"The last time we met, you were all virgins!"
Syd Straw was right. When the indie rock pioneer guest starred on "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" in 1994, her target audience of Nickelodeon viewers was primarily composed of kids born during the Reagan administration. But last Friday, many those very same kids trudged through the rain the Lower East Side in Manhattan to witness a reunion of the cast and creators of the seminal show at the Bowery Ballroom, celebrating perhaps the smartest, most subversive show ever to pass itself off as a sitcom for preteens.
In January, the cast reunited for a show in Los Angeles to much acclaim. So much, in fact, that the show's organizer, The A.V. Club, decided to put on the event again in New York City for a "hometown" show. (The show was mostly filmed in New Jersey suburbs.) As the show's creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi noted, the show sold out in 2 minutes. They added another show, which sold out in another 2 minutes.
For the uninitiated: "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" ran for three seasons on Nick, from 1993-1996. It revolves around a family in Wellesville, a broadly-drawn American suburb in the tradition of Springfield in "The Simpsons." The titular Petes are brothers and best friends "Big Pete" and "Little Pete" Wrigley, and the show chronicles their navigation through the harsh waters of school, friendship, love and everything in between. The show's creative potential is filled out by a supporting cast of miscellaneous oddballs, most notably Artie, the Strongest Man in the World, a wiry, bespectacled, be-Spandexed "superhero." McRobb, still staying true to his '90s ethos by sporting Chuck Taylors at the Bowery event, said that Wellsville was meant to embody the spirit that if "you pull off the highway and pay attention to your own backyard, you may be amazed."
But what makes the show stand out is the fact that the show's creators seamlessly married '90s so-called alternative sensibilities with what was ostensibly a children's program, to great results. Most of the directors of "Pete & Pete" episodes had worked with some of the best alternative music acts of the day (Katherine Dieckmann, who directed many R.E.M. videos before helming much of the first season of "Pete & Pete" and arguably gave the show its voice, was in attendance at the reunion.) Guest stars of the show included Michael Stipe, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Chris Elliot, LL Cool J and Janeane Garofalo, as well as the bands The B-52s and Luscious Jackson.
The show was borne out of sixty-second programming promos produced by McRobb and Viscardi for Nickelodeon, where they were given free reign to create a mini-universe of characters to promote Nick programming. Out of this came the post-Cold War nuclear family The Wrigleys, and slowly, the oddball sensibilities of the shorts overtook their original intention, and Nickelodeon greenlit a show revolving around the family.
The 7 p.m. Bowery show opened with a performance of the show's grunge-pop theme song, "Hey Sandy." Originally, the song was performed by the indie outfit Polaris. This time, the audience was treated to a reunion of The Blowholes, a band from the show fronted by Little Pete himself, Danny Tamberelli, on lead vocals and bass. (Tamberelli currently leads a jam band called Jounce). He was joined by Straw on rhythm guitar and rock stalwart Marshall Crenshaw on lead.
WATCH: Here's an original clip of The Blowholes performing on "Pete & Pete."
WATCH: A clip of the reunited Blowholes at the Bowery show last week, playing "Hey Sandy."
After playing a few more songs from the "Pete & Pete," the remainder of the cast and crew came out. In addition to McRobb, Viscardi, Dieckmann and Tamberelli, "Pete & Pete" alums in attendance were: Big Pete himself, Michael Maronna; the Wrigley parents, played by Hardy Rawls and Judy Grafe; Toby Huss, who portrayed Artie; Alison Fanelli, who played Ellen, the friend and sometime love interest of Big Pete.
Kicking off the panel and setting the tone for the show was Maronna, who playfully called out a Bowery security guard who elbowed him in the face when he got too close to the stage while attending a Regina Spektor concert at the venue. Maronna, whose looks have remained remarkably intact since his "Pete & Pete" days, could hardly be considered a celebrity in 2012. But in that moment, even the guard laughed and sheepishly apologized to the man of the hour, unaware that he had struck Millennial royalty.
The hour-long conversation breezed by, and many, especially the show's creators, seemed happily surprised by the show's continuing popularity. Although the members of the group took different paths after the show ended -- for instance, Fanelli now works in a hospital, and Maronna works as an electrician for many popular TV and film projects -- their affection for each other appeared intact. Stories from the set flowed freely, from pranks that involved the boys stealing Melissa Joan Hart's wallet -- Clarissa couldn't explain pubescent boys, apparently -- to Tamberelli receiving his first bass lessons from Iggy Pop. Seriously, how many 12-year-olds can say that a punk legend once blew out his amp?
McRobb and Viscardi happily recounted battles with Nickelodeon's censors, specifically regarding language that sounded vaguely R-rated, but was harmless. "Blowhole," Little Pete's favorite slur, had its dictionary definition read to the censors before they allowed it to be used on the air. However, Straw's teacher character, originally named "Mrs. Fingerhut," was a loss; Fingerwood, on the other hand, was acceptable. They noted the arbitrary nature of these distinctions, and still felt as though they got away with something.
Huss in particular was a vivacious presence at the show. McRobb revealed that he discovered Huss when the comedian performed a decidedly raunchier version of Artie around downtown New York City. Huss, an improv actor whose bohemian lifestyle involved making chalk and soap in his Lower East Side apartment, recounted being amused and slightly baffled by the show he found himself a part of. He also admitted that leaving the show after the second season was "a mistake." But it's hard to argue that he left a mark on the show when even Iggy Pop told the show's creators that Artie "freaked him out." Huss' satisfaction was palpable.
"The Adventures of Pete & Pete" remains the rare cult television series that survives and thrives to this day on its own terms. Although it undoubtedly evokes memories of a simpler time we called 1990s, it can be appreciated beyond a simple nostalgia piece. Just as "Calvin & Hobbes" magnified childhood joys and fears without condescending to its audience, "Pete & Pete" similarly celebrated childhood and community through a distinctly unique and wondrous prism. At a time when it's en vogue to praise '90s Nickelodeon programming nearly solely for its kitsch value, "Pete & Pete" continues to stand out.
McRobb closed the show by quoting a line about the Strongest Man in the World, that also applies to "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." "He made the world a little bit weirder, and a little bit better."