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Dec. 8 – The Adventures of Pete & Pete – “O’ Christmas Pete”

OChristmasPete

Original air date:  December 14, 1996

Nickelodeon used to be a weird channel. It was composed mostly of old black and white television shows like Lassie and Dennis the Menace while mixing in old cartoons like re-packaged Looney Tunes blocks. Then there was early morning educational stuff including some anime that wasn’t obviously anime, plus Mr. Wizard. And don’t forget about the Canadian import You Can’t Do That on Television, a sketch-comedy show for kids that was more than a little bizarre. During commercials Nickelodeon would also fill small programming gaps with shorts like Inside Out Boy, the boy who swung over the bar on a swing-set and became inside out. The most successful of their interstitial shorts though ended up being The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

nick magazine christmas pete

Remember when everyone had a magazine?

The Adventures of Pete & Pete starred two brothers who were both named Pete for some reason. Big Pete (Michael C. Maronna) was the narrator and the more grounded of the two Petes, while Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) was more eccentric and weird. Surprisingly, their dad was named Don (Hardy Rawls) and their mom (Judy Grafe), as it was pointed out in every episode, had a metal plate in her head. That plate was like another character, as was Little Pete’s tattoo Petunia. Other characters included Big Pete’s best friend Ellen (Alison Fanelli) and Little Pete’s superhero friend Artie, the Strongest Man in the World (Toby Huss). The shorts were successful enough to spawn a series of holiday inspired episodes, and the success of those eventually lead to a full series order that lead to a further 34 episodes.

“O’ Christmas Pete” was one of the last episodes of the show to air. It originally premiered on December 14, 1996 and would be followed by just two more episodes before the show was shelved. I assume the show was largely cancelled because the actors were all getting older. Plus Nickelodeon was rather cheap with their live-action shows so even well-received ones usually only lasted a season or two as the network didn’t want to pay higher wages for return programming. Instead, they’d just air re-runs of everything for what felt like eternity.

This episode spotlights something close to my own heart. The rush of Christmas, the excitement, the build-up, and then the crash. It ends so quickly and then all signs of it vanish. Well, maybe not quite so fast since I have neighbors who wait until April before they finally take down their lights. Big Pete feels the blow, and dreads it, but it’s Little Pete who decides that this year he’s going to change it.

wrigley family

The Wrigley family:  Big Pete, Dad, Mom, and Little Pete.

Little Pete sits the family down on December 26 to recount what happened the day before, and what state the family is in now. They were happy, for yesterday was Christmas, and now are mired in a funk. He proposes that things don’t have to be with this way – Christmas can be every day! Mom and Big Pete seem to be onboard immediately, but Dad needs a little convincing in the form of fruit cake. The man just might be the only person on earth who welcomes the fruit cake. Convinced this is the way, the family celebrates Christmas all over again complete with Christmas dinner. They setup a Santa greeting station in their garage, and go caroling the next day. As the montage goes on it shows that their caroling party gets bigger and bigger each day so apparently the whole neighborhood is onboard with Little Pete’s proclamation.

pete's nativity

Pete stages a nativity play every day, possibly multiple times per day, proving he’s not just about Santa Claus.

It starts to ware off though, and the first one to cave is Dad. He tries undressing the tree, but is confronted by his youngest son in a hostile manner. Little Pete speaks in threats while Dad tries to convince him the tree is dead and he needs to go back to work. Nothing is working, but Dad reveals his true fear – the garbage man! The house shakes as a little musical number kicks in. It sounds like a spaghetti western parody as a black and white screen shows the images of a foggy garbage truck as it rolls through the neighborhood collecting discarded Christmas trees.

garbageman gifIt arrives at the Wrigley home and the family is out on the lawn to confront the ghastly garbage man (Joseph McKenna). He wants the tree, and while Big Pete and Mom try to cheerily convince him Christmas is still going on, Dad takes a position of fear while Little Pete remains defiant. When the garbage man eventually demands the tree, Little Pete responds with a “Ho, Ho, No!” and demands to know where his Christmas spirit is. Unfortunately for them, the garbage man was vaccinated against Christmas spirit, but he decides to leave assuring this almost certainly isn’t over.

That night, Dad is asleep on the couch when Garbageman enters. He awakens and we find out that Dad arranged for this, but when Garbageman goes to remove the tree an alarm is triggered. Little Pete bursts in to defend his tree. Garbageman tries to take the angel from the top of the tree hostage, but is met with tranquilizer darts fired from strategically positioned nutcrackers. Garbageman fires back with some well constructed Christmas insults, forcing Dad to intervene to defend his son’s honor. When Garbageman outs him, Little Pete questions how his dad could turn on him, but he’s assured that he’s with him now. Mom and Big Pete show up as the music starts to get off-key and the image distorts to reveal the tranquilizer in Garbageman is having an affect. He stumbles out of the house and falls off the porch  as the Wrigley family laughs at him. He hallucinates and sees them as laughing Santas which causes him to snap. As long as they hang onto that tree, no garbage pickup for them!

As the garbage mounts fewer neighbors show up for Pete’s nativity play and fewer are interested in Christmas carols. Even Big Pete is starting to crack as the garbage pile grows higher and higher and kids at school start calling him Garbage Boy. Little Pete remains faithful and decides on an all-out Christmas blitz. He takes over the airwaves with Christmas programming, pipes fake snow into neighbor’s homes, and organizes a Christmas mambo. It seems to be working, but it only angers Garbageman further. He hijacks the airwaves as well and declares that until the Wrigley’s give up their tree, there will be no garbage pick-up in the neighborhood!

gas mask pete

Big Pete is forced to wear a gas mask when piling up the garbage.

Almost immediately, the rest of the neighborhood begins to crack. Neighbors argue about where to put the garbage and soon a mob, organized by neighborhood bully Pit Stain (Eric Kushnick), shows up at the Wrigley house demanding to see Little Pete. He tries to argue with them that they can’t let Garbageman kill Christmas, but Pit Stain assures him it’s the tree, or his life, and he has 24 hours to think it over.

santa boxing

If you beat him you become Santa.

In response, Pete builds a boxing ring and the neighbors gather round for a fight. He introduces Santa Claus and institutes an open challenge. Pit Stain emerges as the first fighter, but soon finds he can’t bring himself to pummel Santa and instead thanks him for the “choo choo.” No one else is willing to fight Santa, and the crowd soon starts cheering for Christmas again. Proving that they’re a fickle audience, they’re all immediately intrigued when Garbageman emerges to answer the challenge. He wallops Santa and the crowd cheers him on. Little Pete holds out hope that Santa can recover, but Big Pete points out that he’s already lost given the crowd reaction to Garbageman. Finally admitting defeat, Little Pete throws in the towel to spare Santa of being slaughtered. Garbageman reacts with triumph as the crowd disperses.

It’s set for that night. Garbageman is coming for the tree. Big Pete, via his narration, explains the situation and also expresses relief, but also a feeling of letting his brother down. He decides he needs to do something to support Little Pete. Garbageman arrives at their house that night, and the whole neighborhood is there to watch Little Pete drag his beloved tree to the curb. It’s staged like an execution, and when he arrives at Garbageman’s truck he tells him he hopes he’s happy. Garbageman gets serious, and asks if Pete really thinks he enjoys crushing the dreams of children? He answers his own question by declaring he loves it! Laughing, he tosses the tree in the truck and begins the crushing.

garbage xmasBig Pete shouts for him to stop, but Garbageman refuses. Then he calls his parents to action and they plug-in an extension cord that illuminates the Wrigley house’s Christmas lights. Not just the house though, for Big Pete had decorated the mountain of garbage on their sidewalk with lights and now it looks like a giant, smelly, Christmas tree. The crowd is transfixed, and they quickly turn on Garbageman and tell him to spare the kid’s tree. He’s flabbergasted though and insists that it’s all still garbage, and it’s garbage day!

Seeing that the crowd and Garbageman need further convincing, Pete once more shouts to additional accomplices by the nativity scene who activate more lights. Now, the garbage piles at the end of all the driveways light-up like glorious, trash-filled, trees. Everyone is transfixed by the festive display, and Garbageman is at a loss for words. He confesses he feels funny, and he’s assured that what he feels inside isn’t heartburn, but the Christmas Spirit. It’s found a home in Garbageman, and though he seems concerned, he’s not rejecting it. He starts to stumble down the street while the whole crowd follows to take-in the lights. Big Pete lets us know that Christmas eventually came to an end for their neighborhood, but that everyone was a bit nicer from there on out as the snow begins to fall.

pile of garbage“O’ Christmas Pete” is a Christmas special true to the show’s unique and surreal nature. While it was disappointing to see the absence of some of the supporting cast, the story the episode tells is goofy and charming. The show always managed to tell silly stories while remaining very serious. Everyone’s a joke, but none of them are in on it. Joseph McKenna is great as the over-the-top Garbageman and his unique look makes him quite creepy, especially in the night scenes. Hardy Rawls is an unsung hero as Dad while Michael Maronna is the show’s real MVP who always manages to keep things grounded while they get weirder and weirder. Danny Tamberelli was always the star of this show, mostly because his character was easy for the target audience to identify with, in spite of him being the weakest performer. He’s at his best when he gets to angrily shout insults and behave like an anti-hero. His rough around the edges performance actually works to the show’s advantage, giving it even more of quirky, B-movie, vibe.

As a Christmas special, this one is fairly simple in its message that you can’t kill Christmas. Even though it must go away for nearly a year at a time, it always comes back. Pretty much any kid or even adult who loves the holiday can relate to the feeling of not wanting it to go away. And since there are a ton of Christmas specials in the wild, it’s always neat to see one do something different. In the case of this one, it’s have almost the entire episode set after Christmas as only the opening 30 seconds or so takes place during the holiday. The events after span about two weeks. We’ve seen Christmast every day plots before, but they usually involve the protagonist getting exhausted by Christmas and learnig a lesson that it’s special because it’s only one day a year. That’s not the case with this one. Everything about it is pretty silly from the absurd amount of garbage accumulated over a short period of time to its almost absence of a resolution. They must have taken down the garbage trees at some point, but how long did it go on? And did Little Peter ever permit to have his tree crushed? Making a garbage man the enemy of Christmas was a nice twist too and it was rather funny to see a character practically feed off of Christmas’s destruction.

As someone who had not watched an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete in decades, I must say it actually holds up pretty well. It’s low-key approach to silly comedy helps it age well. It definitely stands out from the louder, corny, live-action Nick shows and I would totally be down for watching more. If you want to check this one out this holiday season, actually keep an eye out on Teen Nick’s programming for the month as they will show older Christmas specials during The Splat. It’s a late-night block of programming catering to nostalgic 30-somethings. That’s your best hope as Season 3 remains the only season of the show to not receive a DVD release. Supposedly they were pressed, packaged, and ready to go with commentary tracks all recorded and so forth, but the merger of Dreamworks and Paramount meant they never got shipped to retailers. That was over ten years ago so presumably those copes were destroyed, but maybe they’re still hanging around somewhere. If you look hard enough online though you can stream this and it’s totally worth the effort.


#9 Best in TV Animation: The Ren & Stimpy Show

renstimpylogoThe thumping bass line leads into a frantic percussion section punctuated with a quick strike of a guitar and The Ren & Stimpy Show is on! The third and most unique of Nickelodeon’s early 90’s Nicktoons, the show was a throwback to the Golden Era of cartoons embodied by directors such as Chuck Jones and Tex Avery. This was a show for animators, for cartoon lovers, for people that wanted a show to just make them laugh. The process of creating an episode, from start to finish, was handled by one director and just a few writers who bounced ideas off one another. There was no rigid, segmented process where every aspect of the show had to be overseen by a specialist and there was no nefarious merchandizing gimmick turning the program into an extended commercial. The Ren & Stimpy Show simply existed for the love of it.

The early days of Nickeldeon consisted of live-action programming mixed in with educational programming for young children. The animation came from outside sources with the most notable being the Looney Tunes package program featuring classic cartoons. As the network grew, the desire to produce its own cartoons naturally arose and thus the Nicktoons were born. Consisting originally of Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show, the block first began airing on Sunday morning in 1991 and were so successful that they ended up being just the first in a long line of cartoons. While Doug and Rugrats were fairly tame in their approach to entertainment, Ren & Stimpy stood out for their crass, gross-out style of humor that would eventually land them on Nick’s late-night block of Saturday night programming and even a handful of MTV appearances.

Ren's rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Ren’s rotting teeth, as seen here, are an example of the highly detailed (and often gross) still images the show would make use of.

Conceived primarily by animator John Kricfalusi, Ren and Stimpy were atypical characters existing in a fairly typical format. They were a natural odd couple, being a dog and cat, but broke the mold in a sense by being rather unappealing to look at. Ren, gangly and liver-spotted, resembled a mosquito more than a chihuahua at times while Stimpy was a cat in name only. Rotund with a big, blue nose, he had no worries of being mistaken for Sylvester or Tom. The show was a half-hour program but mostly consisted of two shorts that would drop Ren and Stimpy into completely new environments with no continuity from one episode to the next. In fact, several episodes ended with the characters in hopeless situations or even implied death

The show’s intention was to make the viewer laugh. There were some bits of sentimentality tossed in to appease the network, but mostly the show wanted to be funny in the most obnoxious way possible. The characters often screamed with Ren in particular prone to violent tirades. Stimpy was the dumb one with a good heart while Ren often abused him both physically and emotionally. The show was able to retain its humor because Ren usually got what was coming to him making the show feel like it earned the laughs that came at Stimpy’s expense. The show often resorted to gross imagery for its humor. Stimpy would frequently cough up a lumpy hairball or show viewers his collection of snot he kept under a coffee table. Kitty littler featured prominently in multiple episodes with characters even eating the stuff right out of the litter box. By far, the show’s most memorable gross gag was the long-running extreme and highly detailed close-up shots of characters. These still images usually depicted characters at their worst with bloodshot eyes and hairy moles. The most memorable may have been when Ren revealed a mouth full of rotting teeth in response to Stimpy’s proper dental hygiene.

Because of its penchant for violence and toilet humor, Kricfalusi often found himself battling with standards and practices at Nickelodeon. One very memorable episode featured the characters playing a board game called “Don’t Wiz on the Electric Fence” climaxing with Ren doing just as the box suggested he not do and all the characters being sent to Hell. Another episode, “Man’s Best Friend,” climaxes with Ren violently beating a man with an oar. The animation goes into slow-motion as Ren strikes the man and his head violently squishes and twists with each strike of the oar. It’s the episode often cited as being the last straw for Kricfalusi, who was fired by Nickelodeon in 1992, barely a year after the first episode aired.

Nickelodeon would turn to co-creator Bob Camp to head up the show for the remainder of its run through 1995. Voice acting dynamo Billy West, originally hired to voice Stimpy, took over as Ren and added to his impressive resume (though one wonders what lasting damage all of the screaming from this show did to his vocal chords). Still, without Kricfalusi the show was doomed. It was still capable of making people laugh at times but it often felt directionless, even pointless.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

The background was often used as a tool to heighten the emotion and intensity of the onscreen action as opposed to merely being a set piece.

From an animated perspective, the show was quite excellent. Everything was hand-drawn and the backgrounds often popped with detail. The show was not afraid to borrow from several styles of art, even abstract. In addition to the detailed still shot the show was known for, there was also frequent use of emotive backgrounds, usually when a character screamed or was frightened. Instead of the standard background being present, it might be a splatter effect or just splotches of color. Music was a big part of the show as well. The jazzy theme song was unmistakeable, and some of the show’s most iconic scenes include song such as the “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy” segment from “Stimpy’s Invention” or the theme for the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen. The music and visual effects all came together to help give the show it’s off the wall vibe.

The Ren & Stimpy Show could be described as one of those programs, or events, that burned too hot for it to last long. It may have remained in production until 1995, but the show’s creative output was only at its peak for a year or so. For that reason, it’s inclusion on such a list as this one could be debated, but it left such a mark on the 1990’s that it felt too hard to exclude. Many shows would follow and try to imitate what The Ren & Stimpy Show started but virtually none of them succeeded. Even Kricfalusi tried reviving the show in 2003 as an adult-oriented comedy program but the magic was long gone. It’s possible Ren and his pal Stimpy were simply not meant to last as long as Bugs or Daffy, but for the short while they were around they made an impact and their cartoons stand the test of time.


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