It's mighty strange
You're looking happily deranged
Or have you picked your target yet?
--"Hey Sandy," Polaris
If you were in school in the mid-1990s, you may remember those lyrics -- including the impossible-to-understand third line -- as the theme song to one of the strangest shows in the history of Nickelodeon: "The Adventures of Pete & Pete." It was a suburban story about the life of two redheaded brothers, both named Pete. The show was a mixture of surrealist humor, rock music, offbeat cameos, and a deeply compassionate look at growing up. It still might be the best show Nickeleodeon ever aired. I recently spoke to co-creator Will McRobb about the show, and the musical sensibility that informed it.
McRobb and his writing partner Chris Viscardi first created the characters in the late 1980's while working in Nickelodeon's promo department, which asked them to create 60-second advertisements. The channel was still trying to create an identity in the eyes of its watchers. "It was only partly about making kids watch shows, and partly making a place kids could call their own," explains McRobb. "Back in those days, it seemed like Nick was the anti-Disney, trying capture what it's really like to be a kid, and not be so sanitized or so structured." And instead of cute animals singing songs, they had jangle-pop. "I forget why it was so easy to put in A-level indie rock," but "anybody who saw the actual specials got to hear Yo La Tengo."
Pete & Pete also got a chance because of a lucky accident of programming: Nickelodeon didn't have enough corporate advertising to fill every spot in the day, and letting their in-house ad guys fill the rest. "Partly because the stakes were lower," says McRobb, "and there was less pressure to make money, there was more freedom to make things more personal." So they made 60-second spots about the two brothers. and their lives - like Big Pete's terrible summer job; Ellen's model rocket launch; their personal superhero, Artie, the Strongest Man in the World; and the metal plate in their mom's head. ("If you're ever at our house for dinner and you hear what sounds like Mexican radio, it is Mexican radio, coming from the plate in my mother's head.")
Those spots established the show's ethos immediately, trying "to tell a story like a kid tells a story, like a pouring of words, fractured and stream of consciousness." Narrated completely by voiceover, they packed a dense array of sight gags into a narrative that tried "to pack a half hour into a minute." The spots were so popular with viewers that Nickelodeon let McRobb and Viscardi create a 30-minute special, "The Valentine's Day Massacre," which won a 1992 ACE award for cable excellence - and convinced Nickelodeon to commission more specials, and eventually enough to fill a season.
Music was a huge part of the show's image, from the indie rock bands on the soundtrack to the musicians who made cameos, from Iggy Pop to Michael Stipe to Debbie Harry. Fifteen years after the show went off the air, rumor has it that music is keeping the show out of stores. After the first two seasons were released on DVD, the third season was completed and pressed, then never appeared for sale. No reason was given, but McRobb heard a rumor: a rights battle over Lucious Jackson songs. Then Paramount merged with Nickelodeon parent Viacom, and the DVDs have gathered dust ever since.
But the show wouldn't have been what it was without its music. The actor who played Little Pete, Dan Tamberelli, plays in the band Jounce, and credits his music career to meeting Iggy Pop on the show's set. But the most important band was Miracle Legion: they wrote and performed the theme song, "Hey Sandy," in the opening credits, and composed other songs used as incidental music in the show's episodes. "Everything that Pete & Pete became was because of Miracle Legion," he said.
One Miracle Legion song, "The Backyard," captured the evocative hope and heartbreak of childhood: "Think it was the hottest day of the year/Even still we started fires with the ember/Sweetest May held on at the top of the hill/Sweetest lady held on to her memories." "That song kind of inspired the whole series," says McRobb. Then they signed on as the house band - under the psuedonym of Polaris, due to a dispute with their record company. "From that starting point, it was so simple to get all your favorite bands on the show. It was like the show itself, the fantasy of just being able to do whatever you want." Other bands that followed included icons like the Apples in Stereo, Magnetic Fields, and, yes, Lucious Jackson. "Nobody ever said no."
Apparently, no one at Nickelodeon minded too much. "Because it wasn't like anything else, nobody quite knew what to do with it, and nobody said anything. It was like its own little special room that nobody wanted to go into." That suited McRobb and Viscardi just fine at first, but it meant there was no one at the network who felt particularly strong about renewing them. After two more seasons, the show wasn't picked up for a fourth. It stayed in reruns for nearly a decade after it went off the air, and the first two seasons were released on DVD shortly thereafter.
McRobb stayed busy, and kept working with Viscardi, a partnership that has lasted 20 years. In recent years, they worked on "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and a television show for Nickelodeon's sister channel The N called "The Assistants." Though the tone of "Pete and Pete" is frequently wistful, McRobb has few regrets. "My entire musical aesthetic is expressed through the music on Pete & Pete... the spirit of that show is who I am," he says. "It comes with me wherever I go."
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.