Nice memories of a fun tween show that would never get on Nickelodeon’s schedule today.
By Paul Mavis
A few years back, Shout! Factory released Hey Dude: Season 1, a two-disc, 13-episode collection of the beloved Nickelodeon live-action series’ premiere 1989 season (they’d later release a complete series set as well). “Cable” kids who grew up during the early ’90s—or parents like me who raised ’em back then—will no doubt remember Hey Dude as a sweet, plucky little sitcom set on an Arizona dude ranch, a laid-back cable adventure that wasn’t trying to do anything but entertain its family audience…which it did right well.
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Divorced New York City accountant Benjamin Ernst (David Brisbin) has jettisoned his high-stress job and moved near Tuscon, Arizona, where he’s now the proud-yet-bumbling owner of the Bar None Ranch, a rustic dude ranch set out in the spectacular Arizona desert. “Buddy” Ernst, Jr. (Josh Tygiel), Mr. Ernst’s 12-year-old son, isn’t happy at all about moving west, where the sand meets the sidewalk and his skateboard sits, collecting dust. Returning teen staff members (during their summer vacations) Ted McGriff (David Lascher), Melody Hanson (Christine Taylor), and Danny Lightfoot (Joe Torres) are surprised at the change in ownership, and more than a little amused by “Mr. E.” and his various wacky (and unsuccessful) schemes to boost occupancy at the ranch.
Ted, now senior staff at the ranch, is the handsome, cocky, lazy charmer who annoys everyone with his own dubious schemes to get out of work; Melody, the camp’s lifeguard, is the sweet, pretty girl-next-door who deals with Ted as if he’s an obnoxious brother; and ranch hand Danny is the conscientious, hard-working Hopi Indian who’s friends with Ted despite Ted’s obvious machinations. Into this group comes rich, beautiful Brad Taylor (Kelly Brown), who’s signed on at the Bar None for the summer as the ranch’s horse trainer and instructor.
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I wasn’t in Hey Dude‘s intended demographics even when it first premiered way back in 1989, but I have a lot of fun memories of watching it with my eldest daughter during re-runs in the early 90s. I can remember Nickelodeon all the way back to its first formative years as a cable network, when some really cool, strange foreign animation shorts made up a lot of its limited programming schedule (at least in my circle of acquaintances, Nickelodeon then was probably more popular with college kids looking for something weird on TV, rather than children).
However, by the time Hey Dude came along, Nickelodeon was transforming itself into something closer to what it resembles today, and that was an exciting period for young parents and their little kids: a network devoted strictly to young kids and tweens, with shows that parents wouldn’t mind watching, either. Back in the early-to-mid ’90s, you could put Nick on Saturday morning, and cruise right through the day with entertaining shows like You Can’t Do That on Television, Aaahh!! Real Monsters, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, right up to the old SNICK programming block, with Clarissa Explains it All, The Amanda Show, Kenan & Kel, Rocko’s Modern Life, The Ren & Stimpy Show (genius), KaBlam!, and of course, SpongeBob SquarePants (I made the mistake of asking my 9-year-old if she was watching “SNICK” last Saturday night, and she looked at me like, “What the hell?”). Typing out that list, I’m tempted to revisit them all.
Of course, it’s highly ironic that Nickelodeon’s first really successful live-action weekly series, Hey Dude, wouldn’t even get past a pitch session at ViacomCBS’s offices ten years later (nor certainly today). It’s far too laid back and gentle for the hyper crap that’s pushed on kids today. As for Hey Dude itself, it holds up rather well today. It’s certainly no great shakes in the scripting, directing or performing departments; it’s innocuous and pleasant and wholly without importance. But it’s also quite pleasant and entertaining in a ramshackle way, and it has an endearing sort of shaggy dog quality that I found highly nostalgic.
Watching this back in the early ’90s, we were aware that it was an extremely low-budget effort. It may have looked cheap, and some of the performances may have been rough around the edges (poor Joe Torres), but it didn’t especially stand out as “lesser” in overall quality. If it looks so today, it’s primarily because it’s in such stark opposition to the super-slick, overproduced, hyperkinetic, peripatetic slush that populates tween programming today. The first thing you notice is how quiet Hey Dude is—literally. Compared to the frenetic, insane laugh tracks and the blaring musical segues that transition scenes every 30 seconds or so on so many tween shows today, Hey Dude is positively pokey, with its cheap, buzzy audio only missing the chirping of crickets to make it seem even more “home made.” And that’s okay, because it gives the kids a chance to actually listen to the dialogue (instead of today’s incessant one-liners and rimshots).
As for the performances, they’re earnest and a little goofy and not at all polished…and that’s fine, too, because they seem a hell of lot closer to how real teens talk and react, than the frankly terrifying manifestations on today’s shows, with horrid little faux-Henny Youngmans and Phyllis Dillers competing for canned yoks. Regarding Hey Dude stories, they’re unassuming little morality tales, punctuated by silly slapstick, yet they’re told with a straight-faced sincerity of purpose that again contrasts vividly with many of today’s disingenuous tween twaddle that ladles on the lachrymose sentiment in the last five minutes in an effort to convince its makers that the shows are really “about” something after all. Hey Dude may seem slow and “dated” to some newer viewers, but it has nothing to apologize for in my book.