On Friday, the creators and entire principal cast of The Adventures of Pete and Pete reunited for one of the first times since the show ended in 1996 which, in case you forgot how old we are, was nearly 20 years ago. The show featured the first-ever live performance of The Blowholes, the fictional supergroup created for the episode about little Pete’s favorite song, featuring Marshall Crenshaw (aka the meter reader), Syd Straw (Ms. Fingerwood!) and little Pete. And it was Kreb-tastic! Here’s them covering the show’s theme, “Hey Sandy” (for which Straw is reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper):
Among the revelations at the reunion:
-Toby Huss (Artie) was the guy in the Mr. Softee suit.
-At one point, Iggy Pop went up to Hardy Rawls (Dad Wrigley) and said “That guy who plays Artie, he’s kind of a weirdo, huh?”
-Alison Fanelli was the only non-blonde, non-monotone actress to read for the part of Ellen. She handed in a resume on a piece of notebook paper with a picture attached. They hired her because of her cute unprofessionalism.
-While filming one day, the crew couldn’t find little Pete on set. Turns out he was in Iggy Pop’s trailer learning to play bass. He was about 12.
-Ms. Fingerwood was originally named something else (which I can’t remember, sorry!), but Nickelodeon deemed it too dirty. So they went with Fingerwood, which was less dirty somehow?
-All the cast and crew commented on how funny it was to see the gang all growns up: “It’s weird to see the Petes drunk on beer,” Straw told the crowd.
-The creators, buoyed by the burgeoning indie rock credentials of the show wanted to use a Pixies song (probably Wave of Mutilation, they said) in one episode. But they didn’t get to use it because it was too damn expensive.
-All the guest stars came through connections the show’s crew had to the downtown manhattan art scene in the 90s.
-Ellen is still totally crushable.
-Nick opposed the use of “blowhole” as one of the show’s standard insults. But as it was just officially defined as a fleshy hole for breathing, they had no grounds to stand on.
-Toby Huss IS a crazy bastard. And it’s great.
And now, let’s reflect why this was such a BFD:
I’ve revisited Pete & Pete a few times over the years, especially as the DVDs were released a few years ago, but it probably never really hit me until last week just how much of an influence it had on own strange maturation. I had grown up watching Nickelodeon, and Pete & Pete landed in that pocket of television where Nick was experimenting with the idea that it was OK to be weird, that it was perfectly acceptable to not want to be a grownup, to live in that world where the gross aesthetics of Ren and Stimpy and the slimy sounding names (like Slurm and Fingerwood) were perfect projections of the kid imagination, before it had been corrupted with pop culture and over-education.
The show was smart and sharp, creative in a way we couldn’t understand as pre-teens but would later realize was various forms of performance art (watch the scene of Petes’ dad climbing on top of the station wagon to build a luggage rack while cursing at 60 miles an hour down the highway for an example), treating us to so many references we wouldn’t get until years later. Suffice it to say it was breeding a generation of people who would later be called hipsters, those of us who were treated to images of Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Michael Stipe, LL Cool J, Juliana Hatfield and more, long before we knew who most of them were, or realized how odd it was that they should be appearing in a strange kids show.
Pete and Pete tapped into something deep inside that was hard to express in the cookie-cutter New Jersey suburbs in the 90s: the feeling that there was just something wrong with the way the adults of the world were doing things, and that the traditional straight-line path to adulthood and homeownership was on a collision course set for horrible, soul-sucking boredom. This is the theme that runs through the whole show: the constant references to the International Adult Conspiracy and things like little Pete asking Dad, “So you don’t like the taste of coffee, but you drink it anyway?” which is barely a throw-away line amid a bigger plot arc. It’s no coincidence that around this time I realized three things about myself: 1) I needed to get out of New Jersey before I got sucked into the bland, black hole of awful rote law-mowing lifestyle and 2) I would never, ever get stuck in a job that had a cubicle or was not significantly awesome and 3) I probably would never have kids, out of the fear of turning into one of Them [2012 Tim should note that he has since run into some parents who do this whole raising cool kids thing right, especially around BK].
The show captures that particular frustration you get as a kid thinking about all the wonderful, bizarre things you can do in the world and knowing that there’s a button-down line of adults who want to stand in your way. Nowhere is this more apparent then in what is probably my favorite episode, “X=Why?” in which Ellen leads in insurrection in algebra class when she demands to know the answer to a simple question, “Why are we learning this?” And there I was, sitting in 7th grade, scratching away at matrices and algorithms in a drab industrial brick middle school building on the side of a highway, wondering just what the hell any of this had to do with anything. And like Ellen, we never got good responses from teachers who never really thought about it themselves, and we were left to passively absorb information until the next soul-sucking class began.
The problem with that, as I came to understand it, isn’t school itself, or algebra, or the need for mandatory education in this country: it’s the lack of connection and respect there was coming from the adult generation toward the eager but stunted young people. Simply, there was a lack of logical connection between what you were supposed to be learning and its implications in the real world. It’s not that algebra has real-world applications (as it is so often wrongly defended by Ms. Fingerwood and hundreds of teachers worldwide), but that algebra and the like are supposed to be intense yoga for your brain, exercises that make you smarter to deal with solving other problems in the world that actually do matter, so that you might be fit to mentally sprint across the world and make it better for yourself and all of us. After all (as I would have said if I were ever a teacher), baseball players just swing bats, but they spend a lot of time in the gym lifting weights before that. No, instead we got the “do it because you’re told to mentality,” either because the adults were too uncurious to ask more or just too lazy to defend themselves. Even in the resolution of this episode, which in typical TV fashion has Ellen calling off the revolution and admitting that math may have some uses, it isn’t a complete victory for the adults: Fingerwood changes her lessons to make the word problems seem relevant to the real world, and we break through (via a scene of an outdoor class) this idea that all education is a stuffy snore fest.
Pete and Pete created an alternate reality as seen from the eyes of kids who can’t grow up, a world that’s beautiful and strange and a little scary, where we can have our own personal super heroes, where the parents are often powerless and petty and the day can be saved by a visit from the ice cream truck. The whole show felt like a wander through a long summer vacation, the way you can freewheel through the suburbs on your bike and find that secret trove of friends to conspire with. This idea was bolstered even more at the reunion show when the creators said they shot on a summer filming schedule, with the final episode of the series, appropriately, communing in early winter, the visible breath coming from the cast as a fitting send-off.
On top of all that youthful sense of insurrection, I realized the show gave us something else, through its sly use of guest stars: it showed this idea that there were a group of adults out there who could pass the test of time without completely folding up all that youthful imagination, those cool Syd Straws and Arties of the world who got a kick out of hanging out with a bunch of kids all day, doing wonderful and odd things that neither of their parents would probably approve of. “Are you still in school?” Straw asked the crowd, cheekily. You could tell the older cast and crew treated the kids like co-conspirators, not commodities.
So I looked around the Bowery Ballroom on Friday night and saw probably 100 other guys and girls who looked like me, and probably grew up with the same sort of nudge in the odd and curious direction because of the show (and yes, there were plenty of flannels). But then we were all was smiling and awe-struck watching everyone come out on stage, and it felt like a reunion from a lost summer camp, only to find out that not one of your camp buddies reneged on their pledge to never become an adult.