When our generation is in nursing homes, and the Tom Brokaw of the 2050s writes his coffee table e-book about the Millenials, I sincerely hope that proper credit is given to Pee-wee Herman for shaping our sensibility. Pee-wee (along with fellow exiled kiddie show maverick John Kricfalusi) gave millions of future hipsters their first taste of genuinely subversive countercultural weirdness, somehow packaging John Waters-style camp and innuendo into a crowd-pleasing major network children’s show. That he did so while also presenting a sweet and kind (if deeply strange) role model for the kids makes his feat all the more impressive, even as he orchestrated scenes like this. He also had remarkably canny taste in collaborators; the cast of PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE included future stars like Laurence Fishburne, Phil Hartman, and S. Epatha Merkerson, and the show boasted a stunningly hip array of guest composers, from Mark Mothersbaugh and Danny Elfman to Todd Rundgren and Dweezil Zappa to the goddamn Residents. I’ll repeat that: if you were a child in the late 1980s, you very likely heard the Residents before you could read.
Before PLAYHOUSE, however, Pee-wee worked with perhaps his most significant co-conspirator: then-Disney animator Tim Burton, who made his first mark on Hollywood by bringing the character Paul Reubens created on the stage in Los Angeles to the big screen. The result – 1985’s PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE – is one of Hollywood’s greatest live-action cartoons. Unlike most sketch-character vehicles, which shoehorn their star into a by-numbers plot (see: every SNL movie that isn’t THE BLUES BROTHERS or MR. MIKE’S MONDO VIDEO), Burton and Reubens embrace their character’s loopy worldview and send him careening headlong through a series of deliriously funny setpieces. Those setpieces should already be springing to anyone’s mind who’s seen the movie: the Rube-Goldbergian breakfast machine, big-shoe dancing to “Tequila” at a biker bar, and, of course, the infamous Large Marge. But even the moments where nothing is happening (which are admittedly few) are a joy to watch, thanks to Burton’s endlessly inventive visuals and Reubens’ constant, fidgety reactions.
After a prolonged absence following That Thing That Happened, Reubens has gradually slipped back into the bow-tie, guesting on talk shows, maintaining an affably Takei-like web presence (which, by all accounts, is run by the man himself), and starring in a well-received Broadway revival of the Playhouse. There has been talk for some time of a new Pee-wee movie produced by Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, which looks like it may finally come to fruition soon. And it’s about damn time: Pee-wee was a true gem of pop culture, but we let him get dragged down by easy punchlines. It’s time that we, as a nation, talked about our big but.
ADDENDUM: In researching this article, I came across this scene-by-scene reading of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE as it relates to the major arcana of the Tarot. I could find no organic way to work this link into the main text, but felt that it was important to share, for obvious reasons.
PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) Dir. Tim Burton [90 min.]
Wednesday, April 23, 3:30 PM, 5:30 PM, 7:30 PM, 9:30 PM
Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)
$10 ($8 for 3:30 matinee!)