I always thought that I was the only one who acknowledged the dark-purple Barney in the lore of the popular children’s dinosaur. Talking with Tommy Avallone, director of the new Barney documentary, I Love You, You Hate Me — streaming now on Peacock — I realized that I was not alone. Avallone and I spoke over Zoom about the origins of this documentary, the toxicity of Barney and we even got to briefly nerd out over WWE.
The Hollywood Handle: Congratulations on the documentary — I love your setup with the green walls, purple shirt and the little Barney plush in the background.
Tommy Avallone: Oh, thank you. Well, the green, it’s always been [there] — this is my basement — so it has nothing to do with Barney, but the purple was totally intended. I bought this [points to his shirt] off Amazon [laughs].
THH: Well I do have a lot to unpack with this because I grew up watching Barney, actually terrified of Barney, so this will be a fun conversation. I know that you’ve done a number of documentaries and I’m just curious about what it is about that medium that either speaks to you or just makes you return to the medium.
Avallone: I mean, dude, when I was younger, I wanted to be Kevin Smith, you know, like I wanted to make scripted movies like Clerks, you know? It was something that I always wanted to do, but I would make these movies with me and my friends and it was just very hard for me to get them to do what I was thinking, you know? And I initially thought I was just a bad director, I think a little bit has to do with my friends also not really being actors, but there was something about directing actors that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. It’s something that I would eventually like to get back to, but it was a skillset that I wasn’t ready for and I’ve always thought about making documentaries.
My first documentary was called I Am Santa Claus, and it was just an idea that I had where I was like: Here’s this person that’s in your family photo every year; I wonder what life he goes home to. And one of our scripted movies was at a film festival, Morgan Spurlock was there, and I just started talking to him about documentaries. He’s like, “You should just make it,” and that’s kind of what I did, and I just haven’t looked back since.
THH: What made you wanna tackle Barney? Were you a Barney kid growing up?
Avallone: No, I wasn’t. I was 10 years old when Barney hit PBS, so I was a little too old for Barney. But I was like on Instagram one day and I saw this old newscast which was a 1993 newscast of a “Barney Bashing” event at the University of Nebraska and all these college kids were just beating up Barney; hitting with a hammer [or] like a mallet. There was some guy with a mullet hitting him with a hammer and at the end this newscaster says, “It’s the future of our country, right there,” and I was like, “Oh, we’re living in that future right now. I wonder if we could talk about all the hate that’s going on and [explore] why we love the things we love [and] why we hate the things we love, but told through the story of Barney the dinosaur.
Here’s this character that was made by two teachers, two moms from Allen, Texas, and how they just create this character that they just want to teach us how to love. And it worked for the kids, but anyone older than five or six years old sometimes wanted to hate Barney. So it was fun to explore [that] sort of story about through this like iconic character.
THH: I do wanna touch on that exact thing you just spoke about, but I did have to ask this because I remember the documentary briefly touched on it but I was always confused about this as a kid. I remember watching the first early Barneys when he looked darker purple, so was it a different colored suit or just the lighting?
Avallone: Oh no, it was a different suit completely. So the first three tapes, it was The Backyard Show, Three Wishes and A Day at the Beach. I mean, they got better at it, but the first time they did it was so low budget, and they’re just school teachers, they don’t know what they’re doing — they just learned as they [went]. Sheryl Leach, the creator of Barney, she’s like, “I didn’t think it’d be that difficult.” They tried, and this suit, it’s like this really dark purple, it almost looks blue, and it the cover was spray-painted on and the voice was much deeper — it was like Santa Claus — and when they came back to do their fourth tape, [they] changed the color a little bit — it was a little bit more magenta. The voice became a lot softer and it sort of rounded the edges before it looked a little bit more like a T-Rex.
Are we using the video or just audio?
THH: Just the audio.
Avallone: Okay. I was gonna show you the cover and show you the difference — it’s just crazy looking. I’ll get it just for you [gets up, grabs the VHS tapes and shows them to me]. That’s freaky looking, right?
THH: And is that a WWE chair I see? Sorry, this is so off-topic.
Avallone: Yeah, it is [laughs].
THH: That’s very cool.
Avallone: I’m a big wrestling fan. I try to put a wrestler in every single one of our movies. We wanted to get John Cena in this because we felt like John Cena is the real-life Barney because he’s perfect for the demographic. The kids love him but the 18-to-35 [demographic] can’t stand him. So it’s almost like, “Let’s go Barney, Barney sucks,” it’s like that sort of reference.
THH: That would’ve been great. I’m a big Brock Lesnar fan, so I hope you can fit him into one of your films.
Avallone: He came back last night, right?
THH: Yeah, he did. But before I get too off the rails, let me just ask you about that love-hate relationship you kind of talked about with John Cena and Barney. Something that jumped out to me when watching the documentary — and I could be wrong, I’m not a historian and toxic fandom — but this kind of seemed like the early beginnings of toxic fandoms in a way. I mean, I was thinking back to like the recent controversies with The Little Mermaid, and not to group everybody together, but all these people not in the target demographic for the film are up in arms over it. It’s similar to Barney with the college kids and adults that aren’t really the target audience per se. I mean, their kids might be, or their younger siblings, but they’re like really hating on this when doesn’t really have that much interest in them.
Avallone: Well, so it’s interesting, and this is something like me and Trent Johnson, who, as my producing partner, wants to explore a little further and maybe possibly [in] other projects, but it’s the idea of like what people do to try to save their childhood as if their childhood is in danger, you know? And the thing about it is, it’s in some ways different. So like [The] Little Mermaid or any of those sorts of things, they’re attacking someone they’re familiar with and it’s a change and they can’t handle the change [and] it’s very obvious to where that hate comes from. It’s like they just feel like this is gonna affect their life and they just don’t wanna ruin their childhood, which it would never, ever ruin.
But with Barney, it was early internet. How old are you?
Avallone: Oh, okay. So way before you were even born, but the early internet was like AOL sort of discs, so it was before then, and so these people are connecting over something they hate for the first time. And some of the college kids who grew up loving Sesame Street, now there’s this new guy in town, this new character that’s like trying to be number one, so they felt like they needed to “protect” Big Bird in some ways. So there’s this really interesting thing that people do at a certain age that feels like they need to protect their childhood.
And in episode two we talk about how — you said toxic fandom, but I don’t know if it’s even fandom for Barney because there are never fans in the first place — the things that we do as a society ruin things. Like in episode two we talk about episode one of Star Wars [The Phantom Menace], you know, Jake Lloyd, who’s the young Anakin Skywalker and these Star Wars fans had to trash that movie and trash him [in particular] so bad. They tried to save their childhood, but they ruined his. I mean, the kid like grew up [but] it didn’t do well for him, you know? I mean, he’s still alive, obviously, but it really ruined his life and it’s a shame that people have to sort of do that stuff because they’re protecting their childhood.
THH: Speaking of Star Wars, I thought of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi because everybody was mad about the portrayal ruining their childhood.
Avallone: I actually stopped watching Star Wars movies at a certain point. I kind of watched it because I used to work in a movie theater, [episodes] one, two and three and you watch four, five and six as a kid, but at a certain point, If there are too many explosions in a movie, I just don’t watch it.
THH: So I’m guessing you’re not a big of the Fast & Furious franchise [laughs].
Avallone: No, but like, I’m not gonna trash it. I’m not gonna hate it. I’m just gonna say it’s not for me.
THH: I wish more people were like that — Twitter is obviously not like that [laughs]. But I’m curious about the behind-the-camera stuff with the documentary. You got basically every notable person you could for the talking heads in this documentary, aside from Sheryl, but how difficult is it to arrange all of those and how long is the process of filming this type of documentary?
Avallone: The whole project itself maybe took us like two-and-a-half years, but I think we only filmed for nine, 10 months. I don’t know, man — it’s all a blur [smiles]. We did over 45 interviews, which — I don’t know if it’s common [to do that many]. I remember collectively, in the beginning, we were like, “Oh, we’ll just do like 20 interviews.” I was like, “No, I wanna interview everybody,” [laughs], you know, and we interviewed Steve (Steve Burns) from Blue Clues, we interviewed Bill Nye the Science Guy, we have Al Roker, you know, all these sorts of people. And then obviously all the voices of Barney, the body [actors], Barney fans, Barney Haters. We interviewed a former Neo-Nazi talking about hate.
We tried to really just get the big picture and as much as we possibly could. Some people were easy; [they’d] reach out on Facebook and they [had] seen some of my old movies. Some people were harder, [and] rightfully so. It’s like they don’t trust the media in some sense about covering Barney because Barney was just so backlashed [and] made fun of back in the day. I mean, look, Friends made fun of Barney, Full House made fun of Barney.
THH: And I know that one subject reached back out to you, right? I think it was a couple of months after she had originally spoken to you. I’m curious about that specific case, was that, did that throw off your filming schedule or anything like that?
Avallone: I think we say two weeks later in the film, but it was [in] Texas. So I’m based in New Jersey, a lot of the people [on the crew] are based in Los Angeles, so it takes a lot [to get us together and] we tried to put all our interviews in one week when we’re in a location. We were in New York, we were in Texas, we went to Denver for a little bit, but when we spoke to her it [was] during our Texas [trip] — I think it was right before Halloween — and she just felt like she wasn’t being as upfront as she wanted to be and [said that] if we were to come back to Texas again, she would love to do her interview again. Not that she was like hiding anything, but we’re talking about really delicate situations, delicate topics and she just felt like she could just do a little bit better.
So we came back and that’s kind of our cliffhanger in episode one, is us coming back to her.
THH: What was the most surprising thing that you learned during the process of this documentary?
Avallone: I guess that someone would create an “I hate Barney Secret Society” and do newsletters about it. There are some things that I was so surprised and like upset about, like some of the results the creator of Barney had. But those are certain situations where it’s like — not to sound like a deep tease — but it’s hard to talk about unless you know everything about the family [and] you know everything that’s going on. So that’s why it’s good to watch it on the documentary [on] October 12th, only on Peacock [smiles].
At the end of the day, not many people know anything about Barney — there’s no oral history, there are no books about Barney, it was something that they just never told and sometimes never trusted anyone to tell, you know? So it was a great honor for people to trust me to tell this [story], and I like to think that we did a good job like respecting Barney and respecting everyone that was involved, but telling just like sort of a crazy story of what we’re calling a “Love hugs in American Rage.”
THH: My last question for you is: I assume that you’re probably gonna work on another documentary next, so what’s coming next? I was more of a Sesame Street and Blues Clues guy, so are either of those potentially in the cards?
Avallone: I would love to. I was just at ComicCon with him [Steve Burns], well, not with him, but I saw him do a panel and I would love to do something with Steve. [And] I mean, there’s enough Sesame Street documentaries, right? Unless they just did one on Cookie Monster, which I would totally do, or Oscar the Grouch, but then again, Carol Spinney, I Am Big Bird, was all part of it.
But we’re doing this documentary called The House From. It’s all about people who live in famous houses. So [it explores] what’s it like to live in the house from Friday, Full House, Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Twilight and the relationship we have with the fans in that way.
And we’re doing a Kickstarter right now because we’re releasing the movie ourselves. So if you go to thehousefrom.com, check out the Kickstarter. It’s a great project to be a part of. We’re giving away some great perks and it’s just like Barney’s the big one, this is a smaller story of just checking out what it’s like to like wake up every morning in the Home Alone house, you know?
I Love You, You Hate Me is streaming on Peacock now.