By Josh Taylor
If you grew up in the 1990s chances are that you either loved or hated Barney & Friends, the popular PBS show geared towards toddlers. I remember plenty of times where my friends and I would sing rewritten lyrics or make fun of Barney. It was a cultural norm to hate that purple dinosaur, but looking back I think of it as an insidious and hurtful act that indirectly impacted those around me who may have enjoyed or grown up with the character. That’s what Tommy Avallone’s new documentary I Love You, You Hate Me explores.
Avallone states, “With hate, you usually dehumanize someone, right? So we're humanizing Barney in this. You're seeing all the people that worked on it. It wasn't this big corporate machine. It was these wonderful school teacher moms from Allen, Texas.”
This new two-part docu-series takes a look at several different aspects of Barney but focuses its attention on two main stories, the cultural hate of Barney and the family life of it’s creator Sheryl Leach. The latter showcases how Leach created the show. Without much of a budget she enlisted neighborhood moms to help distribute early VHS tapes to local schools and daycare centers. Jokingly, Avallone made a unique comparison. “It was DIY. It was almost like a punk band where they're making things themselves. Let all the moms help and all this could be a thing, you know, so it was really cool how that was the start.” Leach’s reasoning for creating Barney was originally to entertain her son, but as video tapes were passed around PBS came calling and what was once a small town venture became something so big that Sheryl Leach would end up spending less time with her son. The documentary goes on to explore the results of her success and those interviewed who worked with her showed both a sense of admiration and concern for her and her family. I won’t spoil anything for you, but the Leach family story is definitely a tragedy in its own right. As for the larger cultural story this documentary conveys, a local news piece is what started Avallone on his journey. In 1993, a news piece about a local college creating a “Barney Bashing” event was part of the evening news. It showcased college aged adults ripping the heads off of Barney stuffed animals or hitting them with a bat like a pinata. Avallone goes on to say, “at the end the news broadcaster says that's the future of the country right there. That was the idea! We're in that future now! Let's talk about the sort of hate we're living in now. What if we told that story but through the eyes of Barney the Dinosaur?”
It’s not uncommon for most of us to witness hate on a daily basis, especially on the internet. Log into any form of social media and there are hundreds of things to be angry about on a daily basis from politics to Marvel movies to Rebecca Black singing about her favorite day of the week. It’s an endless amount of outrage and angst, but rarely does it ever serve a good purpose. I Love You, You Hate Me implies that Barney was an early internet hate magnet. An example Avallone gave was “The first time the word ‘jihad’ was ever used on the internet was The Jihad to Destroy Barney website. It wasn't even a .com, it was way before AOL.” Avallone is no stranger to examining adulthood through the culture of children or pop culture. He is the director of the 2014 film I Am Santa Claus which examines what it takes to be a Santa at a mall through the lens of WWE legend Mick Foley. He also directed the 2016 film Ghostheads, a film exploring the fandom around Ghostbusters. Between Santa, pro wrestling, and Ghostbusters, Avallone is well versed in finding humanity in stories very few connect the dots with. In fact, he’s currently fundraising for his next film based on famous TV and movie houses and the people who currently live in them. You can learn more about that HERE.
The director confessed to me that his Barney figure would have been Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. In many ways, his docu-series finds similarities to Morgan Neville’s 2018 Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. In asking him why these PBS-type characters and shows are so important, Avallone knew exactly why. “It's the friend that is yours. It's not someone that was introduced to you by your parents, or it's not someone that you're related to. It's the first person you choose to like and choose to love.” For some, Barney was the worst thing you could show them because it wasn’t for them. They had Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo or Steve from Blues Clues. For those children who grew up with Barney and his dino friends, he’s a character that is still important to them and they, along with the dinosaur and its creators, deserve respect.
My first friends were Kermit the Frog and Grover. I Love You, You Hate Me is now available to stream on Peacock.