Big Pete narrated his way right into my seven-year-old heart as the older brother of trouble child Little Pete on Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete. His lackadaisical attitude and flannel shirts had me swooning before I even knew what the word meant. He was older, mysterious, a redhead: in short, my dream man.
Pete and Pete spoke to me in a way that other kids’ shows could not. I needed tattoos, superheros and aging punk rockers. I needed redheads I could look up to. The Petes took that awkwardness inherent to redheads and made it cool. They were rebels within society, forever fighting their parents and telling authority to wax their nose hair. And they were friends with Steve Buscemi,Iggy Pop and Artie, the strongest man in the world. Mostly, they were people I could relate to during a time in life where I felt I couldn’t relate to anyone. They were the kids I could play ding-dong ditch with, or, in Big Pete’s case, a kid I could hold hands with.
When I was offered the opportunity to interview Michael Maronna, the actor behind Big Pete, the child inside me was giddy. This is Big Pete we’re talking about, Jeff from Slackers, “Stewart” of the Ameritrade commercials. What was I going to ask him? Fortunately, Maronna doesn’t play into the hype. He’s not really sure why people get so excited about his characters, but he was able to give me some insight into them, the redhead perspective and growing up.
What it was like for you being on Pete and Pete? Can you sort of take me back to that?
It was awesome. I was 12 years old when the show started. For most of the show I was a teenager, and I got to play around. I learned about life, I met all kinds of very strange people and I had a lot of fun making a television show.
What prompted you to go up for the part of Big Pete Wrigley?
I had already been acting for a while and this was a show that specifically called for redheads, and there’s never too many of those parts.
Did you have any idea of how subversive or different the show was?
It fit in very well with my world view, I guess. Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb [the creators of Pete and Pete] don’t look outwardly like subversive people, but they definitely still think with a childlike mind. It was really great to be surrounded by kindred spirits that way. I didn’t realize how weird it was because I was already thinking weird. It was always wacky.
How did it feel to be a hero to redheads everywhere?
I understand that we do have the outside appeal because we’re outsiders. That’s got to be. I know that if I got in trouble in school it was because I was one of the few people the teachers saw. Redheads stick out.
It seems that all of the characters you pick are sort of operating from this redhead perspective. First Pete and Pete, then you went on to do “Slackers,” where you’re again a sort of anti-hero, and then again with the Stewart role in the Ameritrade commercials. Is there something that draws you to these outsider roles?
It’s pretty niche. I don’t know that you could draw a common thread through those three specific characters, but they have been three major roles of this part of my life. It’s tough to put a name on it. I like that you’re coining the redhead perspective phrase, that’s a good way to put it.
Are there any commonalities that you share with these characters?
I guess, Pete was so long ago that a lot of that calm narrator personality has rubbed off on me, but he’s also more, I guess I grew to be more deadpan after doing a lot of Pete and Pete, because you were just supposed to look at a kid with a tattoo and a man in pajamas, and go, “Oh yeah, that’s normal.” Maybe I did grow more blasé.
I guess at the time, and still now, Pete and Pete both represent sort of, the two struggles of one person trying to grow up and not grow up. I, at the same time as being a person who was trying to grow up, was trying to play this character that was growing up at the same pace as me. Mannerisms or, the guys would always get on me for not blinking. I think that was just a reaction to narrating half the show. There are definitely pieces of Stewart that are pieces of me, because I’m definitely wisecracking and anti-authority. And the Jeff character [in Slackers], there’s definitely a piece of me, because I improvised a lot of that character.
What were your favorite TV shows as a child?
Well, I started off super-young, definitely been a TV addict for a very long time … I was watching the Garry Shandling Show, I was watching all kinds of cartoons left and right. I think I did an amazing amount of time on the couch. The things that came on after school, the cartoons and the abrupt jump to cop shows like 21 Jump Street. I watched ridiculous things when I was a kid, some educational things, I have to put that in there for my mom. The generation of TV shows, obviously they were better back then. I always watched comedy shows, The Simpsons. I conjectured at one time that there were two types of people, those who got The Simpsons and those who got Seinfeld. I’m not sure if that’s true anymore.
What are you up to these days? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I’m working on a film with Woody Harrelson called The Messenger. I’m not acting in it. I joined the electrician’s union in New York City, and I’ve been working as an electrician doing lighting on feature films for the past four or five years. I wrote a screenplay. Not sure if people want to see me in it, or they just want to see the screenplay. And I have several unsolicited musicvideos running around on YouTube. I do get people sometimes who will volunteer to me that Slackers is one of their favorite films. Personally I’m scared by that, but I’m flattered.
Is there anything you would like to say to this generation of kids who grew up on Pete and Pete?
You know, they’re not really kids anymore. This is an important time for those former kids who grew up watching Pete and Pete, because not only is this show about that struggle, it’s about adults looking back and feeling like children. There’s going to be a kid in you no matter what, it’s just a matter of how much you let him out. And I think the people who watched Pete and Pete let him out more … Obviously every person has to figure this out for themselves. Growing up, it’s still something I’m trying to figure out.