According to his company-provided backstory, Charles Entertainment “Chuck E.” Cheese came from humble beginnings, outgrowing the St. Marinara’s orphanage and squatting in a New York pizza parlor until its chef, Pasqually, heard him sing. From there, Pasqually (whose name you might recognize from earlier in this pandemic) booked Cheese to croon in the back of his restaurant, the crowds showed up in droves, and the rest is Family Entertainment Center history.
That was in 1977. In the decades since, the Chuck E. Cheese empire has grown to include roughly 600 restaurants around the world and attracted some big investors, including a private equity firm founded by one of Jeffrey Epstein’s besties. CEC’s more recent owners, hopefully without Epstein’s advice, have taken steps to bring the brand into the 2020s: updating the restaurants’ arcade games, adding Instagram-friendly menu items like Unicorn Churros, and even starting to phase out Cheese’s iconic animatronic band. But they have also made the gracious decision to release that band’s original music online, for all posterity.
Munch’s Make Believe Band (MMBB for short) has been the house band across CEC locations since 1989; if you’re between, say, 20 and 40, there’s a decent chance you recognize the members’ jerky movements and kid-friendly singalongs from your youth. In addition to Cheese on vocals and Pasqually on drums, the group includes Jasper T. Jowls, Chuck’s dog, on guitar; Helen Henny, his avian crush, lending vocals and some bass; and bandleader Mr. Munch, a keyboardist who reads as the chain’s answer to Grimace—a big, sweet, purple monster (who in this instance is from outer space, for some reason). The group is prolific, releasing new, original songs every few months to fuel the restaurants’ in-store soundtracks and birthday celebrations. Even in a location without animatronics, you’ll see the band’s images plastered on the walls and catch their music videos screened throughout. And now, thanks to CEC’s modernization push, you can stream many of those original tracks in compilations on YouTube and albums on Spotify.
“But why would an adult want to do that?” you might ask. The music is, after all, targeted to young children and their begrudging parents, primarily labeled as “kids music” in recognition of its very specific demographic. And, sure, most kids music (including the stuff that tends to auto-play after listening to Chuck. E Cheese albums or videos) makes most of us want to claw our ears off. But sometimes, like if one happens to be deep in a pandemic fog, you might impulsively search “Chuck E. Cheese” on YouTube—perhaps to reclaim some of the innocence of youth, I don’t know—and become shocked (shocked!) to find music that’s actually … somehow … good? So you’ll keep going down the rabbit hole, and you’ll find more music, this time on Spotify, and, miraculously, it’s good, too. So you’ll look into it further, and learn that, since 2012, CEC, Inc. has had Bowling for Soup frontman Jaret Reddick voice the head mouse and contribute to the creative process. And before you know it, you’ll have listened to all of the 62 songs across CEC’s four albums on Spotify, and you’ll realize that anything that Reddick touches is gold … or, at least, that a majority of MMBB’s recent releases are far better than they have any right to be—especially as blatantly Gen Z-courting marketing materials.
Of those 62 songs, a lot fall into one of two categories: respectable pop-rock, like the summery bop “Out of This World,” and earwormy instructional dance songs, like “Me & My Friends” (which, by the way—play that shit at my wedding; it’s an absolute banger). In a couple instances, MMBB brings a fast-paced, nasal pop-punk style that could nearly pass for Bowling for Soup itself.
The best songs, though, go beyond those categories to nail a pretty tough balancing act: poking fun at other genres while successfully mimicking their most appealing elements. “Jasper’s Snowman,” for example, uses blues-influenced chord progressions and “Cold beer on a Friday night”-style listicles to make a convincing, catchy pop-country track. The spooky “Nobody There” skillfully juxtaposes a capella harmony and silence. And don’t even get me started on “Play All You Can Play”—we can all agree that Chuck E. Cheese singing hip hop should not work, right? Yet, here we are, thanks to Chuck E. and Bella B., a Spanglish-speaking bunny who hops in for a guest verse. The song comes across as an extremely G-rated version of Cardi B’s “I Like It,” with Migos-esque triplets on top of a boogaloo-influenced beat. It’s all sunny vibes and killer hooks.
The more you listen to these Chuck E. Cheese albums, as I have over the last nine months, the more you appreciate the thought and craft in each lyric and flourish. But after enough spins, you notice another trend, too: that Chuck himself has become an unlikeable, fat-cat capitalist. You hear him micromanage the creative process, cut costs with tired public-domain titles, and pander and upsell in weak solo tracks. And this dynamic seems to weigh on his band; just compare the weary instrumentations and vocals on a public-domain cut like “Deck the Halls” to the more precise, energetic ones on a true team effort like the sentimental (but not saccharine) “My Family.”
As challenging as it is to deal with a boss who breathes down your neck and prioritizes profit over your creativity and well-being, Cheese’s band has fortunately learned how to fight back. In “It’s the ’70s,” he enlists Pasqually to sing about the ’70s, but the airheaded pizza chef repeatedly hits on topics like 70-degree weather instead. The head mouse gets heated, but backs off once the bandmates come to Pasqually’s defense—and the last sound on the track, Pasqually’s laughter, reveals that what seemed to be an honest mistake was in fact Chuck’s labor stealthily organizing to hose him.
The pinnacle of this dynamic (and arguably the pinnacle of the Chuck E. Cheese Sonic Universe) is the skit-song hybrid “Song Title.” Here, Cheese barges in on Munch and Jasper’s writing session before they’ve gotten anywhere, and, up against the wall, they improvise a silly, stream-of-consciousness tune. But just as he begins laying into them, Helen and Pasqually rush in to praise the song and start playing along, successfully drowning out the mouse’s objections. (“Song Title” is also genius for its bizarre music video, and the mysterious confidence the bandmates have after its tentative first verse. Was it scripted all along? Were Helen and Pasqually in on it? Was Chuck E.? Is this the best piece of postmodern art in a generation?!)
After the untold hours I’ve spent with Chuck E. Cheese tracks, I’m still not sure if the explicit artistry or the subtext is their more surprising element. Certainly, neither is what you’d expect from the official soundtracks of a 600-location, private equity-owned pizza chain that thrives on arcade games and marking up plastic junk “prizes.” Either way, though, I’m thrilled to have another artist in my rotation, let alone one with this much range. And the fact that the next generation might be that much more hostile to oppressive working conditions and sympathetic to organized labor, as impressed upon them by Chuck E.’s overworked bandmates, is a nice plus. Clearly, I’ll take my silver linings where I can get them—and with a side of Unicorn Churros, thank you very much.
Can’t wait to listen to Chuck E. Cheese’s band but don’t know where to start? Listen to:
Happ-E. Holidays (2019)
”Jasper’s Snowman” (Pop-country)
“Winner Wonder Dance” (Instructional dance)
Songs in the Key of “E.” (2020)
“More Cheese” (Arena rock)
“Another Chuck E. Day” (’90s hip hop)
“Song Title” (Postmodern art)
“Gamin’ Time” (Pop)
“Let’s Have a Party” (Big Earth, Wind & Fire vibes)
“Me & My Friends” (Instructional dance)
“Out of This World” (Rock)
Every Day Is a Birthday (2020)
“It’s Chuck E.!” (Basically Bowling for Soup)
“Unicorn, Unicorn!” (Electronica)
“Dream Big” (Dream pop)
“Do the Chuck E.” (Instructional dance)
“Play All You Can Play” (Imagine if Cardi B and Migos did a collab for a cartoon)
“My Family” (Sort of like “Good Riddance” for five-year-olds)
“Chuck E.’s Boo-Tastic Dance” (Instructional dance)
“Nobody There” (A capella)
“Sammy the Skateboarding Skeleton” (Pop-punk)
“DJ Munch” (For experts only – an EDM mashup of nearly all of the above)
In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor