What was it that made us hate Barney the Purple Dinosaur? I remember going to school one morning at 14 or 15 and the radio station did a parody of The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right.” But instead of fighting for your right to party, it was to burn Barney. The San Diego Chicken got under fire for attacking a Barney-style character during a San Diego Padre game in 1993. The HBO short-lived comedy series Hardcore TV had a skit of Barney-style character named Bernie telling dirty, filthy jokes.
But then in 1993, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, some students organized a Barney bash event to get through their frustrations for the upcoming mid-terms and it was a success. News covered it with some people not realizing what was going on. It was just a bunch of college kids doing something fun. During Homecoming Week at Georgia Southern, they had people playing gladiator-style games and passing out free condoms and it didn’t make news. However, some people closed to the creation and Barney & Friends weren’t laughing at all this. A lawsuit was filed against the San Diego Chicken.
After watching the documentary I Love You, You Hate Me currently streaming on Peacock, I knew what was going on. Barney was the creation of Texas woman Sheryl Leach, your typical good old southern Christian small town WASP. Today, she would have at least one Live Laugh Love wooden decoration in her house. The people who created and helped pushed Barney from the pinewood shelves of your local video rental stores to the forefront, are the types who really get underneath your skin. They are the type of people you hope to avoid when you’re out but still say “Hello” to as they give you emotionless hugs.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Sheryl Leach, but I know she’s the type of mom who still thinks her children like the same thing at 13 that they do at 3. She’s the type of parent who gets mad when her 17-year-old child wants to spend his birthday with his girlfriend not his parents. Leach isn’t interviewed for the documentary, but shown in archival footage, we see a person who wasn’t nowhere near prepared for the success her creation had because she lived in a bubble and felt the rest of the world lived in that bubble. Leach looks like your typical small-town WASP movie circa the early 1990s and that might explain why she took the criticism so badly.
Barney was this noxious symbol of what perfection. Barney was every annoying D.A.R.E. anti-drug program that Gen Xers and Milllennials had been forced to sit through as the teachers in the mom jeans clapped and danced around. Barney was telling us that Mister Rogers, Bob Ross and Sesame Street weren’t good for us because they told us it was ok that we weren’t perfect. Barney was for preschoolers whose parents who freak out when a stranger on the street says “hate” because they don’t want to teach their kids that word.
I remember seeing a story in the Tulsa World a decade ago or even longer where this woman was doing this skit where she was teaching children not to say bad things. The photos were cringeworthy. You have to say bad things about people sometimes. You can’t say just nice things about Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan or Gen. George Custer. I understood what this woman was getting at. I just didn’t like the approach as she was foolish. The “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” people are always more critical of others. Even saying that phrase is saying something bad.
Yes, Barney & Friends was a kid show. But it was a kids show that left itself vulnerable. The problem was Leach and her people didn’t address the blowback the right way. They ignored it until the San Diego Chicken episode. And seeing the Chicken himself, or Ted Giannoulous behind the mask, give an “I don’t give a fuck” interview might be one of the docuserie’s highlights. People went after Fred Rogers in the parody shows, but Rogers was still trying to portray a show that taught kids a good lesson.
The problem may have been Barney didn’t appeal to anyone who wasn’t a young kid who lived a sheltered life. And there was something about the voice of Barney by Bob West that was just annoying. When Nine Months opened in 1995 with Hugh Grant and Tom Arnold fighting an Arney the Dinosaur in a toy store, I think the message had been spoken. Barney was being pushed on children and their parents as a marketing ploy. And there wasn’t any reason not to like Barney was what the show was saying.
But still it was just for very young kids. And Gen Xers were those that pushed back along with others. For many of us, the early 1990s was a crazy time. The Cold War was over. The Reagan/Bush administration was finally history. We had spent so long being told that at any moment the Soviet Union would end the world in a nuclear holocaust. Reagan and Bush tanked the economy and destroyed the America our parents and grandparents mostly flourished in. And here is this fucking plush animatronic person telling us to smile and everything can be resolved so easily. Not really.
Other people pushed back. Florida resident Rob Curran started an anti-Barney online forum when he noticed how much his daughter was attracted to the show. There was also the Jihad to Destroy Barney website. Barney became a parody on The Simpsons, Dinosaurs and even the short-lived Bob Newhart sitcom Bob. Along with Nine Months, there was Death to Smoochy. Some people even said the earlier box office receipts for Jurassic Park were because kids thought it was going to feature Barney. David Spade made a joke about his nephew being traumatized by the movie because he was expecting Barney.
Off-screen the series had a worst effect. Many of the child actors who appeared on the show had difficulties later in their teen and adult years turning to petty crimes, substance abuse or just totally changing their personas as one of the young girls on the show is shown in pictures going throiugh a Goth phase in her late teens.
The worst effect is on the Leach family itself. Her marriage to her first husband, Jim, ended in a divorce. He would later commit suicide. And her son, Patrick, who was the intended person Barney was created for, would get into a feud with a neighbor, Eric Shanks, in the Malibu, Calif. area that resulted in him shooting Shanks on Jan. 9, 2013. Shanks survived but Patrick was sentenced to 15 years but is now currently released from prison.
I think to some degree we’ve seen shows like Barney over the years. Look at Caillou or how people say Paw Patrol presents subliminal Fascist ideals. I think it’s a hard task to present a kids show that appeals to children and adults. I don’t think Leach was trying to do nothing more than make something she wanted her son to watch. The problem is she probably should sold it off first and walked away. Once she did sell the property, it became a different show.
Barney was just the perfect storm of everything one group of people like and the other of us loathed and it came at a weird time. Maybe they should have had Barney be a little more hip and laid back with a different personality on The Muppets or Sesame Street. It’s been more than 50 years since Street premiered and people still love it. I’d have to say Barney & Friends is a good joke ruined by a bad comedian. A good comedian can tell a bad joke and make you laugh at its delivery.
In 2002, TV Guide listed the show as No. 50 on their 50th worst TV shows of all time. I wonder what the ranking is now. I also think the criticism of Barney was the audiences themselves. As we get older, we look back at things we liked wondering what we were thinking in the first place?
What do you think? Please comment.