Sunday, March 9, 2014

30 For 30: The Adventures Of Pete & Pete

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 15, we consider what weird means and why treating children like adults can make for a show that appeals to adults.

When we use the word 'weird' to describe something, it's usually because we can't think of a better descriptor. The first time I heard about Aqua Teen Hunger Force it was described to me as “a weird show”, which doesn't even begin to explain it. What's more, depending on the context, 'weird' can denote something that is good or bad, making it akin to 'interesting' in that regard. For example, I would call Animal Collective's Centipede Hz weird and interesting in bad ways, and I would call Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans weird and interesting in good ways.

Since 'weird' has no inherent positive or negative value, and it can be used in vague ways when you can't think of other better words to use instead, it becomes a little frustrating when I say that I tend to like weird things. What does it really mean to like weird things? After all, each person's idea of what constitutes weird is different, and things can be weird in different ways, too. So before this spirals further into philosophical musings on weirdness, I'd like to take a trip back to the early 90s, when I encountered the first weird thing I can remember loving, a live action TV show that led me to develop a lifelong passion for weird things. I figure if I can't precisely define my idea of weird and why I love weird things, I might as well start at the beginning.

I don't think I would be the person I am today if I hadn't been at just the right age to see The Adventures Of Pete & Pete. It influenced everything from my sense of humor to my skewed way of seeing the world to even my taste in music. I'm not sure that Pete & Pete was influential in terms of impact on other shows around that time or that came after, but it was inarguably influential to a generation who grew up during its brief run on TV. If you're unfamiliar with the show it may seem odd to apply the label “influential” to something aimed at kids, but that's the beauty of it. This was a show that was for children but treated the audience like adults. It didn't need to spell out its moral lessons or spend too much time explaining everything. Most importantly, it was weird, but never in a way that felt cheap or stupid. The characters play it straight, as if everything is normal and expected, which makes everything feel even more weird. A better description than 'weird' might be 'suburban surrealism.' Indeed, there's a very specific tone and feel to Pete & Pete that inevitably led to its short three season run and cult-beloved status. 

Is this a still from a Wes Anderson movie or a kids show? You decide!

Much like other cult TV shows, you either 'get' Pete & Pete or you don't. Cult shows tend to be that way simply because they're unique and can't easily be compared to other shows, and so most TV viewers are less willing to give them a chance. This problem is multiplied when it's a kids show because kids, even more than adults, just want the same familiar things over and over. Maybe this is a gross overgeneralization but hey, real talk: if you think there are too many movie sequels, go take a look at how many sequels there are to kids movies. But I digress. During its time on TV, Pete & Pete was never a show that I remember other kids talking about at school. Even on a kid's channel with some other weird shit like Ren & Stimpy, Pete & Pete was like no other show before or since, and trying to explain to my friends why it was awesome only got me looks of confusion or boredom. As weird as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was when you first heard about it, even little boys can understand its premise which boils down to a simple “cartoon about mutant turtles who fight stuff.” With Pete & Pete there's no simple summation to give. One episode is about surviving a family road trip to the Hoover Dam, another is about trying to break a world record by staying awake for 11 nights, and another is about faking sick to stay home from school and how it gives you a new perspective on everything.

Of all the kids shows from my youth, Pete & Pete has held up the best. Most of the stuff I was watching in the late 80s/early 90s is unwatchable dreck when you have the mind of an adult but if anything I think I enjoy Pete & Pete more now than I did when it was on TV. There were even some jokes I didn't get until I was an adult, like the inspired font jokes in the marching band episode and Iggy Pop calling someone a 'stooge' in another. It says a lot that I could see that kind of thing working on Arrested Development or other cult show for adults, and the episode about the telephone that won't stop ringing vaguely reminds me of the general feel and plot formulas of modern kids shows that appeal to adults like Regular Show and Adventure Time. And maybe even My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

However, none of those is cool enough to have this in their opening title sequence 

Earlier I said the show was influential on me, and that's been true throughout my life. During its initial run on TV, Pete & Pete presented such a different take on the world that its point of view and sense of humor began to rub off on me. It features surreal and absurdist ideas but they're never done in a cloying way or overemphasized to the point of insult. In fact the show has no self-awareness about any of its eccentricities, to the point that children's baseball teams called The Bacon Barn or Prosthetics can slip by you if you aren't paying attention. I think somehow this casual-ness about being weird helped me stop being so self conscious about how odd I was as a kid (and continue to be today). Pete & Pete tells the viewer “just be yourself” without needing a character to literally state this out loud. By not explaining any of its strange elements—Why did parents name both their sons Pete? What is the story with Artie? How did Little Pete get a tattoo when he's only a kid?—the show is implicitly telling you that you don't need to explain yourself, either.

The other way the show has influenced me is more of a subtle, longterm effect. See, one of the best things about Pete & Pete was that the creators were huge music fans. Various musicians appeared as guest stars—whether it was Michael Stipe as an ice cream seller or Iggy Pop as a recurring character—but more crucially the show always used music from various indie rock bands. The main soundtrack was provided by the band Miracle Legion (performing under the name Polaris) and was released as a CD, but there were many other bands who contributed a track or two in various episodes. Being exposed to this kind of music as a kid must've planted a seed that sprouted when I got older. Maybe I would've eventually gone beyond the obvious mainstream pop music even without Pete & Pete, but I think it would've taken longer without hearing 'Tidal Wave' by The Apples In Stereo and 'Satellite' by Luscious Jackson when I was young.

Speaking of music...If I can say with certainty that Radiohead's OK Computer was the key formative discovery of my life that led me to become who I am today, then I can also say that Pete & Pete helped to prepare me for liking weird things. Which, in a way, led me to OK Computer. For that, I'll be forever thankful.

Until next time, my little vikings...


Sherman Krebbs said...

It never really dawned on me that Pete & Pete was a weird show until I watched it as an adult. There was a lot of kooky shit going on, but it never felt like they were going out of their way to be strange or absurd. I took its weirdness at face value, which was also how I took in The State, Beavis & Butt-head, Ren & Stimpy, The Maxx / The Head, Rocko's Modern Life etc. etc. The ten year-old me didn't really understand the blatant sexuality of ├ćon Flux, but he did like the mutant superbaby that appeared in the final episode. Sometimes I forget that the nineties were a golden age for weird fucking shit, much more so than the zeros or the tens. Honestly, I think I appreciate Pete & Pete more now than I did back then. It's like the missing link between Jean Shepherd and Chris Elliott. I watched it regularly as a kid, but it wasn't something I discussed with my friends or classmates, which is kind of weird, because we talked about MST3K all the time, and there's no way we got the Larry Csonka or Bone Machine references. I guess it's too much to expect taste from a bunch of fifth graders.

Has anyone ever told you that you look like a bona fide Sludgesicle man?

Greg Lytle said...

Funnily enough, Chris Elliott was on Pete & Pete. I think it was the Sick Day episode.