Thirty years ago this week, a rising but not-yet-ubiquitous kids network by the name of Nickelodeon launched its first original animated series. Introduced on August 11, 1991, under the brand of “Nicktoons,” Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show would quickly become hits and change the course of animation, television, and popular culture at large. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is looking back at Nick’s best-ever characters and the legacy of the network as a whole. Throughout the week, we’ll be publishing essays, features, and interviews to get at the heart of what made Nick so dang fun—and now so nostalgic.
It all started with the name. Well, the names.
The Adventures of Pete & Pete began in Nickelodeon’s promotions department as a series of short interstitial commercial spots in the late 1980s. Soon, though, it grew into something larger for the still-buffering children’s cable channel: an ambitious series tracing the ongoing saga of two brothers trying to navigate adolescence in Wellsville, a surreal suburb populated by a wide variety of oddballs, lunatics, and Artie, the Strongest Man in the World—a loud man in horn-rimmed glasses and red-and-blue striped pajamas who may or may not be a superhero.
The older brother, played by Michael C. Maronna, was a straight-laced preteen working his way through the tricky business of growing up. The younger brother, played by Danny Tamberelli, was a pint-sized general with a leggy redhead named Petunia tattooed on his forearm who waged war against all forms of control and authority, as represented by a shadowy cabal called the International Adult Conspiracy.
Both brothers were named Pete Wrigley. This fact was never explained—or even raised as a topic of idle discussion—in the span of 18 shorts, five specials, and 34 episodes of television that stretched across seven years. It was, as Maronna recently told me, “the original weirdness of the show”—the jumping-off point for the oddities that would follow in the brothers’ journey through life in a town that felt a bit like someone had somehow gotten a series pickup out of the elevator pitch, “What if Blue Velvet, but for kids?”
Even in the context of Nickelodeon’s other kid-targeted early-’90s live-action programming—shows like Hey Dude, Clarissa Explains It All, Welcome Freshmen, and Salute Your Shorts—Pete & Pete stood out as singular. It was a higher-minded effort: for kids, sure, but also, like, cool. Lots of kids’ shows might tell 22-minute stories about stuff like trying to remember a song you liked, or the ignominy of having to wear a bear suit for your job at the driving range. This was the only one, though, that would consciously make every aspect of that story as weird as possible, and stuff the supporting cast with left-of-center indie-darling performers like Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Chris Elliott, and Syd Straw.
At the heart of it all, though, was the relationship between Maronna and Tamberelli: two kids trying to find their way in the world, alone and together, art imitating life.
A lot has changed for the Petes over the past three decades. Maronna, 43, has traded in life in front of the camera for a career working on sets as an electrician with IATSE Local 52. Tamberelli, 39, is a musician, playing in the bands Jounce and the Undone Sweaters. They’re husbands and fathers, scrambling to juggle work and family; they’re Brooklyn guys, as eager to grouse about the Mets and Giants as they are to reminisce about the old days.
Reminisce they will, though: on their podcast, The Adventures of Danny and Mike; in Nostalgia Personified, a live show in which they and fellow former child stars look back on their awkward years on camera; and, if you ask them nicely, over Zoom for The Ringer’s Nick Week package.
I caught up last month with Maronna and Tamberelli—who joined the call a bit late, thanks to a childcare scheduling snafu—to chat about, among other things: the blessing and curse of growing up, the joy and weight of making something that connects with people, pliability and puking, lubrication and gateway drugs, talking about your feelings, and called third strikes.
It was, appropriately, a pretty weird conversation.
Growing up, Pete & Pete was always my favorite thing on Nickelodeon, I think in large part because it was so dramatically different from everything else that was on the channel. What was it like to enter into that world when you were growing up? Because if I’m getting this right, the Pete & Pete shorts began in 1989—so you’re, what, 11 or 12 at that time?
Michael C. Maronna: I was 11 turning 12 when we first shot the first episodes of Pete & Pete. It was September of ’89 and I had just started a brand-new school. I lived in Brooklyn and Queens, and was starting to go to school in Manhattan, so this was a big change for me: being a big fish in a little pond, and then going to be a very little fish in a very big pond. That was sort of my mindset during one of the very first shorts of Pete & Pete in the late ’80s.
And then you enter a significantly larger pond, because the spots eventually start to catch on, and then it’s, “OK, now it’s going to be a full-on series.” What do you remember about realizing this was going to be a larger world and not just commercials—and especially a world that had a very specific tone?
Maronna: We managed to be pretty consistently weird from the jump. The first couple of episodes were racing down a hill on blocks of ice and bowling in the street with trophies, just smashing actual trophies. It felt super suburban to me—a little bit alien in that way, because I was a city kid and didn’t understand lawns and ennui and all that stuff.
It probably hit me that we were doing something bigger when we got the celebrity guest stars—getting Kate Pierson from the B-52s and Michael Stipe in the summer vacation episode, which was the first special that we did. It stayed pretty consistently weird after that. We did a few more specials in between shooting our 60-second ones, like the Valentine’s Day [episode] about killing a squid. I mean, even in Degrassi I don’t know that you’re going to see that. So, that world was nice.
The way the weirdness just kind of oozed from everything, I think you just stopped noticing it after a while. Like, you say cut after every take. “Cut. Wow, that was a weird line. We’re talking about phlegm again. We’re talking about brain stems.” I think you just become immersed in it. But you have to give so much credit to [Pete & Pete cocreators] Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi and [original director] Katherine Dieckmann, for stamping something pretty specific on there.
You mentioned the specificity, and I think a lot of that emanates from the relationship between your character, Pete, and Danny Tamberelli’s character, Pete. The concentric circles of weirdness go out from there, but the heart of the show is a big brother and a little brother relating to each other, and trying to stay connected.
Maronna: The original weirdness of the show, of both of us having the same name.
It starts from there—which, as I remember it, was wholly unexplained? Never even raised on the show?
Maronna: Yeah, we tend to just make up reasons when people ask us at conventions and stuff like that. This is my favorite: When I was born, our dad wasn’t there, and when Little Pete was born, our mom wasn’t there. So they just ended up picking the same name, somehow.
And everyone sort of flowed with it and vibed with it.
Maronna: Nerds are pliable. I don’t know what to tell you.
That’s a lesson from the show, to be sure.
Maronna: That actually sounds like a reality show on Fox: Nerds Are Pliable.
Maronna: I guess I’m socialist in that I’m happy to give away content for free. Go to TheRinger.com for all your free stuff.
That’s literally our tagline. Going back to the relationship with you and Danny specifically, not just the characters: You go from having your own siblings and your real-life family to just, like, being given another one. And you’re an actor, but you’re also a kid, and the whole show has to revolve around you guys connecting. What was that like, to just sort of have a new brother?
Maronna: I wasn’t thinking about it as much at the time, but when I look back, I think the show is a polemic. It’s an angry editorial about growing up, and fighting against growing up, and cherishing being a kid. Maybe Little Pete’s character is in the grief stage, and I’m in the acceptance stage. … One would expect that my character could kind of advise him: “Listen, you know, I’ve been here before in growing up, and this is what you can expect.” But the setting where we were was so strange that the show was much more episodic than serial. We didn’t say what happened last time, or back at the house. “You remember when you learned not to pair a humidifier with a dehumidifier, because this will happen?” There weren’t that many callbacks like that. It just seemed like two guys on entirely different tracks ... I got into girls and he wanted to stay up all night, you know?
There’s obviously a large intervening period when the show is off the air. It ends airing in 1996 and then you’re a working actor but also going to college and growing up, and Danny’s going through his experiences as well. What was your relationship like after that?
Maronna: It fell off for a little while. We did hang out post-Pete & Pete before I went to school, but then I went away to school, and then that overlapped with him going away to school, so neither of us were really in the same place for a while. We reconnected in the mid-aughts, when I was living in Greenpoint and Dan was going to a rock show at the McCarren Park Pool. The day was pretty hot, and Tamberelli was pretty hung over, and soon after we connected, he proceeded to puke in between two cars there on Lorimer Street. But we kept talking, and we hung out after that, and started a podcast a few years later.
Having these regular check-ins with Danny, getting closer over time—is that scratching an itch for you, reconnecting with him in that way, developing new layers in that relationship?
Maronna: It’s just necessary for men to have friendships so they don’t kill themselves. If we don’t talk about our feelings, we’re going to get really pent up and messed up. So, it’s just good to have men to connect to.
That’s an extremely healthy way to look at that. It’s also sort of in the spirit of where you guys kind of started from: a show that was about being OK with being all the weird stuff that you feel growing up. Like, “Hey, yeah, everybody’s a mutant. Everybody’s a weirdo.”
Maronna: It was a little scared of female relationships, though. I think the way that [the show] presented both Ellen [Big Pete’s friend and later love interest, played by Alison Fanelli] and Nona [Little Pete’s friend, played by Michelle Trachtenberg] was as sort of special gals that had elite qualities. They were very good at things and we were scared of romance, collectively—of connecting with the female characters in the show. Like, there was that tension ongoing because it was a sign of adolescence. It was a sign of growing up, and the show was about keeping that at bay, fending off as much as you could. Maybe that was just Little Pete that was fending off girls, and Big Pete was already there trying to deal with it.
To what degree were you aware that the show was providing a cultural on-ramp for a lot of people? That’s the first place—I mean, I knew who R.E.M. was, so I recognized Michael Stipe selling ice cream on the boardwalk. Maybe I’d seen The Ben Stiller Show, so I recognized Janeane Garofalo as a teacher. There were these little breadcrumbs people caught along the way.
Maronna: So we were a gateway drug to other gateway drugs, is what you’re trying to say.
Well, yeah, and I might need to hold you accountable for some things, based on where those gateway drugs led me, but that’s absolutely right. To some degree, this is how culture gets passed down: Your older brother hears something, or your cool older cousin hears something, and then all of a sudden, you’re 9 years old listening to “Welcome to the Jungle,” and the world opens up. For a lot of us, your show was the cool cousin.
Maronna: When I was 18, living on the Lower East Side, I happened upon a bootleg copy of South Park’s “The Spirit of Christmas” on VHS. It had been dubbed and dubbed and dubbed and dubbed, and I don’t even know where it came from, but it fell into my hands. The thing about a piece of media is, when you hear it, you’re towed back in time to the place and the age and the feeling that you were when you first heard it. And I get a fair amount of nice stories coming my way, [where people say] “I had a rough time when I was a kid, but your show was something that I really enjoyed.” Or, “I liked your show because it was so absurd and it helped me to think in weird ways.” Those are typically a couple of angles that I would hear things from. Or, “I got my mom to watch the show,” which was another nice feeling. People watching the show with their family is nice.
Unfortunately, it feels like sort of a beautiful thing in a Ziploc bag, because there’s just 39 episodes and they’re not making any more. They’re never going to make any more. I’m not shutting the door on the reunion, but it’s just not going to happen. So, it’s not like a media empire. It feels more like a little nugget that people share and cultivate in a way, but it’s good to know that we’ve influenced other creative people.
Is there a weight to that, though? Like, I come to you—as I am now—and say, “I love this thing you did when you were a child, it meant a whole lot to me.” If every person you talk to that had a relationship to this thing you made is approaching you that same way … at a certain point, is that a hard thing to get your mind around a little bit?
Maronna: That’s a fair way to put that. And the fact is, all of the participants are alive and here today, in the present day, so we made it through that time, and we can remember that time.
But, like I’m saying: My parents got divorced. I was having a horrible time in high school while we were making the show, at the same time as I was traveling to other cities and doing Home Alone and Home Alone 2, and doing the specials for Pete & Pete, and acting and things like that. I’m not going to say it doesn’t hold the same place in my heart, but … you’re the guy who drives the car, as opposed to the people who are outside watching the car drive by. You get to enjoy the interior of the car more than the exterior of the car.
Maybe that’s too many metaphors.
If I may ask, how old is your child?
Maronna: My son’s going to be 5 later this year.
So, 5, I’m guessing, is a little early for showing them Pete & Pete.
Maronna: Yeah, but apparently his mom showed him The Secret of NIMH the other night. I feel like that’s pretty intense. I don’t think there are any stabbings in Pete & Pete. Put that on the poster: “There’s no stabbings in Pete & Pete.”
We have a guest in the Zoom so hold on one minute; I will admit him, and then you’re going to have to go through this whole thing again. OK: Hello Danny, do you hear us?
Danny Tamberelli: Hello! Hey, I am so sorry, man.
It’s all good. I’m Dan. Michael is off camera now. I think he’s playing hide and seek with you.
Maronna: I actually have to go pee, so I’ll let you guys catch up.
Michael and I have been talking for a little while, so I’ll just ask you a little bit of some of the same things that we were talking about and see if we can weave it in. Pete & Pete begins as a series of 60-second spots in 1989—what do you remember about first walking into that world?
Tamberelli: I always wanted to see the finished product, because everything was done out of sequence, so when I would watch it on TV, it was definitely a more unique show than other stuff on the network. But I don’t think I understood that it was, like, over people’s heads. I mean, my dad told me who Iggy Pop was, and he was like, “I can’t believe he’s going to be on the show!” I think that was sort of the difference between us and other shows that were on the network. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I don’t think it was too over my head,” because I didn’t really know what something being “over my head” was. Because I was just a little kid. I told somebody I had facial hair and I shaved it once and it never grew back, because I was trying to be a cool kid. But I didn’t understand how hair worked.
Maronna: Did you ever have a soul patch?
Maronna: Did you ever have a soul patch?
Maronna: You did, didn’t you?
Tamberelli: I did, but that was in my later years.
Maronna: You had a little Fred Durst at the time. You had a little backwards hat.
Tamberelli: No, no, no. It wasn’t Fred Durst-y.
Maronna: I’m sorry. It wasn’t all about the Nookie, the Nookie, the Nookie, the Nookie?
Tamberelli: No, no. I was on the Deftones train.
To the point that you just raised about your dad prepping you for Iggy Pop: Was there anybody that you were intimidated by?
Tamberelli: I wouldn’t say “intimidated,” but I would say I had starstruck moments.
Maronna: Sure. Juliana Hatfield. David Johansen, for sure.
Were you intimidated by Juliana Hatfield for the same reason I was intimidated by Juliana Hatfield?
Maronna: We are men, are we not? We’re not made of stone. We are made of flesh and blood and muscle and sinew, right? We breathe, we live … Dan was on top of it. Dan actually got autographs once in a while. I was, like, a little intimidated by all that stuff.
Tamberelli: The art imitating life in Pete & Pete was the fact that we weren’t the same age, so I got away with stuff.
Sort of flipping that, were any of those guest star visits or things that you remember particularly fondly?
Maronna: I remember blowing the amp with you and Iggy. Was that in the Catholic school?
Tamberelli: Yeah, the Catholic school in Nutley, [New Jersey, during the filming of the Season 3 episode “Dance Fever”].
Maronna: We did a few character-disjointed episodes, but you being able to do the super slide and me having a crush on Gabby [Glaser, guitarist in the band Luscious Jackson, who performed at the school dance in the episode] is just, like, here and here as far as the story. Sometimes, our plots were close together, but this one was way out here and way out there.
Tamberelli: You were trying to get with Luscious Jackson and I am happy to be doused in—
Maronna: You’re a lubricated floor mop or something.
Tamberelli: I just remember they were telling me, “This is the stuff that they used in Alien. This is, like, the goop that they used.”
Maronna: He was trying to cheer you up, bro! He was trying to get you hyped!
Tamberelli: That’s how he sold it to me. I was like, “All right, cool, man. Put it on. It’s good for Sigourney, it’s good for me.”
I did not realize we were going to get into alien lubricants today. Danny, you went through this period where the show goes off the air in ’96, but you’re continuing to still work on Nickelodeon. From your perspective, what was your relationship with Mike like during the years between when the show went off the air and when you reconnected later on?
Tamberelli: Well, it was that kind of weird thing—we were in that moment of being just old enough where, if we went to first grade and fifth grade, then yeah, we’re in the same elementary school. But then you’re not in the same middle school, and you miss each other in high school. I was dropping into high school as Mike was dropping into LSD. I mean ... college.
Maronna: And he still managed to graduate college before me.
Between doing the podcast for the last seven, eight years, and doing the Nostalgia Personified shows, I’m interested in that idea of relating to nostalgia, finding a way to process what your experiences were like, and figuring out how you can have fun with them moving forward. We’re in a time where every old show and property gets rebooted. Is that something you’d ever be interested in? Or is it like, “That was a specific time, in a specific place, and that’s over”?
Tamberelli: I think Mike and I both would say that was a time and a place and a perfect moment, and it’s hard to kind of revamp something like that. But if it was a present—
Maronna: If the money’s right.
Tamberelli: [Laughs.] That’s right. If it’s a present-day, money-right situation.
I had asked Michael this, Danny, as we are three dads: When your son is an age that is appropriate for these sorts of things, would you want to revisit the show with him? Do you think that would be a weird experience to do that, or something where you’d kind of like to see it through his eyes?
Tamberelli: I wouldn’t be opposed to showing it to him when I feel like it’s appropriate. Right now, it’s just Daniel Tiger, Curious George, and a little Sesame Street. Yeah, maybe I’d hold off the “Field of Pete” episode until he could fully understand.
Maronna: Oh my God, imagine Alfie grows up never cursing, but speaking exclusively in Little Pete insults from the baseball episode, which are just all, like, body horror.
Actually, I had a question about that for you, Michael, because we were talking about sports for a while before we started: In that episode, you reach a point when you no longer want to win on the strength of your brother’s mean-spirited insults and your coach’s magic frozen orange drink. Are you, in your actual life, an Unwritten Rules of Baseball guy, the kind who wants to win The Right Way?
Maronna: I know that that’s the character that I played, and I’m going to try and raise my son like that character.
Tamberelli: He’s the kind of guy that I know would never take a called third strike looking to potentially go to the World Series.
Maronna: No, I’m no Carlos Beltrán. But then again, I also did not have to quit just after being announced as Mets manager due to a horrible scandal.
Tamberelli: Well, that’s because you’re not a cheater, buddy. Bring it all full circle.
I don’t appreciate the heartbreaking Mets stuff.
Maronna: Oh, bro, he’s one of us.
Tamberelli: I was at that game. I was at that game. I walked underneath the train for like 30 fucking blocks in the rain just like, “What just happened?” I called my father and he was like, “Yeah, well, that’s what it means to be a Mets fan.” I’m like, “Thanks, Dad.”
Maronna: He’s like, “I’ve had a lot more years of this than you.”
Tamberelli: “I only got turned on in ’69!” Fuck you, Dad.
Well, I’m really glad that this conversation about The Adventures of Pete & Pete on Nickelodeon ended with, “Fuck you, Dad.”
Tamberelli: My pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you for waiting for me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.