Two brothers: falling in love, fighting off bullies, and chasing down ice cream trucks in the summer. At first glance, The Adventures of Pete & Pete may seem like your typical light-hearted coming-of-age drama, but the ‘90s Nickelodeon series deviated far from the norm and gave us an unapologetically weird and whimsical look at what it’s like to make the most out of being a kid, all from a kids’ POV. It’s a love letter to those of us who don’t know how to be anything but authentic, and a reminder that it’s okay to be a little bit strange.
The Adventures of Pete & Pete first premiered on Nickelodeon in 1989 as a series of minute-long shorts. Because of their popularity, five half-hour specials were created in 1991, and the show would go onto to become a regular half-hour series that ran for three seasons from 1993 – 1996. On June 17th, NickSplat, TeenNick’s nightly block of ‘90s Nickelodeon shows, will do a two-day “#PeteAndPeteTakeover” which will include a partial cast reunion and a six-episode airing. The show, written by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi and primarily directed Katherine Dieckmann, follows the Wrigley brothers, “Big” Pete (Mike Maronna) and “Little” Pete (Danny Tamberelli), and their parents Don (Hardy Rawls) and Joyce (Judy Grafe). According to Maronna, Pete & Pete was “weird in that it confronted suburban kid-centric problems in a way that hadn’t been done on TV before -- weird characters, weird street names, and weird adults above all.”
Mom’s got a metal plate in her head (which is credited as its own character in the show’s opening) that can pick up radio signals on road trips; the scariest bullies in school have names like “Pit Stain” (due to a glandular disorder) and “Nightbrace” (for the mouth guard he never takes off); Little Pete has his own personal real-life superhero, Artie, The Strongest Man in the World (played by Toby Huss), and a permanent tattoo on his forearm of a woman he calls Petunia.
Totally normal stuff for two redheaded brothers who share the same name (something the show never explains) and live in the fictional town of Wellsville, where the motto is “Come back when you have a minute.” When they aren’t staying up for 11 days straight to set a world record or selling the house while their parents are away, Pete and Pete are tracking down the whereabouts of a missing ice cream man named Mr. Tastee and solving the mystery behind a payphone that’s been ringing for twenty-seven years.
And that’s the best thing about the weirdness in Pete & Pete: it’s totally normal. We’re never outright told that it’s weird. It wasn’t anything out of the norm for a grown man in a blue-and-red striped unitard to protect Little Pete from bullies until the two-part episode, “Farewell, My Little Viking,” where Little Pete comes to terms with growing older and realizes that it’s time to defend himself. In “Day of the Dot,” Big Pete and his best friend Ellen Hickle (Alison Fanelli) finally realize their feelings for each other. When the day of the big game comes, the marching band ditches their traditional “Fighting Squid” formation to replicate a literal nuclear fusion – with Big Pete and Ellen as two atoms who meet in the middle of the field and share their first kiss. The sports announcer shouts, “We have fusion!” and the entire stadium stands up and cheers.
Every show has its own quirky and notable soundtrack, but Pete & Pete had its own band. Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi approached Miracle Legion to write original music for the show. Fronted by Mark Mulcahy, Polaris was formed and went on to produce twelve songs over three seasons including the theme song, “Hey Sandy.” The soft, ‘90s indie rock added another layer to series. Nearly every episode ends with part of “She Is Staggering” or “Waiting For October” playing over the credits, leaving the viewer with a full heart and a warm, hopeful feeling. Polaris even makes an appearance in the episode, “Hard Day’s Pete,” where Little Pete stumbles upon the band playing their song, “Summerbaby.” After the band vanishes without a trace, Pete starts his own band in an effort to recreate his new favorite song.
Of course, Polaris weren’t the only musicians to guest star on Pete & Pete. Iggy Pop played the father of Nona F. Mecklenberg (Michelle Trachtenberg), Little Pete’s arm-cast wearing best friend. REM’s Michael Stipe had a small appearance as Captain Scrummy, a disgruntled ice cream man who tries to offer the brothers hope as they search for the missing Mr. Tastee. In the same episode, B-52’s singer Kate Pierson plays a beautiful, albeit blind and delusional loner who refers to Mr. Tastee as Leonard and claims he told her that her eyes were “bluer than the bluest Blue Tornado Bar.” Other notable appearances include Steve Buscemi as Ellen Hickle’s dad, Debbie Harry as one of the Wrigley family’s neighbors, and Adam West as the high school principal.
The oddball state of New Jersey provided the perfect background for the series; and as a kid, nothing was cooler than living in the same place where your favorite TV show was filmed. My family and I always drove by the Winslow Motor Hotel where they shot “Pinned!,” an episode of season three where Big Pete trains for a varsity wrestling match against his biggest bully, “Endless” Mike Hellstrom (Rick Gomez). The photo-booth-turned-command-center that Ellen worked at in the “What We Did On Our Summer Vacation” special was housed in the parking lot of the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, NJ. The Wrigley house was rumored to be in Crandon, and my dad drove around town trying to find it on his lunch break.
I’ll be honest in saying that I was an infant when the show was on air in 1993, but some of my earliest memories include sitting on the couch and watching Polaris play the theme song in The Wrigley family’s front yard. Lucky for me, my parents videotaped some of the best episodes so I could relive them over and over long after the show ended. And that’s thing about Pete & Pete: twenty-one years have passed since the show went off the air, but its popularity has not dwindled. The internet is rich in fan-made merchandise and websites that explore the entire world of Pete & Pete (one even provides a comprehensive list of every product the show’s fake brand Krebstar ever “made” and the twenty-seven words one can spell using the letters in “Penelope Ghiruto,” the name of Big Pete’s crush in “Das Bus”). Petitions have been created in attempt to persuade Viacom to release season three on DVD. The cast has done several reunion shows, Polaris has gone on a tour of the Pete & Pete soundtrack, and Tamberelli and Maronna even have their own podcast, The Adventures of Danny & Mike.
What makes the show so timeless? “It’s about the conflict between growing up and staying a kid,” Maronna said, “so it resonates with us ‘grown-up kids’ even more than it did then.” He’s right. Even as an adult, I still wish I was cool as Pete and Pete. I wish I could’ve gotten my license by beating my Driver’s Ed teacher in a Go-Kart race, or escaped being grounded for life by tunneling underground using only a miniature Statue of Liberty as my shovel (and finding Jimmy Hoffa’s wallet along the way.) I might never get the chance to have the same kind of crazy experiences, but I still keep the show’s values close to my heart. The Petes were bold, brave, and welcomed the lessons they learned after every adventure. As we ‘90s kids continue to grow up and figure out what it means to be adults, we can always count on The Adventures of Pete & Pete to remind us to pause every once in a while, and celebrate the unique things that make us who we are.