly admirable that when McRobb and Chris Viscardi sat down to launch this series, they sat down with an overriding idea in mind: Everyone — especially kids going through puberty in New Jersey — is a mutant, but everyone is great in their own way. We all just have to trust ourselves and it’ll all work out.
That might seem a little lofty now, and it surely seemed lofty back in 1993, but it is actually kind of true. Sure, having a sociopathic level of self-confidence isn’t okay — see Endless Mike as an example of this — but it’s nice that this show had one solid, awesome message and stuck with it. It wasn’t one episode about recycling, one episode about not cheating in school, one episode about the importance of friendship, and so on — the Saved By The Bell model, if you will. There were episodes about girls and growing up and conflicts, sure, but in the end, the message is the message, and that’s more than okay.
• Pete didn’t get any solid insults in this week, but he did three amazing car tricks. First, he played the harmonica out the window using the breeze. That’s probably impossible to do — at least as well as he did it — but it was adorable all the same. Second, he farted onto a tire gauge to see how many pounds of pressure he could put out. Disgusting, but awesome. You know you’d do it if it actually worked, especially when you were nine or 11 or however old Little Pete’s supposed to be. Third, and this was something I always wanted to work but I know full well doesn’t actually really work — or work with any sort of consistency, at least — Pete got the cops called on him for a “ten-niner,” meaning that he was using the family’s garage door opener to make garage doors go crazy all the way to the Hoover Dam.
• I would really, really like to have a version of Roadkill Auto Bingo in my car. I captured an image of the card, but it seems fairly implausible that I’ll ever see a dinosaur, platypus, or flamingo in the road around Chicago. That might throw a kink in the system. Also, can I just say that I love that the dog is one of the animals crossed off already? I love dogs, but I love that the prop people were like “nah, let’s not do the snake. Let’s do the Basset Hound.”
• The next time I feel the urge to pee, I’m going to just tell myself that I’m a “dam holding back millions of gallons of water,” and that I’m “mighty,” like said dam.
• “ Why is it that when you miss someone so much that your heart is ready to disintegrate, you always hear the saddest song ever on the radio?”
• “I don’t think this is about making good time anymore.”