What does it take for a television show to stick in people’s minds – not as a flicker of a memory, or an amusing reference point, but something that is really meaningful to them? There are many great things about The Adventures of Pete & Pete, a show ostensibly for children that was canceled just before the calendar turned over to 1997, but is still beloved to this day. But one thing that truly sets it apart from other shows of its era, and especially from kids’ shows, is its relationship with music. It made music as much a part of the series’ universe as autumnal visages and superheroes in striped pajamas. In an age when the relationship between television and music is deeply ingrained, it’s important to recognize Pete & Pete‘s role as an innovator.
Few shows from that time featured music as excellent and eclectic as The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and few even to this day went to the lengths the show did, from having a sort of in-house band in Polaris to frequently featuring musicians in acting roles. The musical legacy of The Adventures of Pete & Pete is a fascinating tale that goes far beyond Iggy Pop playing a silly suburban dad or Michael Stipe portraying an ice-cream man called Captain Scrummy, although that would more than suffice in and of itself.
How A Bunch Of ‘Singles’ Became An Iconic Children’s Show
It was almost like they were joined together, the music and the stories and the feeling that we wanted to have.
The beginnings for the show – which officially hit the air in 1991 – were inauspicious. Nickelodeon was still in its early days, looking for some short original pieces to fill time.
“Both Will (McRobb) and I were working in the promo department at Nickelodeon. He was one of the writers in the department, and I was one of the writer/producers,” said Chris Viscardi, who co-created the show with McRobb. “We knew the promo department needed short-form series about anything, as long as it celebrated being a kid in a quirky, fun, original way. So, Will came up with a couple different ideas, and one of them transformed into Pete & Pete. Initially, it was a short series about a boy and his dog Pete. That evolved, and working with Will we turned it into two boys, two brothers.”
“When we started Pete & Pete we did it as 60-second mini-stories. I always saw things in a musical way, and I always saw the shorts like singles and the show being like albums. A lot of times, we have shows inspired by songs, and a lot of ideas came out of just listening to the music of that time, of the ’90s. I think the music was my muse and Chris’, as well. It was almost like they were joined together, the music and the stories and the feeling that we wanted to have,” said McRobb.
However, the musical legacy of Pete & Pete almost assuredly would not be the same if not for the presence of another key figure in the show’s history, Katherine Dieckmann. Dieckmann had recently been cajoled into directing a music video by her friend Michael Stipe – R.E.M.’s “Stand.” Shortly after, she ran into McRobb at their 10-year high school reunion. McRobb had loved the “Stand” video, so when another director (Adam Bernstein, who would go on to direct minor projects such as Breaking Bad) had to drop out, McRobb reached out to Dieckmann.
Dieckmann’s friendship with R.E.M. was the jumping-off point for the eccentric, indie-leaning musical sensibilities that would infuse the show. “We needed a theme song for these little short films,” said Viscardi, “and she was able to secure for us this very obscure B-side, ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers,’ that R.E.M. did a cover of. We got the okay from the band to use it as the Pete & Pete song… in some weird way, it probably inspired us to continue to find other indie music to use in the show once it became a series of half-hour specials, before it became a series.” They made 26 shorts in total. They were enough to get the go ahead to make a few specials, and then finally a first season. This is where Pete & Pete really came into its own, and where the musical landscape of the show took off.
An Imaginary Band, And Some Real Ones, Make The Perfect Soundtrack
You hear, ‘Hey smiling strange, looking happily deranged’ when you’re a kid and you think, I don’t know what the f*ck that means, but it seems poetic and touching.
When you’re talking about music on The Adventures of Pete & Pete, there’s one place you have to start: Polaris. Polaris is integral to the world of the show, and the show was integral to the very existence of Polaris. In truth, there was no Polaris before Pete & Pete.
“Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, they were fans of the band I was in before, sort of around the same time – a band called Miracle Legion. They initially wanted to have Miracle Legion do the music, but at that time we were in a weird dysfunctional place, so I asked if I could do it myself,” said Mark Mulcahy, the main creative force behind Polaris.
“I don’t think there would be Pete & Pete if it wasn’t for Miracle Legion,” said McRobb, “One song in particular, called ‘The Backyard,’ that is Pete & Pete in a song.” Indeed, “The Backyard,” does really evoke the feelings of Pete & Pete, and so perhaps it is not surprising that Danny Tamberelli (also known as “Little Pete”) and Michael Maronna (“Big Pete”) use it as the theme song for their podcast The Adventures of Danny & Mike.
Viscardi and McRobb told Mulcahy, “’We want a theme song, but we don’t want it to say the name Pete & Pete in the theme song. We just want it to be something cool. We don’t have to have the show name in the song.’ Similarly with the other songs we wanted from him, we’d say, ‘You know, we’d like a fast song for adventure parts of the show. We’d like a sad song for when their hearts are broken. A bittersweet song or something that’s a little gonzo and excited to capture those feelings we all have as human beings, but are certainly prominent when you’re a kid.’ So, we gave Mark those general kind of parameters. In a wonderful way, he didn’t listen to anything we told him to do and did whatever he wanted to do, which was absolutely perfect.”
Polaris are behind many of the songs you hear repeatedly during the show, including, of course, its iconic theme song “Hey, Sandy.”
If you want to evoke strong emotions in somebody of a certain age, play them “Hey, Sandy.” “You hear, ‘Hey smiling strange, looking happily deranged’ when you’re a kid and you think, I don’t know what the f*ck that means, but it seems poetic and touching. You just go with it. It’s magical.” said Viscardi.
Polaris recorded 12 songs in total, which were eventually released on a 1999 album entitled, fittingly enough, Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete. While anybody who watched the show with any regularity will recognize the songs on the album, a few stick out. “Summerbaby” is best known as Little Pete’s favorite song from the episode “A Hard Day’s Pete.” “She Is Staggering” is what the show would use if they ever wanted to create a wistful feeling in the viewer. Perhaps the best of the bunch, though, is “Waiting for October,” a rollicking song that McRobb only recently realized is about the end of the world.
Outside of Polaris, the largest impact by a musician on the show came from Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, including “Why I Cry,” from the two-part goodbye to Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, “Farewell, My Little Viking.” It’s a bit of a downer. Two other Merritt projects contributed songs to the show, and they are two of the most prominent songs in terms of usage on Pete & Pete. The Gothic Archies gave us “Your Long White Fingers” (the show used its mournful harmonica riff to signify something sad has happened), and “Falling Out of Love with You” by The 6ths.
Luscious Jackson, The Apples in Stereo, and more also had music featured on the show, but there’s a whole host of indie luminaries whose contributions were lost. “When we first did the specials, before they were pre-packaged and turned into season one of the show, we really had free reign to pick almost anything we wanted,” said McRobb, “We had Yo La Tengo on the soundtrack, and Grant McLennan from The Go-Betweens had a song on there, a super-obscure footnote to the early stages of the show. I think we had a couple other bands that we couldn’t really afford to get once we went to series. So, we re-packaged the shows and basically just replaced all that stuff with Polaris songs. But those specials were chock full of stuff we had to get rid of when we did the series.”
“I hate hearing the replacement music. I just can’t stand it. I understand why it had to happen, but it doesn’t mean I like it. I can hear what was there and it was so much better,” said Dieckmann.
Iggy Pop, LL Cool J, And Michael Stipe … And The Cameos That Almost Were
The Adventures of Pete & Pete went beyond just giving us all that great music, thanks to appearances by several musicians over the course of the show. It all begun with the second special, “What We Did on Our Summer Vacation,” a delightful episode that chronicled the end of summer, as well as the search for missing ice cream man Mr. Tastee. It also featured two big-time musical cameos: R.E.M.’s Stipe, and Kate Pierson from The B-52’s. Both were friends of Dieckmann’s.
Stipe’s brief stint is the show in a microcosm. Big Pete is at the beach, and Mr. Tastee is gone, leaving Stipe’s Captain Scrummy as the local ice cream man. Oh, and also he sells something called a “Sludgesicle.” It’s bizarre, and wonderful. “Stipe wasn’t super comfortable with what I was making him do,” Dieckmann said. “It wasn’t native to him. I knew Michael very well at that point, and I knew he had a silly side, but it was never part of his public persona. So, I liked that he allowed me to show that silly part of him.”
“Kate Pierson from the B-52s, I always loved her cameo,” said McRobb. Pierson played Mrs. Van Devere, a blind millionaire who may have had a past with Mr. Tastee. As a member of The B-52’s, Pierson was used to being slightly left of center of pop culture. Thus, she fit right in. “I was up for anything, and it was really fun,” said Pierson, “I just remember it was not frenetic like a music video where you have to get it done in one day.” Pierson’s performance is very melodramatic, something out of a Douglas Sirk film. It was a perfect fit for the show and character; you don’t make a character a blind millionaire widow if you want it to be subtle.
The musical cameos continued apace. The legendary Debbie Harry played a customer for Pete and Pete’s landmine detection business. David Johansen – from The New York Dolls, and of Buster Poindexter fame – had a fairly big role as a park ranger (“David Johansen was cool. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches somewhere in Staten Island. We talked about old-school punk rock,” said Tamberelli). Then, of course, there was LL Cool J.
These days, LL Cool J is mostly known as an actor. Back in 1994, when he played teacher Mr. Throneberry in the episode “Sick Day,” however, he only had a handful of roles to his name. In “Sick Day,” Little Pete successfully fakes being sick so that he can skip school, and LL throws a luau to celebrate. Aaron Schwartz, who played Clem “Muttonchops” Linnell on the show, remembers it fondly. “My character ended up growing facial hair at age 12. The whole joke was the longer we sit and wait, the longer my facial hair will grow. There’s one scene where it ends up being a full Rabbi beard. I was kind of embarrassed because I was sitting there like, Oh my God, this is in front of LL Cool J and I’m playing this character. But LL Cool J was eating it up, always commenting on the beard, ‘Love the beard, bro!’ I was in kid heaven hanging out with LL Cool J on set.”
While all these musicians made memorable appearances, there were two musicians whose role in the show went beyond cameos: Syd Straw and Iggy Pop. They both fit perfectly as key characters in the world of the show.
Pete & Pete was looking for a math teacher when McRobb said, “We’d like the math teacher to be a Syd Straw type, to which Dieckmann replied, “Well, Syd Straw is a Syd Straw type.”
“I am a fabulous approximation of myself, apparently,” said Straw.
“I think Syd Straw is a great actress and a great comedian, and she has amazing timing and is one of the most verbally dextrous people that I know. She just has an amazing vocabulary and is incredibly witty,” said Dieckmann. Straw’s math teacher was named Miss Fingerwood. In “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” she’s the object of Big Pete’s crush. Who can blame him, what with Straw’s infinite charms? Dieckmann and Straw then got to work together on “X=Why?” which featured Miss Fingerwood having a crisis of faith after Ellen questions the point of teaching math. At the end of the episode, one of Straw’s own songs, “Water Please,” plays things out.
Straw as a nice, quirky teacher makes sense. Pop, though, is a punk legend. He’s the dude who used to strut around stage covered in his own blood. So, naturally, Pete & Pete cast him as the painfully unhip suburban dad of Little Pete’s friend Nona. At one point, he calls some no-good punk kids “stooges.” This is the sort of stuff you write into your show when you are very happy to have Iggy Pop on it.
They gave me a really crappy, old angora cardigan sweater to wear… It was really just a matter of forgetting, I just forgot about being Iggy Pop.
“I didn’t know who Iggy Pop was at first,” said Tamberelli, “and when my dad saw that he was going to be there, he took me down to the basement where he has all his vinyl records and he pulled out The Stooge’s Fun House and a couple other records. He was like, ‘He’s going to be on set tomorrow, do you understand how crazy that is?’” You might think that Iggy Pop might feel a little out of place on a kid’s show. Not the case, though. “He was the coolest,” said Tamberelli, “He spoke to me like an adult. It didn’t feel like he was speaking down to me. We just kicked it. We played guitar and bass together a couple times. He basically asked me if it would be cool if he brought his guitar to teach me, because he saw me playing bass.”
“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 and sh*tty sneakers?” 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.”
“I don’t remember a lot of the details, but someone told my manager at the time that I was living in New York City,” said Iggy Pop, “and they shot in the New York area and asked if I wanted to do it. And I was doing, I sort of had a small acting sideline going at that time.” So, how did Pete & Pete manage to turn Pop into, well, someone’s Pop? “A lot of it they do with the clothes. They gave me a really crappy, old angora cardigan sweater to wear,” he joked. “It was really just a matter of forgetting, I just forgot about being Iggy Pop.”
Iggy Pop’s signature episode was “Dance Fever,” about Little Pete’s fear of dancing upon his first school dance. The band playing the dance? Luscious Jackson, as themselves. “We were fans of Luscious Jackson. And, of course, we wanted Big Pete to fall in love with one of the people in the band, and they were all girls, so it was easy for us to have that moment.” said McRobb. But the episode really builds around Little Pete, Nona, and Nona’s dad, who is chaperoning.
“There was an episode where I sing a song to my daughter Nona, much to her embarrassment,” said Pop. “I had to learn a song they had written, a really corny song, and I wanted to sing it well. And I remember I was a little jealous because Luscious Jackson was in the same episode, and they got to do their own song. It was like a guest spot where they were doing this pretty song and I was singing a corny song.” This is the climatic act of a buildup wherein Nona’s dad wants to dance with her which, naturally, mortifies Nona. In the end, Little Pete bites the bullet and dances with Nona so she doesn’t have to dance with ol’ Dad. Everybody dances and has a good time, including Iggy Pop, while Luscious Jackson plays. What says Pete & Pete more than that?
Not that the show got everybody it wanted. “We wanted to get (Hüsker Dü’s) Bob Mould to play a character, but he passed,” said McRobb. “Then we tried to get Tom Waits. I think he was interested, but couldn’t do it. We tried to get (The Pixies’) Frank Black. Another band that really influenced the show musically was They Might Be Giants. We felt like we had a real kinship with them. But we were never able to land those guys. That would have been fun. Yo La Tengo we wanted to get, and I think we were trying to get Pavement at one point. So, those are some of the near misses and impossible dreams.”
Little Pete – err, ‘Thunderball’ – Rocks In The Show’s Greatest Hit
And then there’s the episode “A Hard’s Day Pete.”
“That’s the week I became a musician. I really believe that,” said Tamberelli, who has played bass in the band Jounce for several years. While filming that episode, Tamberelli had just gotten a bass, and Mulcahy told him, “’Guitar players are a dime a dozen. If you want to play in bands, you gotta play bass.’ And it was a good idea. So, I just kept at it. From that episode, from the whole show in general, everybody was just feeding me music. I don’t think I would have been doing anything else. And I thank them for it because it’s what I love to do.”
“A Hard Day’s Pete” is about so much more than setting Tamberelli on his journey to becoming a musician. The episode begins with Little Pete having a radio station in his garage, WART Radio, but he hates music. Then, he sees a band – Polaris, playing “Summerbaby” – in another garage, and the song becomes Little Pete’s favorite. “Danny was real helpful,” said Mulcahy, when discussing actually appearing on the show. “He tried to give me some advice. It’s weird to get advice from an 8-year-old boy. But, whatever, he knows how to do it.” After this mystery band disappears, Little Pete decides to form his own band, The Blowholes, to try and recapture the magic of his favorite song.
Little Pete, also known as Thunderball, played guitar and handled vocals. Clem was on drums. Miss Fingerwood played the bass and informed us that, “Heart times soul equals rock and roll.” Rounding out the lineup was Marshall Crenshaw, as “Lightning” Mel Ratner. But, as good a a real-life musician as Crenshaw is, we missed out on an amazing opportunity.
“They called me and said, ‘We’re going to do a show where you’re going to form a band with Little Pete and one of his little buddies. Who can you think that might be interested in joining that band with the kids?’,” Straw said. “I immediately thought of Joey Ramone. So, I called Joey Ramone and I said, ‘Joey, I want you to come be on this really whacked out kid’s show with me. You’re going to love it. We’re going to be in a band with 10-year-olds. It will be great.’ And he’s like, ‘Ah Syd, we’re leaving for tour tomorrow. We’re going to Europe, I can’t do it.’” Yes, Joey Ramone could have been in a band with Little Pete.
Not that everybody was disappointed. “At the time, I really had no idea who Syd Straw and Marshall Crenshaw were, I mean, my mom was on set and was swooning over Marshall,” said Schwartz. “After the episode, I figured out who they were, and, in retrospect, I can’t believe I worked with them. I actually played music with them. And there were times when we were playing. It wasn’t just the playback. They would ask us to play along with the track. So, it was great. It was fun. It was a whole day of jamming with them pretty much.”
“I remember just being so happy to be playing in a garage. I was never in a garage band,” says Straw. “I love that song, ‘I was around, nobody knows, nobody knows,’ I remember doing that song over and over and thinking, I love this song. I want to play it for four months without stopping.”
Leaving A Lasting Legacy Long After The Last Note
People say, ‘I can’t even begin to tell you how much this music means to me’ … It’s unusual to be in a band that did nothing and has an audience.
Most shows don’t have extended shelf lives. They are watched, sometimes they are loved and remembered fondly, but, mostly, they are left in the past. The Adventures of Pete & Pete, though, has had an afterlife worth envying. The people who watched it as kids became adults, and those adults still had love for the show. That’s because Pete & Pete, like the best of the modern animated movies, balanced the whimsy of children’s content with an approach that made it rewarding for adults, as well. The music was a big part of that; many of the same kids who loved the show probably wound up buying R.E.M. and The Stooges records later in life.
The continued reverence for the show culminated in a Pete & Pete reunion, including a big performance at the Orpheum in Los Angeles. “It wasn’t so much the crowds, but the things people said to us after the shows that made us realize that everything we had hoped for when we made it — what we wanted the show to say and how we wanted to affect kids, inspire them, and let them know that they weren’t alone and that being weird was perfectly fine – rang true” said McRobb.
Still, the crowds were big, and so were the events. But, of course, a show that was so intricately tied to its music couldn’t pull off a proper reunion without that element. So, Polaris, the band put together for the sake of the show, performed live for the first time together, 20 years after the show originally ran.
“We never played [Polaris’ songs] as a group, or practiced or anything,” said Mulcahy. “It was very strange. Now that we’ve done it so much, it feels normal. Like a normal band. But until we started playing, we had never played live. We were just this TV band and it turned out to be a great thing. It’s been really super. To be able to do it is great. I was going to say to resurrect it, but there’s nothing to resurrect. Nothing was ever crucified.”
Polaris as a “normal band” started at those reunion shows, but now do things normal bands do. They tour, and their Music From The Adventures of Pete & Pete was reissued earlier this year.
“My band actually opened for Polaris in Chicago last summer, and they made a double-wide record of it, so there’s a version of that out now, of me singing ‘Summerbaby’ with him. It’s crazy,” said Tamberelli.
“I meet people who say, ‘I can’t even begin to tell you how much this music means to me,’” said Mulcahy. “I’ve never really had that experience to play for a room full of people who are all exactly on the same page and all ecstatic… It’s unusual to be in a band that did nothing and has an audience.”
“You see a musician, a band that you love, and it’s great,” said Viscardi. “And other times, you go and, for whatever reason, there’s an energy to it. It feels more like an experience. That’s what it felt like for me watching Mark and the band with all these fans it just felt like. I don’t want to say nostalgic, that seems too cheap, just an emotional connection that was very pure between the band and the audience.”
But what do the people who worked on the show feel about its legacy and its music?
“First records are great,” said McRobb. “I love first records. It’s everything the band has experienced in its entire life in one record. I think Pete & Pete was the ultimate first record… It’s a celebration of all the little things about being a kid that you forget about as you get older, but as a kid are larger than life. Really celebrating all the little things of childhood. It was almost trying to get kids to be nostalgic for their own childhood while they were having their own childhoods.”
“I would say the thing that we always talked about when we were making the show was we wanted every single episode to be funny, sad, strange, and beautiful,” said Viscardi.
“I just moved to L.A. about six months ago,” said Schwartz, “A girl in L.A. walking down the street recognized me from other stuff, knew I was from Pete & Pete, took her sleeve off and showed a tattoo of Petunia. It was a real tattoo. She tattooed that to her arm, she was such a fan. I remember sending Danny a picture of it, like, This is crazy.”
“It’s cool. It’s a very, I keep saying cool, but it’s one of those feelings. I’ve done other stuff at Nickelodeon and Disney, Mighty Ducks and all sorts of stuff, but Pete & Pete is the only one where I’ll get, This affected me, something happened to me when I watched this, and thank you because it’s now made me realize who I am. That’s beautiful and a really cool thing,” said Tamberelli.
When discussing Pete & Pete, the folks talking about it often mentioned words like “naivety” and “nostalgia.” But even those not interested in nostalgia can love Pete & Pete. It’s a kid’s show that stands the test of time — an idiosyncratic, definitively and defiantly bizarre bit of television that can still amuse an adult. It’s a show in which a family can dig up a working car at the beach and drive it home. It’s a show in which a child can be friends with the world’s strongest man, and said strongest man can get into aluminum siding sales. It’s a show in which a climax of an episode can play out like this. And, of course, it’s a show with great music. You can watch Kate Pierson play a blind millionaire and Michael Stipe play a scuzzy ice cream man and Iggy Pop play a suburban dad who hates canoes.
Perhaps we are deranged for loving The Adventures of Pete & Pete all these years later, but at least we’re happily deranged.