Barney Bashing
What trashing a TV dinosaur says about us
By Sydney Kerelo

Filmmaker Tommy Avallone’s inspiration for making a movie about Barney, the big purple dinosaur meant to spread love and kindness, was a flashback post on social media. It was of a Barney-bashing event on a college campus in the mid ’90s.

Although the footage was old, it struck a nerve, says the Haddon Heights resident. It showed college students gleefully destroying stuffed Barney dolls, ripping the stuffing out of them, and even setting the T-rex toys on fire.

“At the end, the newscaster was like, ‘that’s the future of our country right there,’” Avallone says. “And she was right – we’re in that future now.”

Streaming on Peacock, the docuseries “I Love You, You Hate Me,” is Avallone’s attempt to make sense of the Barney-bashing phenomenon, and to show how it was a precursor to the internet trolling so common today.

“In the documentary, we talk about where hate comes from, why we can’t accept love sometimes, and what all this hate says about us,” says Avallone. “Barney started as a home videotape, very DIY, meager budget, and 4 years later, it’s on PBS and on top of the world. Like Mr. Rogers or Blue’s Clues, Barney connected kids to education and taught life lessons in the simplest form. But different to other shows, Barney inspired hate rather than love.”

The 2-part film features interviews with the show’s cast and crew as well as other stars of the ’90s, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, NBC’s Al Roker and Steve Burns, the former host of Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues.” It incorporates archival footage from the PBS series, which began airing in 1992.

As Avallone points out, the singing and dancing dinosaur that came alive only in children’s imaginations was a hit with its intended audience – preschoolers. “Barney & Friends” is also credited with launching the careers of child stars Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. At its peak in 1996-97, the show reportedly captured 2 million viewers, apparently including the haters.

By then, groups dedicated to the extinction of Barney had taken root. Among them, the I Hate Barney Secret Society was started by a father, interviewed by Avallone, who was disturbed by his daughter’s obsession with Barney’s joyful tunes and upbeat messages.

“Many people thought, ‘By hating Barney, I can fit in and be cool,’” says Avallone. “But that was a dangerous slope.”

Although not so proud of it now, Avallone was decidedly on the Barney-bashing side back in the day.

“When I was a kid, my friend Timmy and I made a short movie that aired at our local movie theater,” he says. “He dressed as Mr. Rogers, and I was Barney. The movie was of him beating me up as Barney, and if you watch the beginning of “I Love You, You Hate Me,” episode 1, there’s a quick snippet of it.”

It’s a cringy memory. Avallone recalls doing it for the laughs. He says he now recognizes how his own insecurities and teen angst fueled the film. “Throughout this process, I realize that it wasn’t that people hated Barney,” he says. “It was that Barney was a mirror to show us what we didn’t like about ourselves.”

That hate spread like wildfire, even consuming the 3 actors that played Barney through the years. In the documentary, all 3 talk about how much they enjoyed the role until the trolling got to them. David Voss, the original Barney, and David Joyner, the last one, recall being heckled in costume. That was nothing compared to what Bob West, the middle Barney, experienced. During West’s stint in the big purple costume, violent and explicit death threats were sent to him against his entire family.

It wasn’t just the professional actors. In 1994, a woman dressed as Barney at a drugstore opening in Massachusetts was viciously attacked because of her costume. She was sent to the hospital and treated for a neck injury.

The documentary is Avallone’s first created in partnership with Scout Productions, the company that created “Queer Eye.” His other independent documentaries include “The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man” (2018), “I Am Santa Claus” (2014), and “Waldo on Weed” (2019). The Bill Murray and Santa Claus films both aired on Netflix.

Working with a bigger budget, as he did for the Barney movie, is something he’s dreamed about since he was 11 and started making movies with his friends. Thanks to his job at the Cinemark 16, Avallone was able to screen several of them at the Somerdale theater.

His latest project is a big departure from the Barney project and its message about society. Avallone and his crew have been spending time on the West Coast filming at houses famous in movies and TV shows, including “Full House,” “Home Alone,” “Goonies,” “Uncle Buck” and “Twilight.”

Called “The House From,” Avallone set to answer the question: What is it like to live in a famous house? As he describes it, it’s something like a movie version of “MTV Cribs” with a twist. Both people currently living there and famous people associated with the houses are interviewed, with some even reenacting iconic scenes. It will be released on streaming services this year.

“It’s a movie we all agreed that we would want to see,” says Avallone, who is also an executive producer of the film, “so we decided to go and make it.”

January 2023
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