One of the year’s weirdest surprises: seeing a 50-year-old kiddie TV classic blow up into a national obsession.
But something about Mr. Rogers speaks right to the heart of our moment. And thanks to Morgan Neville’s excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, people are spending the summer with a serious case of Fred Rogers Fever. Who else but the Man in the Goldenrod Sweater understands what we’re going through right now? And what could sum up 2018 better than full-grown strangers gathering in dark theaters to weep out loud together while a tiger hand puppet sings “Am I a Mistake?” It makes all the sense in the world that we gravitate to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and its cardigan-clad piano-man host. Now more than ever, Fred Rogers matters.
Like Paul McCartney – who’s also having a big summer, after his touching “Carpool Karaoke” appearance – Mr. Rogers is a folk hero whose human compassion seems anything but lightweight these days. Some 15 years after his death, in a mighty ugly year for the neighborhood, he hits a nerve. The movie begins with black-and-white 1967 footage of the TV icon at the piano, celebrating the Summer of Love by musing about his desire “to help children through the difficult modulations of life.” It’s 2018, so we know how stories like this go. We instinctively brace ourselves. Except it turns out Mr. Rogers is for real. A straight-edge Presbyterian minister who dresses and talks like the dad in Call Me By Your Name. A kindly adult hosting his PBS series from 1968 to 2001, greeting kids every day with “Hi, neighbor!” Not a phony, not a hypocrite, not a predator. Nobody ever failed to Milkshake Duck like Fred Rogers.
The first time I saw the movie, the audience burst into spontaneous applause at the scene where he testifies before the Senate in 1969, urging the gruff Senator John Pastore to keep public television on the air. It feels electric– and a little dangerous– to share this moment in a room full of fellow moviegoers, where nobody’s even trying to hide their sobs and sniffles. The song he recites on the Senate floor is “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?” A timely question, to say the least. But that’s why he resonates right now.
At one point, soon after 9/11, he comes out of retirement to give a TV message: “We are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation.” It’s strange to hear the audience gasp viscerally at those words – a lot of ugggh, a lot of ooow. It’s a moment that feels more therapeutic than it should, even after a few viewings. The doc is full of these moments – but I guess we go to listen to each other, as much as we go to see Mr. Rogers.
Early on in the movie, he gushes about his hometown of Pittsburgh, which inevitably evokes the other Sixties weirdo from Pittsburgh: Andy Warhol. The two have a strange spiritual kinship, from their speaking voices – that slow-motion “oh gee” tone – to the way they surround themselves with a factory of damaged, vulnerable creatures who need constant attention. Mr. Rogers could totally be Mr. Warhol: just trade the cardigan for a wig, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe for the Chelsea Hotel, Lady Aberlin for Nico, “Am I a Mistake?” for “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Henrietta Pussycat for Edie and fish food for white light/white heat. (Warhol even got shot the day before the RFK assassination, an event that inspired one of the documentary’s most poignant moments.)
The Warhol connection runs deep: Both artists were lonely kids who built their imaginary worlds out of the most ordinary materials, delighting in ritualized repetitions designed to torture easily bored adults. As the master explained in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, “I make nothing happen. Wherever I go.” That was the point, really. “They can’t wait for me to make nothing happen.” Rogers had that same mystique – he was all about the day-to-day tiniest moments, making his nothing happen.
An obscure but telling detail, never mentioned in the doc: A few weeks before he died in 2003, Mr. Rogers celebrated New Years Day by serving as Grand Marshall of the Rose Bowl Parade. He rode in the convertible, waving and smiling next to his fellow Grand Marshall … a guy named Bill Cosby. The Fat Albert auteur is the unspoken presence who looms over this story, because all of us who grew up on Mr. Rogers were also Cosby Kids. Another besweatered father figure, another lofty-minded educator, another adult we felt we could have trusted with our lives. Dave Chappelle summed up the grief of finding out Cosby was a horrific sexual predator – it was like losing faith in “chocolate ice cream itself.” That’s the kind of relevation most of us were not-so-secretly dreading here. But this man walked it like he talked it. After a year of #MeToo exposes, plenty of heroes have taken a fall. Fred Rogers is not one of them.
Growing up in the Seventies, I thought he’d been around forever, feeding the fish and zipping his cardigan, but he’d just arrived in 1968. His moral vision was ahead of his time. Francois Clemmons, an out-and-proud gay black man who played “Officer Clemmons” on the show, reveals that Rogers was the first man who ever told him he loved him. Betty Aberlin was a Village boho painter/dancer/poet, and as she told the Washington Post in 1982, “I came to this show 14 years ago as another stoned New Yorker. I loved children the way childless people do.” I remember an episode where she worked on a painting, explaining to the camera she was currently “Painter Aberlin,” not “Lady Aberlin.” It was the first time I’d seen a woman on TV making art.
He cast a long shadow over pop culture in the 1970s. Just to pick the most obvious example, David Byrne was an artist who self-consciously styled himself as a parody of a Mr. Rogers square, at first ironically in Talking Heads songs like “The Big Country” (“Look at that kitchen! / And all of that food!”), but eventually going Full Fred on Little Creatures and True Stories. He inspired endless spoofs, from Eddie Murphy on SNL (“Can you say ‘scumbucket’?”) to SCTV‘s “Mr. Rogers vs. Julia Child” boxing match. The Nineties had Kurt Cobain, wearer of cardigans and sensitive Pisces Jesus man. The funniest version: Christopher Guest on the National Lampoon comedy records, interviewing spliffed-out jazz bassist Bill Murray. “We’re gonna go to the Magic Kingdom!” “Aw no, man – it’s too early for me. I gotta drive.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is not necessarily a perfect documentary, to be sure. There are lots of well-meaning testimonial interviews with friends and employees, which get tiresome and inspire very un-Mr.-Rogers-like pangs of exasperation. There’s only a brief hint that he grew up a rich kid; there’s no love for my man Chef Brockett. (Bizarrely, the growly gourmet had roles in Night of the Living Dead and The Silence of the Lambs.) And there’s constant petty shade at other childrens’ TV, which just gets silly – the movie attacks Sesame Street as brain-rotting swill. How sad to learn he hated the Banana Splits – as a ride-or-die bitch for Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snork, I must admit this was the most disillusioning reveal in the story. But as Henrietta would say, meow meow forgiveness meow.
Music was always key to his work and life. As Creem magazine pointed out in 1981, while slamming one of his albums, his songwriting had odd affinities with his contemporary Ray Davies – especially with titles like “Everybody’s Fancy,” “Some Things I Don’t Understand” and “Sometimes People Are Good.” (Although even Ray might draw the line at “Going to Marry Mom” or “You Can Never Go Down The Drain.“) But it makes sense that it took until now for Mr. Rogers to come into his own – a voice that might seem out of time, yet eerily speaks to our dread and rage. As he asked the Senate in 1969: “What do you do with the mad that you feel / When you feel so mad you could bite? / When the whole wide world seems oh so wrong / And nothing you do seems very right?” In 2018, these are not just questions for kids. We should all face up to them as honestly as Mr. Rogers did.