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“Barney & Friends” was a mainstay of daytime television in the early 1990s, making a star out of its title character: a purple anthropomorphic T. rex who extolled the virtues of love, kindness and cleaning your toys.
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The character was an avatar of goodness, reaching out to countless children around the world, even if he sometimes gratified his beleaguered parents. It was inevitable.
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But not everyone considered Barney a friend, a phenomenon at the heart of a new Peacock documentary series called “I Love You, You Hate Me.” (NBC News and Peacock are both owned and operated by NBCUniversal.)
The docuseries explores how, in the ’90s and early 2000s, Barney became a cultural punching bag, the subject of scorn from adults and the derision of children desperate to disavow their childhood hobbies. He was the Jar Jar Binks of children’s TV.
School-aged children added violent lyrics to the “Barney & Friends” theme song. NBA great Charles Barkley beat Barney in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Urban legends about the character’s dark secrets crop up. The Internet has given birth to new genres of anti-Barney humor that freely mix tongue-in-cheek irony with seemingly genuine fury.
“Barney is on the receiving end of more hostility than almost any other popular cultural icon I can think of,” University of Chicago academic W.J.T. Mitchell wrote in 1998. “Parents admit to a hearty dislike for the saccharine saurian, and no self-respecting second grader will admit to liking Barney.”
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Bob West, a veteran performer who provided the voice for Barney from 1992 to 2000, recalls the production of “Barney & Friends” as a happy experience that was sometimes overshadowed by darker intrusions from the wider world, as a series of death threats that says. received by email.
In a phone interview last week, West (who appears in the docuseries) reflected on the success of “Barney & Friends” and offered a few theories as to why Barney proved to be such a lightning rod. In his mind, the backlash was driven in part by kids trying hard to flex their “machismo.”
Thirty years after Barney first appeared on TV, West still believes Barney’s friends outnumber his haters.
NBC News: I read that you started working as a voice actor in the late 1970s. How exactly did you end up voicing Barney?
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Bob West: I started doing commercial work and storytelling in 1979 or so. I put together the world’s looniest demo tape. I had done some costume character work. I worked as a robot character named The Blaster for a hospital in the Dallas area.
My agent recommended me to Dennis DeShazer, who was one of the producers of “Barney & Friends.” I auditioned with several other people. Due to a theft, they had started to build the suit before casting the rumor. I was too tall for the costume. [Costume actor] David Voss, who was younger than me, fitted the costume while I did the voice. We just synced together.
“Barney & Friends” was a true pop culture phenomenon. The show was ubiquitous when I was growing up in the ’90s. What was it like to be at the center of such a big success?
It was completely surreal. We were in the studio so often, and we didn’t see much of the reaction to the show. But then we went out and made personal appearances, and we had meet and greets with children and parents. We could see the love that was poured towards Barney, and it was just amazing.
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When you show up at a mall in Hartford, Connecticut, and the sidewalks are lined with parents and strollers, and you get inside, where you expect 600 people, but there are 6,000, that will bring you to the present. [Laughs.] That’s a good indication that the love was strong.
I’ve been online since before most people got on the internet. I had heard of some internet groups that were out there doing this role play thing where they were fighting Barney because he was evil and stuff. But this turned out to be all in good fun. They were really good. [Laughs.] I actually logged in and said hello. They were very receptive to me, very nice.
Every once in a while, I’ll come out in a Barney jacket and hear, “Oh, I hate that show!” It was a little sad, but it’s enough to laugh.
In the docuseries you say you received death threats during this time, which is horrible. Have you ever had a sense of the specific motivations behind the messages?
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The specific motivation was growing. The people who sent me these threats were all kids in middle school. They were doing the thing where they were trying to throw off childhood and trying to be cool. I’m sure many of them had emotional problems or maybe they had problems at home. There’s just no way of knowing.
But usually, when people screw up like that, there’s something to it. They are hurt, and this is the only way they know how to cope.
I actually answered a lot of them – when I was still at AOL and it was cool to be at AOL – and most of them wrote back and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize there was a real person who had to answer”. I never heard back from some.
It’s really part of growing up, although I would say that we seem to have amplified that phase of life in the United States. I don’t remember this kind of reaction happening in other countries. We went to Ireland or wherever, and there were kids in the audience who were 12 years old, singing. I think it might be a cultural difference.
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I think we have this focus on, and sometimes an obsession with, rugged individualism. I’m not going to go into an analysis of John Locke or anything. But there’s a kind of machismo that kids are encouraged to adopt when they grow up, and I think that’s a big contributor.
I think consumerism is also a big contributor, because a lot of kids are pressured to wear the nicest thing or buy the nicest toy, so that feeds into that. I think we have some growing to do as a society in terms of learning to live together and support each other, and to put the community before the individual.
I think it is very possible. I think innocence is valued in different ways by different people. Barney will always have a place in education, in culture, in helping children grow up feeling safe. Who knows how long this current wave of social and political clashes will continue?
Barney was loved by far more people than he was ever hated. It is not an understatement to say that he was equally loved and hated. The millions and millions of people who watched the show…loved it.
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It’s easy to amplify negative voices, and I think we examine negative feedback and call it what it is: someone reacts to innocence in a negative way, and we need to know why. We need to talk. If we don’t, this kind of thing can snowball on you.
It’s funny – after the fact, we heard more of the hate than we did then. I have to say it didn’t really hurt me at all that time.
When social media started to take off, especially when Facebook took off, I started reconnecting with old friends from college. A lot of guys have said, “I absolutely hated that show. But then I had a kid, and now I get it and I love the show because my kid loves the show.”
It has been reported that Oscar-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya is developing a live-action Barney film. Has anyone involved in that project reached out to you?
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I would say, first of all, there was a lot of clicking on the project. [Laughs.] There have been a lot of bloggers and people who like to say, “Oh, this project is going to be so dark.” But as far as I know, Daniel never said anything about the project being dark. It’s a meme that was created.
I have not been contacted by the production. I would like to take a meeting with Daniel, and I would like to talk to him about doing the voice. I have an interest in seeing that the tradition of the character is honored. But on the other hand, I completely understand the impulse to expand the character and bring in a new subject. And apparently what he’s really interested in doing is making a movie based on Barney the Dinosaur.
Technically, this is not news. Back in the fall of 2019, it was first reported that Kaluuya was
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