A few years ago, out of the blue, a good friend said to me, “Hey, when I Google you now, Barney isn’t the first thing that comes up anymore.” I looked at her, bewildered. I was taken aback that she knew.
When I was four, I “discovered” Barney the Dinosaur in a place that we would now consider to be extinct, a video store. At the time, Barney was only found on home videos created by a former teacher and distributed by the Lyons Group out of Allen, Texas. He had yet to make his national television debut.
If you’re like most people, your immediate reaction is one of these three:
“What? How?” (Confusion/surprise);
“What?! Oh my God, that is so cool!” (Awe/surprise);
“I hate Barney.” (Disgust)
If you are reading this, it might be because you recently watched the Barney documentary, “I Love You, You Hate Me” on Peacock, which addressed all of these dramatic reactions.
For many reasons, I usually choose not to disclose my connection with Barney. The first being it typically conjures up strong (negative) emotions in people. At least, that was my experience growing up in a small town where everyone knew about me and my dad’s role in the Barney story. Second, it didn’t have a huge impact on my life trajectory. If I hadn’t discovered Barney, nothing in my life would have been fundamentally different. There have been quite a few people (including a New York Times journalist) who have tried to draw a clear connection from serendipitous discovery to where I am now as someone who holds a degree in Applied Positive Psychology. Which leads me to my final reason for not sharing; most people assume that my connection to Barney had financial benefits for me, which isn’t true.
Here’s the thing about stories — when you share parts of them, people are liable to make up the details or extract parts to create a narrative that makes sense to them. I found that, particularly in the work that I do, if people incorrectly believed I was living off of Barney royalties, it negatively interfered with how they viewed my intention and the impact of my work. And for that reason, for many years, I tended not to share.
But I guess I have also learned that regardless of whether or not I share, people come to their own conclusions.
When I was first approached to do the documentary in March 2021, I realized I would have to start disclosing this story to people close to me. The first person I contacted to let them know I might be in a documentary was one of my closest friends. I can’t remember how it went down, I think I started texting her, but then I believe we ended up on the phone, both she and her husband exclaiming how much they LOVED Barney as kids. They couldn’t believe I had never told them, and they thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
Then, the weekend the documentary was taped, I texted my best friend of over ten years that I was shooting a documentary that weekend. Her response was, “About what?” I honestly couldn’t remember if I had ever told her, so I sent her a press release about the documentary. She texted me back all about her love for Barney, her favorite episodes, her favorite cast members, etc.
I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the positive responses. With each person I told, the information elicited a positive response. Although ironic, the positive purple dinosaur typically invoked negative responses in people (more about this later). As I began to share my story, it hit me. Something I did when I was four had a positive impact on the lives of people I know and on the lives of the millions of people I’ve never met.
Here’s How the Barney Discovery Story Goes
It was Super Bowl Sunday. Apparently, when I was four, I didn’t watch a lot of tv or videotapes. (I cannot say the same now). I was not even remotely interested in watching the big game (some things never change), but I did ask my dad if we could go to the video store. Since this was a rare request and he had things that he wanted to get done, he obliged, and we went to the small video store in town. When we walked in, I headed to the kids’ section and picked out a red box that, at the time, had a slightly bluish/purple dinosaur on it (when Barney was picked up for national distribution, he became more round and purple). When we got back home, we popped the video in and my dad went to do whatever he had to. After my initial viewing, I found him and asked him to rewind the tape so I could watch it again. And again. After multiple times of this request, my dad was wondering what had captured my attention. So, he decided to sit down and watch with me.
My dad calls Barney his “innocent find” because he was working at Connecticut Public Television (CPTV), the local PBS station. PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) had just put out a request for new projects for their preschool lineup. He was aware of the request, but he was not a children’s programming producer, and CPTV was a small station compared to other behemoths like WGBH in Boston or WNET in New York. Despite only having a focus group of one (me), he decided to listen to his instincts to pitch the show for national distribution.
The day after my big “discovery” of finding Barney on the Prospect Video Store shelf and watching it over and over, my dad called Sheryl Leach, creator of the home video series, which was then called Barney and the Backyard Gang. As they say, the rest was history. If you want the full and complete story with all the ups and downs of how Barney got on and stayed on the air (it was almost taken off before it even aired), you can read my Dad’s memoir, No Dead Air, by Larry Rifkin.
Barney became an international hit precisely because my father believed that the preschool audience was underserved in television. He wrote, “When you provide children with content that is age appropriate and responsive to their emotional and educational needs, well, you have Barney.”
Hypothesis’ on Adults’ Reactions to Barney
When I reflect on this story as a 36-year-old, not too much younger than my dad at the time of his “innocent find,” I have the gift of time and perspective. It fascinates me, although it doesn’t surprise me, that my dad was able to see what many adults couldn’t look past — that Barney was for children of a certain age and that it was valuable and beneficial to them. Not only did he believe in the product, but he also didn’t dismiss or diminish something because it wasn’t personally relevant. That has been something I have thought about a lot since the initial calls with the director and producer of the documentary because one element is examining why Barney was so divisive. I put a lot of thought into what it was about others that caused them to elicit such a negative response towards something that was not meant for them and what it says about our culture. I cannot remember how much my interview explored this topic, but there are three reasons I believe that some people outwardly and aggressively (sometimes violently) rejected Barney. Please remember, these are my own opinions, which were asked of me by the filmmakers.
The first is because Barney touched upon something fragile inside of them. Unfortunately, we don’t all grow up being told we’re special and loved. In psychology, there are different types of attachment styles, the healthiest being what is called secure attachment. When you grow up with secure attachment, the environment is likely to be warm and nurturing, where you feel loved, lovable, and your needs are met. A child’s attachment style follows them into adulthood. There are many factors that contribute to the type of parenting a child receives. An unhealthy attachment style that is developed as a child follows you into adulthood and can impact how one parents their own child.
My second hypothesis is that, unfortunately, in our society, we have a tendency to “yuck someone else’s yum.” I will speak for myself. When someone says they enjoy anchovies on their pizza, my automatic response is “Yuck! I don’t like anchovies on anything!” Why I feel the need to verbalize my disgust for anchovies when someone else’s food choices have nothing to do with me, I don’t know. I just know it’s almost automatic. Just like how someone else enjoys their pizza has no relevance to me, a child enjoying Barney has no relevance to an adult. Barney’s intended audience is preschool children.
The third hypothesis is that human adults compared themselves to a fictional character. In psychology, this is called upward moral comparison. We can morally compare ourselves to our co-worker who, after work, goes and volunteers at an animal shelter or to fictional characters who broadcast into our living rooms. Barney isn’t unique in this aspect. Ted Lasso, similarly, evokes strong emotions for people. Love him? Maybe he inspires you to be a better person and treat others with kindness and love. Can’t stand him? Maybe you resent his “niceness” because how can anyone be that good? These are both emotional responses to comparing oneself to others and reflecting on one’s own self-image and inadequacies. You might feel inspired or resentful. Back to Barney. Imagine an exhausted parent who just snapped at their child and has to listen to Barney crooning, “I love you, you love me.” Barney never loses his patience or snaps. How does that make you feel about yourself? Do you feel elevated to be more loving or resentful?
“I Like the Magic”
When I sat down to be interviewed for the documentary, one of the first questions the director, Tommy Avalone, asked me was what I remembered from that fateful Super Bowl Sunday when I watched the Barney tape, “A Day at the Beach.”
I looked straight into the camera and responded, “Well, of course, I knew we had a hit on our hands!”
I’m joking! I wish I had said that when I think back on all the stuttering and stammering I did instead. Of course, I would love to believe I was a child prodigy, with a keen sense of discovering the “it” factor, but really I was just a four-year-old who was captivated by the purple dinosaur, just like millions of other kids soon would be.
If only I had re-read what I had said in a newspaper interview when I was five before I did my documentary interview. I was quoted saying, “I like the magic.” Based on my memory, that still rings true about what appealed to me as a little kid. I was fascinated with the idea that a toy could come to life and interact with you. I had a vivid imagination as a child and would be very content playing alone with my toys for hours in my made-up world. Watching Barney was seeing the world of my imagination come to life right before my eyes.
The Impact of a Values-Driven Life
Although Barney is fictional, a magnified personification of love that every child craves, the people behind Barney are very real. No, my dad didn’t conceptualize or create Barney. Yet, I truly believe that he embodies the qualities of Barney — someone inherently good, kind and loving. Of course, I am a bit biased, but I believe without him Barney would never have been brought into the lives of millions of children around the world.
Looking back, what strikes me about this story is it’s really not about anything I did, as I was just being a kid. The fact that my dad saw value in what I, a four-year-old, thought and experienced is the real story. These days it is not unusual to see child entrepreneurs on Shark Tank, kids as celebrities on YouTube, or very young activists such as Greta Thunburg and Mari Copeny in the news, capturing an audience of all ages. But in 1991, it wasn’t typical to think that a four-year-old could have valuable opinions that should be seriously considered. But my dad did.
I have had a front seat to my dad’s character as a person. Although he is not a perfect man (he gets very nervous and a little bit crabby driving in areas he doesn’t know, but hey, we all have flaws), my dad is about as good as it gets. I have never heard anyone utter an unkind word about my father. He has an internal moral compass that has guided all his decisions in life. After the success of Barney, he could have gone anywhere and made lots of money in the for-profit television world. Instead, he stayed right where he was at Connecticut Public Television and brought another well-known franchise to life — UCONN women’s basketball. If you live in Connecticut, you know the pride the entire state has for this team. More than that though, the success and dominance of UCONN women’s basketball has undeniably impacted the proliferation of women’s sports today. And my dad was the guy who said, “Let’s try this.”
He is an example of a values-driven life.
My dad’s journey has taught me that you don’t always have to be in front of the screen or the person with the most notoriety to have a positive impact in the lives of others.
The best part of being called upon to do this documentary, for me, is looking back on a moment I have been hiding for the majority of my life with new insight and clarity. At 36, I marvel that at the young age of four, I was a part of something that allowed me to unknowingly have a positive impact on the world. My personal mission statement is “To enhance people’s love of themselves, others, and society.” I am in awe at how I began living out that purpose at such a young age.
Whenever I see a popular children’s show on television or Diana Taurasi on the court, I smile.
I think about the legacy of my dad and the quiet ripple effect he has had on the world, the individual lives of millions of people, and I am filled with pride.
It is a reminder to me that I might not know the impact of my actions now. In a world of self-promotion and “influencers,” we all have the power to be quiet ripples in the waves of other people’s lives. That, within itself, is its own kind of magic.
Leora Rifkin Edouard is currently writing her first novel. She typically writes opinion pieces and critical reflections of American society, cultural values, and how to inspire positive citizenship on her blog, “Exploring Positive Citizenship.” She holds a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.