If life were like Wellsville, there would be no suicide.
— Jason Tibbetts, from happilyDERANGED (the Pete and Pete fanlist)
Ellen Hickle was the first girl I ever had a crush on. I kissed a girl named Carissa on a school bus in first grade, and I definitely had weird feelings for the ladies in the “Big Ole Butt” and “Baby Got Back” videos, but those weren’t “crushes”. The former was childish curiosity (I think I wanted to find out if girls tasted like boogers, like my friend Jamie said), and the latter were, you know, signs that a boy was becoming a man. But Ellen was something different. I loved her chestnut brown hair, her sense of humor, her total bookishness — the way she’d read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time when she was 13 while working at her uncle Lou’s Photo Hut just knocked me out. She was definitely the one.
She was also fictional, which probably says something about me, though I’m not entirely sure what. Ellen, played by Allison Fanelli, was a character on The Adventures of Pete and Pete, a children’s program that aired on Nickelodeon from 1993-1996. It began as a series of 60-second commercials brainstormed by Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb for the fledgling cable channel’s promotions arm, and when the spots were well received, the station commissioned a half-hour special. One special turned into another, and another, and eventually, it became an award-winning, critically acclaimed show that stood out from Nickelodeon’s other original programming (which at the time consisted of the cowboy comedy Hey, Dude! and Clarissa Explains It All, featuring eventual teen witch Melissa Joan Hart) like a sore thumb due to its intelligence and eccentricity.
In the deceptively surreal trappings of a children’s television show, Devine finds real art, capturing the essence of childhood struggles and the spirit of individuality in characters strange, great, and small.
Ellen was the best friend and future love interest of Pete Wrigley (Michael Maronna), a carrot-top stick figure so oblivious to Ellen’s “more than friends” advances that just watching them together made my guts boil. But then I’d feel guilty for hating on Pete; I was just bummed that he had a shot and I didn’t. Besides, his innocent awkwardness reminded me too much of my own redheaded older bro, and jealousy’s got no place between brothers.
There was never any jealousy between Pete and his little brother, also a redhead and, oddly enough, also named Pete (Danny Tamberelli). Sometimes together, but more often separately, the Brothers Pete navigated life in a small town called Wellsville, whose population included pubescent tormentors with names like Papercut, Pitstain, and (my personal favorite) Endless Mike, as well as a slew of adults who frequently seemed more lost than their kid counterparts. This grown-up roster featured a bunch of people I knew were cool (R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Chris Elliott, and Janeane Garofalo), more that I later found out were cool (Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry), and at least one that I remember just thinking was really pretty (Juliana Hatfield).
I had never seen anything like Pete and Pete, due in large part to the fact that I had never seen TV characters like Pete and Pete. Little Pete was like a miniature John Wayne, forever leading his friends into battle for kids’ rights. He called adults “blowholes”, wore flannel before it was cool, and had a tattoo of a leggy redhead named Petunia on his forearm. He said and did all the things most kids never have the guts to, and I’ve never stopped idolizing him for it; to this day, whenever I’m around someone who’s acting like a douche, I feel like turning to the person sitting next to me and borrowing Little Pete’s immortal words: “Is this guy picking your scabs the way he’s picking my scabs?”
Big Pete, on the other hand, wasn’t a pint-sized general or a tireless crusader. He was just a teenager, caught in an almost impossible situation that we’ve all faced: the struggle between wanting to grow up and the desire to hold on to the kid consciousness that makes imagination possible and adolescence beautiful. Time and again, Big Pete’s storylines tackled the turmoil of growing up — trying to figure out girls and when it stops being “cool” to go trick-or-treating, avoiding getting your face broken by psychopaths in shop class, and the always delicate problem of not wanting to be publicly embarrassed, but also not wanting to let down your dad. Most importantly, though, Big Pete had to figure out how to grow up without ditching the biggest relationship in his life: his friendship with his little brother. Whereas Little Pete’s problems were larger than life, Big Pete’s problems were always drawn to scale and honestly portrayed; I saw my own brother deal with all of them, that sticky last one in particular, every day. For as much credit as Viscardi and McRobb have received for Pete and Pete‘s injection of over-the-top levity into the experience of growing up, I don’t think they’ve ever gotten enough respect for their ability to tap into the staggering weight and power of suburban normalcy. Nowhere is their skill more evident than in the character of Big Pete, to this day one of the most “real” teen characters ever created.
That said, the over-the-top was definitely Pete and Pete‘s bread and butter. Viscardi and McRobb amped up the smallest aspects of a kid’s life to mammoth levels, and their penchant for turning molehills into mountains was the show’s greatest asset. The importance of being the dot topping the “I” in a marching band formation and the consequences of a rock-paper-scissors showdown with a pathological bully are the kind of minutiae that adults might just brush off, but they’re the perfect foundations for a children’s program because when you’re a kid, the little things are your whole life. Kids don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or whether or not the roof will make it through another winter; they have to worry about 9PM bedtimes and evil teachers with varicose vein-stricken legs, because that’s what governs their lives. Since adults are by definition removed from the Kid Perspective, they call storylines like these “surreal” or “absurdist”, and a lot of people (including Viscardi and McRobb) have used those terms to describe Pete and Pete‘s skewed worldview. But I remember being a kid watching “What We Did on Our Summer Vacation”, the second Pete and Pete half-hour special, and thinking it was logical for Little Pete and his friend Artie, the Strongest Man in the World (the fantastic Toby Huss), to beat up the ocean because they’re pissed that summer has to end. That didn’t strike an eight-year-old me as absurd or insane; I felt the same way every time August melted into September. (In fact, at 22, it still makes more sense than just about anything I can think of.)
And that’s why, despite its stated objective to focus on the small and the odd, The Adventures of Pete and Pete mattered in the way Big Things matter: it spoke to kids on a level that they could understand, taught them without talking down to them, and helped them to feel comfortable in their own skin, even as everything around them was in flux and beyond their control. More than a decade after the airing of its final episode, with its original audience now firmly entrenched in pseudo-adulthood, it’s still doing its job — a recent viewing session of Pete and Pete‘s first season (just released on DVD) reminded me of the show’s ever-present emphasis on the beauty of natural oddity and individuality. This made me feel better about my life than any therapy session or hour-long crying jag ever could, and I’m pretty sure the reason why is contained in Artie, the unlikely superhero who would become the closest thing the show had to a breakout star.
Odds are, Nietzsche was not presaging Pete and Pete when he wrote, “One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” (This probably does not come as a shock to you.) But I can’t help flashing on that quote whenever I watch Artie do, well, anything. It has a lot to do with the amazing performance of Toby Huss, whose wild gesticulations, amazing facial expressions, and incredible timing always made Artie crackle with energy like the great superhero he was meant to be. The marriage of Huss and Artie was almost too perfect; after all, what could be more exciting to a former street performer with a proclivity for improvisation than the opportunity to play a horn-rimmed force of nature, a pajama-clad embodiment of mutated heroism, and a funk-fueled symbol of the possibilities of a world unbounded by conventional logic? There was near-limitless freedom in portraying Artie, and Huss made the most of it, becoming an iconic figure simply by being as fucking weird as he could possibly be.
But no matter how hard Huss worked, the performance wouldn’t have come off had it not been for the vision of the show’s creators. They wrote the dialogue that would become the stuff of legend, spawning a subculture of viewers who made “pipe” (which, to Artie, meant “good”: for example, in the Season 1 episode “The Nightcrawlers”, he tells a tired Little Pete that sleep “is for the puny” and is decidedly “un-pipe”) a small-time catchphrase. They hypothesized that a suburban superhero would have to tighten his parameters and take on different kinds of villains. Superman has to protect bustling Metropolis and its millions of residents, so it makes sense that he deals with the big and deadly like Lex Luthor and Brainiac. But since Artie works the Wellsville beat, he’s got to take on aluminum siding salesmen and engage in staring contests with nefarious queen bees to ensure sting-free summers. These are the rogues of suburban life, and Artie’s commitment to fighting them with all of his mutant strength gave him a certain charm that viewers loved.
Even though he was definitely a supporting character, Artie was the most finely crafted and fully realized entity in the entire Wellsville universe, and he had to be, because ultimately, he was the apex of exactly what Viscardi and McRobb wanted to create with Pete and Pete: the missing link between adolescence and adulthood. He was a grown man infused with the child consciousness, totally empowered by his refusal to become the adult he was supposed to be. This refusal to walk in step with the status quo (and, very often, to walk at all; Artie vastly preferred headlong sprints, Hulk-style county-clearing jumps, and convulsive freak-dancing as means of conveyance) made him Public Enemy #1 for the sinister International Adult Conspiracy, whose rules he constantly inspired his young charges to question. He was proof that you could get big without having to forget about what it meant to be small, that you could hang on to the brilliance of childhood long past the time when you’re legally able to vote, drink, or drive. Artie was Peter Pan for a generation of kids who didn’t give a shit about flights of whimsy, but did want to feel like they could do anything if they just believed hard enough.
That intense belief is the center of Artie’s character, and, in my mind, the source of his power. In the commentaries on the Pete and Pete DVD, Viscardi and McRobb are deliberately vague as to whether or not Artie really has any superpowers; he can allegedly skip rocks on Neptune and drive golf balls clear into the next area code, but we never see any definitive evidence of “real” superpowers. (Furthermore, in the early Pete and Pete 60-second commercial in which Artie was introduced, it was suggested that he derived his powers from his costume, a pair of red- and blue-striped pajamas that are “a 40/60 blend of titanium and cotton”.) They never resolved the question in any of Artie’s appearances, preferring to leave his true nature open-ended as one of the great unanswered mysteries of childhood.
But in the finale of Artie’s two-part swan song (the bittersweet “Farewell, My Little Viking”), Big Pete offers an explanation that I think fits both character and show perfectly: that maybe Artie’s only real power, and the only power anyone ever really needs to make a difference, is the ability to see the world from an entirely unique perspective, in a way that nobody else ever has or ever could. What made Artie a superhero was his total conviction that he was one, his dedication to all the kids on Cranson Street who needed a champion to teach them that it was okay to be themselves. I’m sure a lot of kids have learned these positive lessons from Sesame Street, Fred Rogers, and the like over the years, but for some reason, Artie’s specific message of embracing your inner freakshow had a greater impact on me than any of those other televised tenets. Its initial impact made me feel better about being a nine-year-old Guns ‘n’ Roses fan. Repeated viewings of Nickelodeon’s reruns gave me confidence that it was okay to be a teenager who liked reading Jerry Stahl more than watching Jerry Rice, even if you did live in a culture full of meatheads and wanna-be thugs. Now, with all that in my rearview mirror, I’m thankful for the reinforcement that Artie and the rest of Pete and Pete‘s mutants provided, because without them, I might never have become okay with the fact that I am one myself. And to go through life denying who you really are because you’re worried you might look weird…well, boy, that would be decidedly unpipe.