NJ filmmaker explores the pervasive nature of hate through… Barney?

“All of these students were beating up Barney, and ripping apart Barney dolls. At the end the newscaster was like, 'That’s the future of our country right there,’ and I was like, we are living in that future now."

Hatred. It’s a vice to which many of us cling. We employ it for the small things—the sound of a marimba blasting from an iPhone at 5 a.m., the colorful bugs which have invaded our gardens, the football team with a star on their helmet. And, sometimes we let it control our thoughts and actions; how much of this upcoming election (and future ones) will be dictated by hate—for a candidate, for the other sides’ beliefs, for one another?

Are we addicted to hate? To the intoxicating rush of purpose and the convenience of focusing on a clear enemy, nuance be damned? And has today’s media landscape made it too easy to get our fix of it without getting out of bed?

Consider Barney. Yes, the big purple dinosaur. For some Gen Xers and Millenials, one of our first hatreds was Barney—harmless, friendly and comforting Barney. Haddon Heights native and filmmaker Tommy Avallone explores the hatred for this fuzzy T-Rex, how the hatred manifested in real-world ways, and the broader nature of hate, in his new documentary, I Love You, You Hate Me on Peacock.

The documentary explores a shooting caused by Patrick Leach, the son of Barney’s mother and creator, Sheryl Leach. Avallone also shows how unnecessarily cruel people were to Barney. Obviously, Avallone explores Barney-bashing in the documentary, but the larger message he wanted to explore was why people hate the things they do. 

“I found this 1993 news broadcast, and students from the University of Nebraska hosted a Barney-bashing event,” explains Avallone. “All of these students were beating up Barney and ripping apart Barney dolls. At the end the newscaster was like, ‘That’s the future of our country right there,’ and I was like, we are living in that future now. I wanted to explore why we hate the things we hate, but through the story of Barney the Dinosaur.”

Courtesy Tommy Avallone

“It was never, ‘Hey, I want to do a Barney documentary.’ I thought it would be a good way to talk about a real thing.”

Even though people projected hatred onto Barney, he was very popular. Children loved him, and his tours around the country would sell out; Avallone believes that Barney, and the show that rocketed him to uber-popularity, Barney & Friends ,came at the right time.

“There is nothing as big as Barney was in the ’90s on television now, and Barney filled a hole,” explains Avallone. “There was Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’, but those shows were for children of a wide age group. But Barney was like, ‘Hey, there’s a market here for 0-4 year olds, and we’re gonna fill that hole,’ and they did. It was overly successful, and it was during a time when it was just PBS. Nick Jr. was just starting, and you had to pay to get the Disney Channel. Barney was the king of the castle back then.’’

Sheryl Leach, a Dallas native, created Barney & Friends for her son Patrick. Barney was a friend to many children around the world, but it came at the expense of her son, and he started to hate the dinosaur. A good part of the documentary is focused on Leach, and what led her son to shooting his neighbor.

“Patrick was her 3-year-old son that Barney was made for,” says Avallone. “She created this character Barney that pretty much became her second child. The relationship between the mother and her two children was interesting to us, and to be a sibling of a successful fictional character was also interesting.

“For example, Candice Bergen’s father was the creator of this puppet who at the time was more popular than Mickey Mouse. She had this relationship with this puppet and she considered it her brother because she had to fight for that love from her dad. The creator of Winnie the Pooh named Christopher Robin after his son, and he had a bear that was like Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh took a lot of liberties from the son and the things that he was playing with, and created another life for it. The real Christopher Robin never had a good relationship with it.’’

Even though the children of the show’s creators have a complex relationship with the characters, most adults revere their favorite childhood television stars. In I Love You, You Hate Me, Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues, and Bill Nye the Science Guy were featured in the documentary. While Avallone might have been a little too old for Blue’s Clues, he recognizes the impact that Steve had on Millenials and Zoomers. 

“At the time I was too old for Barney, and I was also too old for Blue’s Clues,” recalls Avallone. “But I really appreciated Blue’s Clues at the time, and view Steve Burns as a super smart, funny guy. We were really happy to talk with him and have him give his thoughts on the stuff that was going down. And with Bill Nye, any person who went through eighth grade in the ’90s would have a TV roll into class and it was time for Bill Nye and you were a happy kid.”

Avallone features cast members of Barney & Friends in the documentary, and people who were leaders and instigators of Barney hate such as the San Diego Chicken, and members of The Jihad to Destroy Barney. The topic of hate isn’t limited to children’s television either, and Avallone featured a former white supremacist turned anti-hate activist to give her views on hate. Avallone hopes that I Love You, You Hate Me will make people think about changing their behavior.

“I showed I Love You, You Hate Me to a couple different friends and they said it made them question their behavior,” says Avallone. “Like, ‘Why do I hate this,’ or, ‘Why do I need to comment on this?’ It’s looking at hate in the simplest form like an oven and exploring that whole thing in ourselves about why we do the things we do.”

Avallone had that moment of reflection in regards to boy band New Kids on the Block and remembers hating them growing up. But along the way Avallone discovered filmmaking as a kid in Haddon Heights and it’s something he loves dearly.

“When I was about 11 years old, I overtook my family’s video camera and started making movies,” says Avallone. “My friends and I would pretend to be wrestlers, and pretend to do MADtv skits and be goofballs in front of the camera.”

I Love You, You Hate Me was a new path for Avallone, who is used to making films with a small crew. This time, he enjoyed working with a much larger team, and learned about himself in the process—which, not for nothing, Barney would probably be happy about.

“I learned to trust myself more,” explains Avallone. “You walk in and everyone has done this before on a bigger scale, and you start to question your stuff. But when I saw some of the reviews and the things that were agreed upon, I started to think maybe I do know what I am doing.” 

It’s not the first time Avallone stuck his neck out—he ran for mayor of Haddon Heights in his early 20s.

“I was student council president of my high school, and I thought the idea of a campaign was fun,” explains Avallone. “I was like, how can we do this again? I saw the mayoral seat was up, and I was 20 years old during the campaign. The election was early November, and I have a late October birthday so I was technically 21 when I didn’t get the job. But it was fun to do that campaign and my friends dressed up as bodyguards and were Tommy’s Angels. I had a rap song, participated in parades and would give milk and cookies to the press at my press conferences. It wasn’t a stunt, but it was more so performance art.”

Even though Avallone’s political career is over, he still has a day this upcoming November that he’s looking forward to: that is the Kickstarter deadline for his upcoming project The House From…. on Nov. 3. The House From… is a project about examining living in the house that is famous for being in a TV show. 

“What’s it like to live in the Full House house? The Home Alone house, or the Goonies house?” Avallone says. “People have memories of having Thanksgiving, birthdays and Christmases at the house, but everyone is outside taking  pictures of where Danny Tanner lived.  We are releasing this movie ourselves, and it doesn’t have that true crime/drama element, but it takes us into the unique world of having to walk outside to a sea of fans outside the house.”

For more information on The House From… go here. For more on I Love You, You Hate Me, go here.