Happily Deranged: Revisiting The Adventures of Pete & Pete

I 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.


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