The further adventures of 'Pete & Pete' and Will and Chris

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

As I wrote in a preview earlier this week, the cast of the 1990s Nickelodeon series "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" was reunited Tuesday before a packed and ardent crowd at L.A.'s Orpheum Theater for what turned out to to be a (somewhat rambling, less than tight, but otherwise delightful) three-hour celebration of the deepest children's show -- and one of television's best shows -- ever. On a stage dressed significantly with a suburban lawn, a picket fence, a Stingray bike and a bowling ball, the main cast and a couple of guest players joined creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi and supervising director Katherine Dieckmann for a panel discussion with extras.

These included Toby Huss (best known as Artie, the Strongest Man in the World) as Sandy Krebman, CEO of the show's fictional megacorp, KrebStar; a selection of clips from the show; a cameo from the soft-serve-headed Mr. Tastee; and the cherry on the sundae, the first-ever live appearance by Polaris, the show's fictional house band (built upon the actual band Miracle Legion), with Danny Tamberelli (Little Pete) and Syd Straw (math teacher Miss Fingerwood) joining at the end for "Summerbaby," one of the series' signal songs. Though it was made up of material written 16 years ago and more, their set, which got better and more powerfully moving as it went along, did not have the feel of a revival, having never happened before. (Leader Mark Mulcahy said afterward that more Polaris shows may be on the cards.)

The night at the Orpheum followed two other reunions, one in November at the Silent Movie Theater under the aegis of the Cinefamily, and back-to-back appearances in February at New York's Bowery Ballroom. I spoke to McRobb and Viscardi between the New York and Orpheum shows. What follows is some of the conversation that didn't make it into Tuesday's article.

Will McRobb: I felt like I was on a film society panel in L.A., but I felt like a rock star at the Bowery Ballroom. And we were paid like a band, so I had to go up the back steps to the manager's office and he gave me a big envelope with money and I had to pay everybody afterward.

Chris Viscardi: When the Cinefamily last summer said that they wanted to do this night for us, we were excited, but we thought, "How many people are really going to show up?" And it sold out. So we decided to do the Bowery Ballroom, through the Onion. The Bowery holds what 400, 450 -- we were like, "OK, We're from New York, there's a lot of people in New York who know about the show, so maybe we'll do OK." And it sold out literally in two minutes online. And then we added a second show and that, too, sold out in less than five minutes. Then you go to the Bowery Ballroom, and it's pouring rain that day, people are waiting outside for hours in the rain -- we definitely felt like rock stars. The audience was just so warm and wonderful and so appreciative.

You had the Blowholes, Little Pete's band from the episode "A Hard Day's Pete," play in New York.

WM: Chris and I spent about 100 hours trying to figure out whether people should be standing or sitting, because we felt it would be really boring for people to be standing while we blah blah blahed about the show. Then we thought, well, we do have this band playing -- maybe it will be OK. And it is the Bowery Ballroom. As it turned out [standing] was the best decision, because it really was more like a rock show than a listen-to-guys-talk show. And the energy brought by the band [including Tamberelli, Straw and power pop icon Marshall Crenshaw] just took it to a whole new level. What was most amazing about that show, where we had the full cast together for the first time, was that the most love that was felt on that stage -- obviously Alison [Fanelli, who played Big Pete's best friend Ellen] got a lot of love, because a lot of guys had crushes on her -- but Judy [Grafe] and Hardy [Rawls], mom and dad, they weren't exactly on the comedy cutting edge of the episodes, they got the biggest rounds of applause.

What was the male to female ratio in the audience?

WM: It seemed pretty split.

CV: I would say that of the people who came up to me after the L.A. show and the New York show, the ones who were the most affected and were trembling and just wanted to hug you were girls. I don't think we ever really wrote the show for them -- probably one of its flaws, looking back, is that we didn't do as good a job as we could have with Ellen, giving her more to do and taking advantage of Alison's comic chops. But I was amazed at how affected young women in the audience were.

Do you think Katherine Dieckmann had anything to do with that?

CV: I'm sure she did. She definitely went out of her way to put Ellen in the forefront at times. Her sensibility also had a real sweetness to it, a smart quality to it, and bohemian.

WV: I think, too, though, it was less about being male or being female than just about being yourself. And maybe women, the indie chicks they would soon grow up to be, needed more of that help when they were 11.

CV: It's about being an outsider growing up. That definitely affects everyone.

I first saw the show as an adult, and loved it, as I've loved other things ostensibly made for kids. When grownups write for children, it's not like what a child would write -- there's an interesting mix of knowledge and memory that makes the show valid for any age.

WM: I think you're right about that. I was thinking about the episode "Summer Vacation," which was where we really started to hit our stride of how to make the show. [The kids try to unlock the secrets of their soft-serve-headed ice-cream man, Mr. Tastee.] On the surface, it's like, "Oh yeah, I remember the ice cream man" and wouldn't it be crazy if there was this mystery about him? And on some level it's about how the end of the summer is really sad. But on another level, a totally adult idea, is that he's basically a guy who's totally intimacy-challenged -- he doesn't want anyone to get to know him because he's afraid it'll be too painful when he leaves. When you really think about what he goes through, the message at the end of that story is, "Don't be afraid to let people in." So that's a good example of how adult problems sneak into our nostalgia.

You met in school at Syracuse and again in the promo department at Nickelodeon.

WM: I was a writer, and you'd come up with an idea for a promo. And they would assign a producer to it. So it was more less random, and we kind of came together, if I'm remembering this right, just as a roll of the dice really. Like [The Smiths'] Morrissey and Marr -- they just met by accident, you know.

Which one are you?

WM: I don't know. I think we're both -- now that I know so much about Johnny Marr, I used to want to be Morrissey, now I want to be Johnny Marr. I think we're both Johnny Marr now.

Before you came to Nickelodeon, did you have a vision of what you wanted to be doing?

CV: I knew I wanted to make things. I had no idea what I wanted to make, I just wanted to make things. Getting a job at Nickelodeon where you start out making five-second "Mr. Ed" promos -- "'Mr. Ed' will be right back" -- it was, like, "Wow, this is awesome! I could do this forever!" We were at a great time at Nickelodeon -- they did not have a lot of original programming, so the money they had they put into the on-air promo department. Between "Mr. Ed" and "Dennis the Menace," they would have all these really great, highly original short films, and "Pete & Pete" [which started as a series of 60-second "image" spots] was one of many projects going on at the time.

WM: It was a network for underdogs. If you were an underdog-minded person, it was the best place to work, because you were trying to get people to look at -- like, I worshiped at the altar of "My Three Sons." That show just really hit an emotional chord for me, and I think I put as much emotional investment into writing a really good "My Three Sons" spot as I did "Pete & Pete," because it meant the same to me -- it just about an overwhelming sense of connection.

CV: There's this one episode of "My Three Sons" where everybody's in the house and it starts to rain and somebody yells, "It's raining!"

WM: Oh, yeah! "Close the windows!"

CV: And the kids run outside to get their bikes and bring them into the garage and everybody's closing the windows, and it's just goes for a minute, it's just a little slice of life that we've all experienced. And when you're that attuned to the world of kids to have that kind of moment in your show -- it didn't have anything to do with the episode -- it just made you realize you were watching something pretty special.

WM: That's right; that nailed it right here: "Close the windows!" That's so about life.

There is a lot of weather in your show.

WM: We grew up like 30 miles apart from one another, so we were both instilled with this upstate New York concept of growing up, which meant all four seasons and nature nearby. All the things that make up Wellsville are our collective memories of upstate New York. That there were four seasons was important to us -- you know our last episode, "Saturdays," it's just a crappy winter day, it's that kind of cold that gets into your blood. When I grew up and you heard it was going to snow you would just pray for a legendary amount of snow; when you're a kid and there's a thunderstorm you want it to be the most amazing thunderstorm ever. We had a lot of shows that had that kind of weather. And it made our surreal episodes seem more real -- when kids look cold because they are cold, and you can see their breath and they're shivering, even though the story was about some completely bizarro idea, it helped ground everything. If it had been sunny all the time, it would have felt a little more lighter-than-air than we wanted it to be.

You were on Nickelodeon at the same time as some other interesting, well-loved series -- "Clarissa Explains It All For You," "The Secret World of Alex Mack."

WM: There was never any fraternity of like-minded producers and writers. I think our allegiance in a weird way was with the promo department. When people talk about '90s Nickelodeon, I never feel that I have any real connection to any of those other shows

CV: Something I found epitomizes "Pete and Pete's" trajectory at Nickelodeon: When they decided to do that nighttime block, "The '90s Are All That," they started promoting "Pete & Pete" with all their other shows.

WM: We were, like, "Hey, maybe we were part of that whole '90s thing at Nickelodeon."

CV: The irony of it all is that Nickelodeon has never aired "Pete & Pete" in its '90s block, ever. Maybe there's some song rights issues on some shows -- that's something we heard about. But they've not aired at all.

WM: The same thing goes on with the mythical third season on DVD. They put out the first two and everyone's thrilled, and the third one doesn't come out, and no one has ever told us why. And they made it, it's in the warehouse.

CV: It's packaged, it's recorded, we did commentary tracks with a bunch of the cast, there's all these special extras on it. They pressed them, we saw it. Nothing.

WV: And you can't get it on iTunes. But it's just part of the cult mystique of the show. It lives on.

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