Whether you loved or hated Nickelodeon’s iconic “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” ask any American undergrad about the magical combination of Danny Tamborelli, a Statue of Liberty miniature and ruined Kentucky bluegrass, and oh, will he know what you’re talking about.
Grounded for answering the question of “What happens when you turn on a humidifier and dehumidifier
at the same time?” on Dad’s prized lawn, Little Pete literally
digs for freedom with Lady Liberty, lighting his way under the house with multi-colored holiday
lights. Just before the rest of the Wrigleys hurry home from fireworks at the park, Pete finally succeeds in tunneling to freedom. Liberty’s torch breaks the earth as patriotic music swells tastefully in the background.
But what you might not have remembered from the first time you watched the episode – the first episode of the show’s second of three seasons (1993-1996) – was the perfectly placed Hoffa reference.
As Pete is making his subterraneous
escape, he finds an old wallet. He opens it and looks at its contents. “Hoffa!” he remarks. Pete pockets the cash and keeps on digging.
Again – amazing.
Unless you were following the news in 1975, the reference was probably lost on your elementary school self (or middle school, as Nick aired reruns until 1999).
A Wikipedia search reveals a a list “Pete and Pete” webpage with other pop-culture allusions that might have gone over the heads of its younger viewers. Notably, Little Pete erects a monument for his late pet lizard Gary with the epitaph “He was the lizard king / He could do anything,” a nod to Jim Morrison
(the episode “The Big Quiet”). And in one of the most absurd – and ingenious – references, the shop teacher confronts Big Pete in a scene similar to the Mr. Pink / Mr. White showdown at the beginning
of “Reservoir Dogs” (“Tool and Die”).
What these allusions demonstrate
is the timelessness and sheer communicability of “Pete and Pete.” Yes, the show is absurd: In the Wrigley family alone, Mom has a steel plate in her head and Little Pete has a mermaid tattoo named Petunia. Not to mention the neighborhood superhero looks and acts like an amphetamine-addled Where’s Waldo? and there’s a storyline
involving a phone that’s been ringing for 27 years.
“Pete and Pete” succeeds because of these oddball absurdities
– maybe you had your own Artie, or sold your house that one time your parents left you and your brother home alone for 35 hours. Or not. Kids loved the deliciously twisted view of American suburbia
because it was funny, period. Superhero Artie’s face, as one of my friends surmised, always looked as if he was simultaneously frowning and smiling with the same enthusiasm. It’s impossible not to laugh. And for the stoner college kids that made up part of the show’s viewing population, the allusions made sense. The idea of Iggy Pop as someone’s dad was more bizarre than George Carlin as the conductor on “Shining Time Station” (which is in different story in itself).
“Pete and Pete” is part of the recent deluge of vintage television
series to DVD. Whether you decide to watch it with your college
friends or introduce it to the kids you babysit, it’s a win-win situation. Watching the afternoon programming of your childhood at 3 a.m. after a party is certain to awaken a bittersweet nostalgia. And when you’re explaining the intricacies of the second season to an 8-year-old, you’ll finally realize what it felt like for your babysitter
when she taught you about the Teamsters.