How ‘Barney & Friends’ grew from nothing and came to inspire hate from so many

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Peacock

Few children’s shows carry the baggage that Barney & Friends does, even now. Created as a series of videos by Dallas mom Sheryl Leach in 1988, the show was eventually discovered by Connecticut Public Television executive Larry Rifkin in 1991. With some tweaks, what was once a series of videos about Barney and the Backyard Gang became Barney & Friends. Almost 300 episodes of that series were filmed by the time it went off the air in 2010, and the show’s cast made space for child-actor luminaries like Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. 

Behind the scenes, though, there was drama in Barney world as creator Leach dealt with the show’s overnight success — and subsequent rejection by a large, angry contingent of jaded grown-ups who couldn’t vibe with Barney’s messages of universal love and positivity. Barney-bashing became increasingly common, and the phrase “big purple dinosaur” became synonymous with both bland pap and a type of overt femininity that made a lot of straight men uncomfortable at the time. 

Leach encountered personal tragedy in her own life as well, with the dissolution of a marriage and the arrest and subsequent incarceration of her son, who’d once inspired her to create the Barney universe. 

This is all captured in a new two-part docuseries on Peacock, I Love You, You Hate Me, out now. Director Tommy Avallone and the team at Scout Productions (Queer Eye, Legendary, The Hype) got exceptional access to much of Barney’s original cast and creators, and the series makes savvy use of viewers’ emotional distance from the project now, suggesting that while Barney-bashing might have seemed fun at the time, it was possibly a precursor to today’s internet trolls and haters. Current talked to I Love You EP Joel Chiodi about Barney’s birth, death and everything in between.

People either remember Barney fondly or with unrequited ire, depending on how old they are and where they were at the peak of Barney mania. I’m 41, so I really only remember the fever around that show from seeing how my younger brother absorbed it. What baggage did you bring into the project?

I’m 10 years older than you, so for me, Barney was even more removed. I only came in when the director, Tommy Avallone, brought us the kernel of an idea and said, “Let’s develop this together.” There were so many different pieces of it, from obvious things like how we’re going through this ’90s nostalgia moment to the fact that the lineage of this suspicious, dark, angry backlash that you see happening around Barney is the pre–social media version of what’s happening today in our lives, our culture and our politics. So it felt very relevant, while at the same time feeling nostalgic and all the things that happen when you plug into a well-known brand. 

I also just have a personal interest in the project, because my mom’s a teacher, so I love to see someone like Sheryl Leach, who created something so that her son would be entertained. She didn’t see anything for him out there, and what she created turned into something she never even thought could be that big. Then to have that turned on her on some level and the ripples from all of that. … I thought it was fascinating and in some ways heartbreaking.

Even just thinking about the childrens’ home-video marketplace at the time, and what a Wild West that must have been, even then.

Sheryl took all the money and access and everything she had to make this show, but in doing so there wasn’t a penny left for marketing. She had the ingenuity to go Blockbuster to Blockbuster,  video store to video store, and just ask the cashier to put her video on their shelves. There’s a boldness there, as well as a naivete, which I don’t mean in a negative way. It’s more like if she knew what she was going to have to do to make her videos happen, it would seem very intimidating. But when you’re just like, “I’m going to do this one step in front of the other,” you don’t know the walls and challenges you might face. She was just so bold. 

The Leach family is conspicuously absent from the project, and I’m sure you approached them. Talk to me about the feedback you heard from them.

We knew from the outset that it would be unlikely. We also know that in documentaries today, when creators use the obvious workarounds, people smell all of that out. And so before we even went and pitched it, we had to have the answer to the Sheryl piece, knowing that we would continue to reach out and ask her to be involved. 

I think we approached it a couple of different ways. We wanted to make sure we had everyone else, which we did down to her babysitter. With regard to Sheryl, we knew from her Donahue appearance and being on C-Span and all these different places she did interviews that we had enough to build her character out as a key piece of it. I almost say it’s like she’s not missing. She’s absolutely a huge part of this in a way that feels real. But we did ask her a couple times. 

There’s a part in the show where she sues the San Diego Chicken because she had become pretty concerned about controlling the image of Barney. Ultimately, our project is a love letter to Barney, but you go on a journey of ups and downs. I can’t put words in her mouth or speak to her thoughts, but I think she didn’t want to risk doing anything that might soil the Barney reputation.

And also, while Barney was in some way her child, you’re also talking about her actual family, like her son and ex-husband, and maybe there are just some things there that she doesn’t want to dig into publicly.

There’s such a tragic story there, and that’s part of the reason we weren’t necessarily hopeful. We were realistic because, like you said, it’s not just the Barney legacy. These are real-life people whose lives were tragically impacted by a lot of things that they probably don’t want to look at again.

So much of the story comes from the smaller players, anyway. You’ve got the voice of Barney, the people in the costumes, the kids, the musicians, the marketing staff. … Those are often the people with more colorful stories to tell anyway.

I was telling someone else that there are so many things that you didn’t think about, even if you knew the show, like you’ve got the Asian child actor who said, “I never saw people like me on camera, and I was on this really popular show.” It’s so touching. 

There’s stuff about how David Joyner, who was inside the Barney costume, inhabited the role in a different way than his predecessor, and that’s where Barney took off. It was his physicality. There are a lot of really great stories there, plus we’re telling this big arching dramatic story of the creation of Barney and the people behind it.

This is a big question, but why do you think Barney was so successful and why do you think he inspired such a backlash? 

I think Sheryl is why it was successful. I think she understood this thing that was missing because she’s a teacher and she knew how you talk to kids at that point. She also zeroed in on the thing kids love but that drives parents nuts, which is repetition. It felt genuine, and it was all love. It wasn’t conflict. The songs were ear-catching. 

I think in other ways, she’s also part of the downfall. For me, again, when she sued the San Diego Chicken, it felt like Barney went from good guy to bad guy. All of a sudden you had empathy for the people who were picking on him, at least in that time. At certain points, Sheryl and the Barney team didn’t help their cases.

In some ways, though, you have to understand why she’d go after a public figure who was abusing her character. If that was Big Bird getting beat up by the San Diego Chicken, I have to imagine Sesame Street would at least consider saying “Hey …” 

I mean, listen, for me, personally, it felt like a bad PR moment to be suing the Chicken about some stupid thing that happened. But in correlation with out-there conspiracy theories about Barney that were flying around and all these other moments that happened, I can see where the frustration built up. There was all this scorn, and how does a kids’ character end up on Jerry Springer with fights and pregnancy tests? It’s all a little bit bizarre.

You make a big point in the project of talking to Larry Rifkin and talking about when Barney got on Connecticut Public Television, because that did make a big difference in the trajectory of the show and of the character. What do you think the role of public media was in terms of taking Barney to the masses?

I’m glad you brought that up, because there’s so many different points to this project, from the broader theme of hate culture and trolls to a personal family tragedy and Sheryl’s story. But another big one is what you’re talking about with public television, and there’s a couple pieces of it. 

On public television when I was a kid, you really had Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and all these public television shows. When you watched television, you learned not only basic math, but also what grief feels like when Big Bird’s friend dies, like there were life lessons in there. Barney, I feel, was a part of this transformative period of children’s television alongside Nickelodeon where the shows became increasingly used for marketing to kids, and it wasn’t necessarily regulated properly. Kids were seeing their favorite TV characters on sugary sodas and all kinds of other things. 

So I think there’s two pieces of it. One is that moment and what’s happened since as the way we make content for kids has changed. And then within that I think there’s something really important and lovely about public television, and not only in the lessons and in the way they approach kids’ content. 

Larry Rifkin at Connecticut Public Television was the one who basically saved Barney, but the way CPT structured the deal, there was no long-term payoff for them. You hear these stories of shows like Barney or Downton Abbey, and my wish is that public television would be savvier about how they did those deals so that more of them could flourish. 

Talk a little bit more about that, if you can. Are you saying it wasn’t a good deal for the station, or it wasn’t a good deal for Barney

If you look at our partner on this, Peacock, when they do a deal to buy a show, if there’s some sort of investment or time that make toward building something, they have a piece of that show, and rightfully so. With Barney, Connecticut Public Television didn’t retain ownership over any of it at a moment where they really saved the show. They were part of a key piece of Barney’s success, and usually everyone collects their piece of whatever project. That didn’t happen here.

With public television and shows like Sesame Street, there’s a real differentiation between what they do and a commercial show does. I appreciate what Larry did and how he kept Barney alive,  but the long-term benefit didn’t really trickle back. 

In the doc, you touch on how Barney was very open, gentle and feminine or queer-coded. Like, this is the big, soft, purple dinosaur. Do you think that’s part of the reason the culture wasn’t ready to receive his message? 

Around the same time Barney came out, Jurassic Park came out, which has all the quintessential aggressively male tropes you think of in relation to a dinosaur. We’re still making sequels to that, even as of this year, but Barney is this sort of cautionary tale about conspiracy theories and hate culture.

It’s because he’s purple, and the voice is a little this, and the hands are a little that, and all of it feels … I get to say this as a gay man, but it often makes you think about what’s underneath all of that.

What do you hope the world takes away from this documentary?

First and foremost, it’s so hard to watch heavy-handed docs. This is a really fun, light romp. We call it chocolate-covered spinach. You’re having fun, and hopefully you learn some things. So I want people to go in knowing that they’ll be entertained first and foremost. But underneath that, at this moment where everything is sort of binary, yes/no, good/bad, it’s nice to look at a project like Barney and have some space from it and see that it was actually innocuous. All the energy put into hating it could have been put into so many other things. It was really wasted. 

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