'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' Confronts the Wild Mr. Rogers Urban Legends Head On
Showtime recently released a trailer for Kidding, an upcoming series from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry and actor Jim Carrey in which the rubber-faced comedian plays a children's TV host prone to whispering sweet platitudes like "the stuff I like about you isn't the stuff on the outside" to a loyal audience of cherub-faced youngsters. It's clear that something is off about this TV host, who goes by the name Mr. Pickles. He has a smiling face but a dark soul.
The teaser for the show, which debuts on September 9, arrived not long after a preview for Melissa McCarthy's The Happytime Murders, an upcoming comedy set in a Roger Rabbit-like world where humans and puppets co-exist. Though it's directed by Brian Henson, the son of Muppets mastermind Jim Henson, this isn't a family-friendly mystery. The "red band" trailer ends with a puppet having sex in its office and ejaculating its own weight in white silly string. Unsurprisingly, Sesame Street quickly filed a lawsuit against the movie.
These two examples of "edgy" takes on kids shows serve as an interesting counterpoint to the new Mr. Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which opened quietly in 29 theaters across the country last Friday and earned a healthy $470,000 at the box office. In terms of tone and approach, it could not be more different than Gondry's post-rock soundtracked mix of whimsy and psychological unease. Like its subject, the film from 20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville is kind, curious, and gentle. It certainly doesn't have any puppet sex scenes.
At the same time, Won't You Be My Neighbor? doesn't shy away from or avoid the numerous rumors, insinuations, and urban legends that have swirled around Fred Rogers since his eponymous half-hour program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, debuted in 1968 and became a national sensation. In a section late in the film, we hear testimonials from his co-workers, family, and friends: No, he wasn't gay; he didn't have tattoos on his arms; he wasn't a raging egomaniac behind the scenes. The moral complexities of Fred Rogers, who died in 2003 at the age of 74, are subtler. The gray areas harder to pinpoint.
One of the movie's most striking qualities is the way it delves into the cultural moment that produced Rogers. He was not a sui generis figure who emerged out of nowhere, armed with a closet of sweater vests and a trunk full of felt puppets. As television moved into more homes in the mid-20th century, shaping the young minds of children who were often plopped in front of it for hours at a time, thinkers like best-selling pediatrician-turned-author Benjamin Spock and University of Pittsburgh child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who mentored Rogers when he was a theology student, were examining what this new medium could mean for child development. Rogers was the product of an intellectual shift in America around the concept of early education.
Neville's movie uses archive footage of Rogers, particularly relevant clips from his early shows, and talking-head interviews to tell this story, emphasizing the process of creating the show and its larger philosophical goals instead of digging into the contradictions of his personal life. We do hear that Rogers was a lifelong Republican, though many remember him as a crusader against Richard Nixon when the president attempted to cut funding for public television. Similarly, François Clemmons, who played the jovial Officer Clemmons on the show, tells a painful anecdote about Rogers discovering he was gay and saying if Clemmons comes out publicly he cannot be on the show anymore. There were clearly limits to his worldview, and Neville's portrait only gestures towards them.
In addition to digging up footage of Rogers' early shows, Neville makes ample use of clips from comedy programs like SCTV, The Tonight Show, and SNL making fun of Rogers. (There's even a clip of Carrey doing a Rogers impression on In Living Color.) We're told that Rogers was only offended by the playful kidding if the sketches "made fun of the philosophy," but one has to imagine it grows wearing to be on the receiving end of so much ribbing. There was no way for Rogers to fire back at his critics. Instead, the documentary argues that Rogers often channeled his own feelings of inadequacy and sadness into his characters, particularly Daniel Striped Tiger. At one point we see him singing, "I wonder if I'm a mistake."
Perhaps it's that sense of darkness, a lingering twinge of uneasiness, that powered the endless speculation around Mr. Rogers. His urban legends are pre-internet phenomena that didn't spread through photoshopped memes or conspiratorial YouTube videos. They were established on playgrounds and in the back of buses, passed along by older siblings and adults looking to shock. In addition to a non-existent deadly military record, the fact-checking authority Snopes notes that there were often rumors that Rogers had a criminal past. One particularly gruesome tall tale speculates that Mr. Rogers was convicted of child molestation and "one condition of his sentence was that he fulfill a community service obligation by performing a television show for children on a local public station."
These stories can shape a public figure long after they're debunked. I remember another kid telling me that Mr. Rogers was a highly decorated Vietnam NAVY Seal, a sniper of some sort, who had a tattoo on his arm for each kill he made abroad. Obviously, I later found out this wasn't true at all, but I was still surprised by the sight of his bare arms in a scene from Won't You Be My Neighbor? that shows Rogers going for a swim, an activity he used to do every day. In the film, the writer Tom Junod repeats an anecdote from his Esquire profile about how Rogers weighed 143 pounds every day of his life. The number takes on an almost mythical meaning: "The number 143 means 'I love you.' It takes one letter to say 'I' and four letters to say 'love' and three letters to say 'you.' One hundred and forty-three. 'I love you.'"
It's shockingly easy (and presumably profitable) for adults to project their cynicism onto that type of earnestness. There's no shortage of edgy entertainment out there that skewers and mocks the conventions of educational kids shows; some of it can be very funny, like SNL's Mr. Bill or MTV2's cult hit Wonder Showzen, but much of it is cheap and mean-spirited, like Seth McFarlane's cuddly teddy bear Ted making crude jokes about Tom Brady's dick. As each generation of children raised on television gets older, it's inevitable they'll attempt to suss out the sinister edges of the make-believe worlds they grew up in.
In its often dutiful way, Won't You Be My Neighbor? argues that it's more challenging but ultimately more rewarding to believe in the fundamental goodness of Mr. Rogers and his work. It doesn't attempt to deify him. It only asks you to understand.