Why The Adventures of Pete and Pete Is a ’90s Nickelodeon Classic

We look back fondly at the innate weirdness of Nickelodeon's '90s show The Adventures of Pete and Pete...

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

The Adventures Of Pete And Pete began life in 1989 as a series of minute-long vignettes designed to fit between full-length programming on Nickelodeon. In 1991, their popularity saw them grow into five episode-length specials – and in 1993, a proper eight-episode season was produced for the first time (into which the five specials were also folded, with the opening titles added to turn them into regular episodes). Two further seasons of 13 episodes each were produced, with the last episode airing in December 1996.

The show follows the Wrigley family, who live in the fictional suburb of Wellsville: brothers “Big” Pete (Mike Maronna) and “Little” Pete (Danny Tamberelli) and their parents Don (Hardy Rawls) and Joyce (Judy Grafe). The series’ distinctive mixture of the surreal and the mundane is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the two lead characters share that one name, yet this is never commented on by anyone – and, indeed, within the show’s dialogue they’re never even distinguished from one another (they’re always just referred to, by each other and everybody else, as “Pete”). There’s no plot-based reason for them sharing a name, nor does it ever cause a plot – it just happens to be the case.

But there’s a lot more to Pete And Pete’s surreal whimsy than just its characters’ names. It has a tone and style that is entirely its own – although if I’d liken it to anything, it would be as a combination of two equally excellent but better-known series that it predates, namely Eerie, Indiana and Malcolm In the Middle. The stories tend to center around fairly ordinary trials and tribulations of being a teenager and/or a family member – but with over-fictionalized and seemingly ludicrous embellishments here and there.

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The show never outright steps into anything fantastical or supernatural, but “weird” or “oddball” would certainly be an accurate way of describing much that happens within it. Seemingly ordinary plots such as Dad’s ongoing lawn war with a neighbor end up involving secret lairs filled with observation screens; Little Pete escapes being “grounded for life” by digging his way out under the garden using only a model Statue of Liberty; and the advent of Daylight Saving Time is an opportunity to, if you can only cycle through town fast enough, travel back in time by an hour. Oh, and Mom has a metal plate in her head that can pick up local radio signals. But like the Petes’ unusual naming, being weird is never a feature (and this is what sets it apart from, say, Eerie – in which Marshall seems to be the only person in the town who notices its weirdness, but notice it he categorically does, and so the audience does too). It’s just how things are.

The same is also true of Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Played by Toby Huff, Artie is the show’s breakout character – a gawky, bespectacled man in a striped unitard who serves as Little Pete’s best friend and Wellsville’s very own local superhero. Another show might treat Artie as a figure of fun – a delusional loser who can’t possibly be the super-strong muscleman he claims to be. In Pete And Pete’s world, though, Artie is played with total conviction – even the town’s adults, while resenting his irritating presence and perceived bad influence (leading to the heartbreaking season two story Farewell, My Little Viking, in which Artie departs the town having finally helped Pete to grow up and stand up for himself), don’t question his actual credentials as a superhero. Artie just is, because he is.

Pete And Pete manages to sell all of its strangeness with similar conviction, because it’s so sure-footed in its tone and aesthetic. Like all the best fictional towns, Wellsville has a clearly defined sense of place, and even has its own recurring corporate brand (in this case, it’s “KrebStar”). While very firmly early ‘90s in many ways (particularly when it comes to music and guest stars, but we’ll come to those) it’s got a timeless Americana quality to it, living in one of those towns that, while the technology and the cars might update slightly, feels ever permanently rooted in 1950s suburbia.

It’s that innate weirdness, certainly, that accounts in no small measure for Pete And Pete’s popularity among a certain audience. The show didn’t make a deliberate feature of its oddball nature: it simply presented the viewer with these unusual characters who were otherwise treated perfectly normally by everyone around them. It’s okay, Pete And Pete told us, to be a little bit strange.

“The kids in the show were off the beaten path a little bit,” co-creator Chris Viscardi said in a 2013 interview. “I don’t know if we necessarily knew that was who we were targeting, but that’s who we clearly did connect with in a huge way.” His fellow creator Will McRobb agreed: “There was such intense emotional connection, because someone was speaking for them and to them and experiencing all that emotion and confusion and happiness and sadness.”

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Another reason for the show being such a beloved cult artefact, however, is the way it often acts like a who’s who of indie cool – particularly in the field of music. The show’s soundtrack is immediately a pretty significant part of its appeal, thanks to the bespoke songs created for it by former Miracle Legion frontman Mark Mulcahy, under the guise of Polaris. An album of the show’s soundtrack hangs together superbly well as a slice of early ‘90s jangly-indie-rock, with the opening title song “Hey Sandy particularly standing out.

But beyond what simply played in the show – and there were also several appearances by Magnetic Fields songs – were an array of cameo appearances, from the likes of Michael Stipe, Juliana Hatfield, Kate Pierson, Syd Straw, LL Cool J (!), Debbie Harry (!!) and, perhaps most strikingly, Iggy Pop. But none of these musicians were playing themselves: they were all simply assorted denizens of Wellsville, from Stipe’s scummy ice cream man to Pierson’s blind millionaire. Iggy, meanwhile, played the father of Little Pete’s friend Nona Mecklenburg – a character who (upon replacing Artie as a recurring character for season three) was played by a significantly pre-Buffy Michelle Trachtenberg.

“We just thought, who would be the most unexpected choice to be a suburban dad and put a guy in a cardigan and khaki pants?” said Viscardi. “Obviously we’re all huge Iggy fans. So, we reached out to him, and when he said yes, I don’t think myself or Will or Katherine had ever been happier. It was just so weird and wonderful. He could not have been sweeter and funnier and more lovely with the kids. He was totally not what you’d expect and super eager. He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do whatever you want.’ And we brought him back a number of times.”

The guest appearances went beyond cooler-than-cool musicians, too. Steve Buscemi played the father of Big Pete’s best friend Ellen, while Janeane Garofalo was a teacher at their school. Larisa Oleynik crossed over from another Nickelodeon hit (Alex Mack) to play a nurse, while Adam West was Little Pete’s school principal long before Family Guy thought to get him in. J.K. Simmons, Ellen Greene, Chris Elliott… the list of quality character actors showing up for brief roles goes on and on. And as well as Trachtenberg, the likes of Selma Blair, Rick Gomez and Liza Weil all went on to have wider success after first appearing in the show.

(It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Big Pete’s relationship with Ellen – played by Alison Fanelli, who subsequently retired from acting and is now a paediatric surgeon – is one of the most striking things about the show. Compared with other contemporary kids/teen comedies such as those from the Peter Engel slate, the series generally steers admirably clear of going too heavily into a romance plot between the two. The early shorts had a running “You’re a girl, and you’re a friend, but you’re not a girlfriend” gag, and one episode toyed with the prospect of deepening their relationship; but otherwise it’s just a nice, honest platonic friendship portrayed in an unfussy and mature way. (This is something the show had in common with Nickelodeon’s other live-action big hitter of the time, Clarissa Explains It All.)

The humor in Pete And Pete tends not to lunge for out-and-out gags and slapstick – although they’re present on occasion – but more in pushing seemingly ordinary situations to an absurd extreme (witness Little Pete escaping an imminent grounding by taking off on the family’s ride-on lawnmower… only being scuppered by a Canadian border guard). But the best episodes take an unusual premise and run with it, going for gentle whimsy rather than belly laughs. 35 Hours sees the Petes left alone with the house for the weekend for the first time – but when Big Pete ditches his brother to go swimming with a girl, Little Pete sells the house to a disarmingly creepy 1950s-style nuclear family. Or in the peerless Inspector 34, Little Pete meets his “guardian angel” – the quality control inspector whose nameless ticket is found in every single new pair of underpants, and trains to follow the same career.

In the very first (non-special) episode, “King Of The Road,” a family trip to the Hoover Dam presents us with the notion that Don Wrigley is the titular “king” of road journeys, based on three distinct criteria (“making good time, never asking for directions, and roof-stack packing”) but his supremacy is challenged by a seemingly-perfect family making a competing journey. A more grounded sitcom would perhaps play on the idea that nobody but a delustional Don believes in his code of road-worthiness – but in Pete And Pete, it’s an unspoken truth among all drivers that leads to a genuine roof-stack-packing competition at high speed on the motorway.

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“I think even the stories that seem the strangest, when you boil it down, the entry point’s actually pretty normal,” McRobb told The AV Club in 2012. “I was just thinking about Valentine’s Day; what that show really is about is something we’ve all felt, when you’re like 12 and you get a crush on your teacher. That’s right out of the big book of things you feel when you’re a kid. That’s the starting point for a story that ended up getting pretty warped when you bring the bully into it, and it ends up being this love triangle with all these conspiracies and bullies with supervillain Dick Tracy names and so on. But really, at the core, it’s like ‘I love my teacher, and she doesn’t know, and she just thinks of me as a kid.’ And typically, we would try to come at it from a feeling angle, like what are the big feelings you have when you were that age? And man, having a crush on a teacher was a big one, and I think everything just spiralled out from there.”

Pete And Pete came to an end with season three’s closer “Saturday – which the team didn’t necessarily know in advance would be the episode, but treated it as a trial for a slight change in format if the show did return. But a fourth season never came. “That was the time when Nickelodeon started to make the shift into making a lot more straight-down-the-middle, mainstream programmes,” said Viscardi. “Pete And Pete was always a struggle to keep on the air from the beginning, and once the network started making the shift into even more of a straight, crowd-pleasing show that needed to be for everyone, not just a group of passionate fans, it was going to be a lot harder for us to stay on the air.”

McRobb and Viscardi reunited with several of the show’s cast for the otherwise-unconnected film Snow Day – while not dissimilar tonally, however, it doesn’t really succeed in capturing that Pete And Pete magic. As for the show itself, while it has had the occasional repeat run on Nickelodeon in both the US and UK, it’s never been one of the wider-remembered shows of that era – particularly over here in the UK, since it never did make the usual move over to terrestrial. A DVD release, meanwhile, got as far as putting out seasons one and two in Region 1 before a planned season three set was shelved for unknown reasons.

But to those who grew up with it – and maybe a few who’ve discovered it in the years since – Pete And Pete was an absolute delight. Just like Artie taught Pete, the show taught so many of us that we may all be a little weird, but that’s okay; because the most important thing is just to be ourselves.

“What is it that makes a superhero? Is it muscles of steel, the ability to see through brick walls, to turn yourself into a human butane torch? Or is it smaller? Like with Artie: a way of looking at the world, and making everything in it a little bit stranger… and a little bit better.”

(If you want more of a nostalgia trip, or are interested in finding out more about Pete And Pete, there’s a whole load of in-depth stuff, including some of the interviews quoted above, over at The AV Club that we heartily recommend checking out!)

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