Feb 21 2011 3:44pm

Happily Deranged: Revisiting The Adventures of Pete & Pete

Older Pete from Pete & PeteI admit that in some of my posts I can gush a bit. There’s no harm in that, but it can make objectivity a tad tricky to establish. This leads me to The Adventures of Pete & Pete, the focus of this post. Can I talk about one of my most favoritest shows in the history of infinity, without gushing? Nope. Screw objectivity. I’m a squishy fannish velvet-lined gushbag when it comes to this show.

The Adventures of Pete & Pete (TAPP for short) is the best thing to ever come out of a collaboration of Nickelodeon and New Jersey. If you’ve never seen it, lemme break it down for ya. In the early mid-90s, the writing team of Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb created TAPP as a few very short segments, later to become a series, about two red-headed brothers named Pete Wrigley (possibly inspiring George Foreman). Big Pete is a sensitive, romantic, observant and somewhat insecure teenager. Little Pete is an elementary school tough guy with tattoos and a penchant for trash talking. They live in Wellsville (home of the Fighting Squids), a sort of generic medium-sized American town. Big Pete (Michael C. Maronna) has an off and on romance with French horn-player and kite enthusiast Ellen Hickle (Alison Fanelli). Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) is good friends with Artie, the Strongest Man…in the World! Together or separate, they face incredible challenges: Valentines Day, bullies, trying to stay up late, crushes on teachers, the inscrutable nature of adult romance and much, much more. All of this set to the music of a band called Polaris, whose style I can only describe as post-REM, though that doesn’t actually mean much.

Little Pete from Pete & PeteIn addition to the regular players, TAPP featured a fabulous variety of cameos, especially from musicians such as Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe, Kate Pierson and David Johansen. Non-musicians show up too, of course. Steve Buscemi plays Ellen’s dad, Adam West is the school principal and the janitor is played by Richard Edson. (You might not know that name, but trust me, he’s been in everything. He’s like Al Leong. He’s been in everything too…well, except for Pete & Pete. I once saw Al Leong and Richard Edson in the same day. I was like, “Hey, it’s that guy! You know, that guy? Oh, hey, and there’s the other one!” But I really, really digress.)   

TAPP is linked in my mind with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a strange combo, I know, but I feel certain that if you like one of these shows, you’ll like the other as well. Why do I put them together? Well, to some extent, they are based on the idea of taking a regular life occurrence and inflating it to supernatural or magic realist proportions, with a great deal of humor. This isn’t unique in fantasy—far from it—but both shows do it very well. Buffy, especially the first three seasons, was all about playing out the dramas of teenage life as if they were dire, dangerous and hellish (which, let’s face it, isn’t far from true). The bad crowd of kids isn’t just a bad crowd, they’re a pack of were-hyenas. Your sweet, caring boyfriend turns out to be a monster after you sleep with him the first time. TAPP uses a similar, if less demonic, formula. Their dad’s desire to be King of the Road is threatened when the perfect family shows up on the way to the Hoover Dam, resulting in a luggage rack stacking war. Shop class takes on a sinister, cultish feel. The connection between the shows goes a bit further when you consider that writers Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali, and actress Michelle Trachtenberg, worked on both TAPP and Buffy.

Pete & PeteSo far I haven’t gushed all that much, have I? Well, I haven’t gotten to my favorite part of the show yet. As much as I love the characters and the plotlines, my favorite aspect of the show is its delicious use of verbal absurdity. Every episode contains gems of dialogue and phrasing that are silly but all the more brilliant for how nearly legitimate they feel. When Big Pete and Ellen channel their relationship frustration into an argument over a science project, Ellen destroys a Visible Man model they’d painted together. Pete, dismayed, protests, “We painted the esophaguses!” Ellen fires back: “You painted the esophaguses! I painted the spleen.” (Poor Pete. There’s no winning an argument like that.) Ellen also gets one of my favorite lines in the series, “There’s nothing like a hot liverwurst and gravy open-face sandwich when you're flying a kite." Big Pete writes a love poem to his math teacher: “If 1 is the loneliest number, then x + 1 over the circumference of a full moon = the square root of eternity. Us eating doughnuts together, beneath a willow tree.” Little Pete gets a lot of these verbal gems, too, through his skill for surreal insults such as “sebaceous bloody sputum eater” or “Chew my lint, grandpa!” or the succinct “Bite the wind!”

There are great names in TAPP, too: Captain Scrummy, Ms. Fingerwood, Eunice Puell, Beano Glattner. Buffy may have the scarier villains, but TAPP has one of my favorite villain names: Endless Mike Hellstrom. That’s right up there with Darth Vader, in bad guy names. The endless storm of hell…named Mike. There’s also Open-Face (real name Eugene, as I recall). It’s a less dramatic name than Endless Mike, reminiscent of Dick Tracy’s enemies (though not as cool a name as Pinky the Stabber). Open-Face is a sandwich-obsessed schemer and blackmailer. Endless Mike is less methodical than Open-Face, more your garden-variety intimidating, charismatic douche bag. Every high school has at least one. Their raison d’etre is to make awkward kids feel entirely powerless. Confidence vampires, you could call them.

I started re-watching TAPP because kids’ shows are subject to Sturgeon’s Law (I mean, have you seen The Wizards of Waverly Place? What utter pants that show is!) and I wanted to introduce my kids to something that fell in the “ten percent that isn’t crap” category. In summary, if you want to watch (or re-watch) a show that is sweet, sincere, creative, a bit magical and consistently clever—whether or not you have kids—you need look no further than The Adventures of Pete & Pete. And if you don’t want to watch a show like that, you’re probably a free-standing chum jockey.

Jason Henninger is a writer and editor and has but one esophagus.

3. jefff
Ahhhh, the episode with Inspector 13 and the BBQ chicken - a classic!
LaShawn Wanak
4. LMWanak
Holy crap. You just brought up my teenagehood all in one huge battering blow!

I had such a strong crush on Big Pete. I was devastated at his on again, off again romance. I would scheme ways to get myself onto the show, just so I could date him. I even broke down and watched Home Alone many, many times, just so I could see the few glimpses of him.

Sadly, he grew up. And so did I. Ahh...nostalgia.
Ron Hogan
5. RonHogan
And Endless Mike Hellstrom grew up to become Rick Gomez!

The way I always described Pete & Pete was "Imagine if Hal Hartley made a kid's show." Right down to the occasional appearances by Damian Young as the bus driver and Martin Donovan as the crossing guard.
Kelly Lagor
6. klagor
Why do you keep asking me if I'm comfortable?
James Goetsch
7. Jedikalos
Watched this with my older kids when they were growing up. How we loved it. So many good memories of those episodes (and especially of Artie, who is a sort of magical reference for us). We'll say: remember the episdoe when . . . and laugh and laugh.
james loyd
8. gaijin
"Screw objectivity. I’m a squishy fannish velvet-lined gushbag when it comes to this show."

That IS being objective when it comes to the brilliance that is this show.

Did anybody ever discover/decypher the secret line in the theme song (i.e. the one right after "You're looking happily deranged")? They wouldn't disclose it on the show commentary.

I also have to plug Snow Day, which was intended to be a Pete & Pete film, but ended up changing casts. Still full of Viscardi/McRobb genius.
Ashe Armstrong
9. AsheSaoirse
Happily beautifully phrased, so wonderfully apt. In the vernacular of the interbutts, all I can really say is, "I must buy the seasons on DVD.
10. Kadere
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
Loved that show! I think of it as the forerunner of the quirky style found later on shows such as Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies.

As for the missing line on the (totally awesome) theme song, turns out wikipedia has a page devoted to this very song and a section on this very line!

The missing line appears to have been intentionally kept secret by the band, but the DVD release had captions in which the line is rendered: "Can you settle to shoot me?"
Binyamin Weinreich
13. Imitorar
I know I liked this show a lot when I was six, and some of it has even stayed with me, (although not as much as other things I watched when I was six) but I get the feeling that I didn't appreciate it properly then. I really should rewatch this...
14. Harry Connolly
It's funny, but I just borrowed the DVD of this from my library and have been watching them with my son. I had forgotten about all the guest stars--Marshall Crenshaw with a scab shaped like a dump truck!

Wonderfully funny, heartfelt show. It even makes voice over narration work.
15. Vorkon
I still think of this show every time daylight savings time rolls around...
Jason Henninger
16. jasonhenninger
great to see all the shared love for the show!

btw, #12 I totally agree about Pushing Daisies. I think anyone who enjoyes Pete & Pete would love Pushing Daisies and vice versa. And wouldn't suprise me at all if Fuller was a Pete&Pete fan.

#15 one of my favorite episodes! I love how Little Pete schools Endless Mike.
Sean Holland
17. Akaihyo
An amazing and wonderful show. One of my favorites on so many levels.

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