Hey Dude is notable for a few reasons. For one, it was Nickelodeon’s first original live-action show. Everything similar that had come before its 1989 première—Today’s Special, et al.—was produced outside of America and re-aired on Nick. Second, the show featured a Hopi Indian character, Danny, which was kind of a big deal at the time for children’s television diversity—if you ignore the fact that he was played by Mexican-American actor Joe Torres. Third, the show launched the careers of two ’90s teen semi-stars, Christine Taylor and David Lascher. Though the former may have done a little better for herself over time—marrying Ben Stiller, playing Marcia Brady in the silly movie remakes of the TV show—Lascher was on Full House, Blossom, Beverly Hills 90210, the Clueless television series, and in the hunk-drenched movie White Squall, so it’s safe to say he made YM-reading mid-’90s hearts go pitter-patter.
Of course, none of this is to say that Hey Dude—whose first season is coming out on DVD on July 19, though the first two seasons have been available on iTunes for a couple of years now— is a particularly good show. That’s the danger ofwaxing nostalgic for ages over a show that aired for just two years—1989 to 1991. Spend six-odd hours actually trudging through the first 13 episodes of Hey Dude, and the sheer monotony of the show becomes clear. Lascher, as Ted, falls into a lot of water troughs. New ranch owner Benjamin Ernst (David Brisbin) is, of course, over his head and continually trying to come up with harebrained schemes to grab tourism dollars. Danny wears denim vests and sneaks up on Mr. Ernst a lot for some reason. The show’s two female leads, Kelly Brown’s Brad and Taylor’s Melody, wear a lot of pleated shorts, jaunty bandannas, and French braids, and are always in some sort of stupid scrape. (“I got asked out on a date with a college guy but I don’t know what to talk about!”) There’s also a female ranch hand named Lucy (Debra Kalman) who appears for about 30 seconds in every episode to tell the kids to keep their cool and put Ted back in his place.
In his Memory Wipe about kiddie science fiction, my colleague Erik Adams found that after two decades trapped in celluloid amber, Short Circuit 2 doesn’t hold up all that well. He goes on to note that, “The film didn’t change; I did.” The same is probably true of Hey Dude. I can remember watching this show for hours on end, and yet, at 30, I didn’t remember all that much about its specifics until I started watching this DVD.
I haven’t experienced that kind of cranial slippage with any other classic Nick show—Clarissa, The Adventures Of Pete And Pete—and that’s for good reason: There’s not a lot to retain from Hey Dude. Showing kids living on a ranch as cool, independent teenagers is fun enough, but it doesn’t impart all that much in the way of valuable life-lessons. Shows like Clarissa and Pete And Pete might seem silly, with rapping architect dads and personal superheroes, but they were about something more, even if that message was veiled in absurdity. They were about being true to oneself, weirdness and all. As a young, awkward-feeling girl growing up in a straight-laced suburb, that rang true with me.
Of course, those kinds of shows got made because Hey Dude did well. Clarissa started airing in 1991 because there were pre-teens—or tweens, as they’re called now—who had grown up with Nickelodeon and were looking for something different to watch. Hey Dude drew decent audiences by jamming 65 episodes into a two-year block, meaning it was in near-constant rotation on the network. Nick couldn’t lose those 8-to-12-year-olds to bad cartoons and MTV shows that were just a little too old for them, so it expanded its tween programming, ultimately emerging as the leader in that market with a solid Saturday-night block known as Snick. Hey Dude showed that kids could handle mild references to going on dates and, in later seasons at least, just a little bit of “will they or won’t they” tension between some of the main characters. (It’s worth noting here that Jake, the roguish replacement hunk that came in when Ted “went to summer school” in a later season was played by Jonathan Galkin, who would go on to head up DFA Records, home to such acts as LCD Soundsystem.)
For all the time they spent with them, viewers didn’t really get to know Hey Dude’s characters, most likely because there wasn’t that much to know. They learned that Melody bursts with niceness. That Brad’s rich, but bad at waitressing. And that Danny is a Hopi Indian because his family makes fry bread and, in a particularly cringe-worthy episode called “Rainmen,” speaks in their native language to a male well-digger with a long ponytail wearing a lot of turquoise and, after consulting a kachina doll, pleads with him to listen to the spirits of the earth and dig the ranch’s well on credit.
Audiences get to know Ted, whom the show is somewhat based around, best. He’s the first character shown in the pilot and often serves as comic relief. He’s also a huge asshole. He’s egotistical, a bad friend, and never really helps out around the ranch. He’s the Bar None’s Jughead, but he’s more handsome, so it’s supposed to be okay. He’s hard to identify with as an adult, and I honestly can’t say whether I identified with him as a kid. Probably not, considering I didn’t fall in a lot of water troughs or let my friends tumble off ladders because I was staring at girls, but hey, that’s not to say that boys my age weren’t totally picking up what he was laying down. And who knows? Maybe Ted grew a conscience in later episodes? Having only watched season one for Memory Wipe, it’s hard to say, especially since so much of the show just blurs together in my head.
That’s the thing about Hey Dude. As a culture, we’ve remembered so little of it—besides the theme song, which, thankfully, remains awesomely catchy—because, really, there’s not much to remember. Unlike other teen-oriented shows and their cultural touch points—Brenda’s decision to have sex on 90210, when Artie left Little Pete on Pete And Pete—it doesn’t really matter that Ted and Brad once got handcuffed together or that Melody’s date with that college dude went all right. Call it the Saved By The Bell effect: Despite having watched hours upon hours of a show, any lessons it might have tried to impart—don’t do uppers, don’t take a pony into the desert—are entirely inconsequential. The show lacks a sense of purpose and of heart, and thus lacks impact. Hey Dude was blandly fun enough in 1989, but 22 years later, it’s just bland.