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.