Written by Christine Bamberger
USA, 1985. 90 min. Warner Brothers/ Aspen Film Society. Cast: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton, Diane Salinger, Milton Berle. Music: Danny Elfman; Cinematography: Victor Kemper; Production Design: David Snyder; Produced by: Richard Abramson, William McEuen; Written by: Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, Michael Varhol; Directed by: Tim Burton.
Living high up a mountain in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire in the late 1980s, I had no cable and absolutely miserable television reception, which meant that I began listening in earnest to National Public Radio and took to watching a few of the shows available on the two network channels I was able to get. Though I adored the quirky Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and The Wonder Years, I also watched a few shows to which I probably would not have been drawn had my selection been more diverse–I developed a Who’s the Boss? habit, once it was syndicated. Oddest of all was the show I’d occasionally switch to on Saturday mornings, when I was just returning from a grocery run and starting to put things away in the kitchen. Pee-wee’s Playhouse turned out to be a sort of cross between a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon–both fun for kids and zinging much of its humor straight over their heads–and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Paul Reubens’ ability to conjure up the behavior of a ten-year-old was inspired, and he delivered something fresh with his take on 1950s pop-culture and the sly innocence of the show’s characters. The innocence itself was a novelty after Eddie Murphy had made merciless fun of Mister Rogers, and the kids in sitcoms had devolved into wiseacres, routinely snarky to their own parents. Pee-wee parodied just about everything and was unquestionably campy, but always in such an affectionate way that the parody seemed more tribute than ridicule.
Reubens’ popularity was rising fast when he made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. He had started in the 1970s as a comedian in improv shows with future Saturday Night Live presence Phil Hartman in a troupe called The Groundlings. Developing a repertoire of characters, Reubens came up in those club performance years with his slightly bratty, comfy-in-his-own-skin man/child Pee-wee. Interestingly, Saturday morning’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a modified version of a Los Angeles stage show aimed at adults that Reubens developed with Hartman and Edie McClurg in the early ’80s, The Pee-wee Herman Show. The original production was an edgy and occasionally ribald take-off on children’s shows and other facets of earlier pop culture, but the transformation to genuine children’s entertainment did not require too much alteration, and subtler aspects of the adult humor (many argue that much of it was gay humor) remained.
Even before the Saturday morning children’s program aired, however, Reubens asked Phil Hartman to help him write a script for a feature-length film built around the Pee-wee character. His friend Tim Burton, a man with his own weird sensibilities and a flair for the surreal, directed (in fact, it was Burton’s first feature). The premise is certainly simple: Pee-wee loses the most precious thing in the world to him, a 1950s bicycle complete with handlebar tassels. He embarks on a quest, roaming the United States in search of it, following some frail trails and meeting dozens of characters as colorful as himself along the way. But the movie is redeemed, particularly with the younger set, by well-executed slapstick, surrealistic eye-candy sets, and some genuinely funny clean humor along the lines of the nonsense in 1980’s Airplane and its spawn.
Evident in Reubens’ Pee-wee-related works are the influences of his beloved Howdy Doody and some years spent in Sarasota, Florida amongst circus performers. It is a bit difficult to envision a full length film surrounding Howdy Doody, or a sole circus performer, and perhaps that is the reason for the vague sense of overkill here. Think of the television Playhouse with its 25 or so features of Pee-wee’s hangout, and how they expand to about 95 in the film. At times the instinct to stretch the character over 90 minutes proves misguided: the film struggles along by duplicating its own premise multiple times, and the dialogue sometimes relies heavily on Reubens’ own vocal quirks as the character.
On the other hand, there are hilarious references to the conventions of other movies (“You don’t want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”) and final scenes that poke fun at several Hollywood genres–most flagrantly at the heroically skewed bio-pic, as James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild portray Pee-wee and Dottie in a cheesy movie based on Pee-wee’s bike pursuit.
Best of all is the unexpected way that other characters in the film react to Pee-wee; despite his perceived dorkiness he is met only with people who treat him as if he is a normal and likeable youth. Although Pee-wee takes in the world with the wonder of a much younger child, even the cool kids in the bike shop regard him with respect, and though he initially antagonizes a surly motorcycle squadron known as Satan’s Helpers, he soon wins them over for life with (of all things) an outrageously silly dance routine to “Tequila” atop a bar. The sequel to Peewee’s Big Adventure provided him with a sex life (albeit a humorously treated one), but fans agree that this just doesn’t work as well as the purely childlike character in this film.
Much has been made of Paul Reubens’ ignominious downfall and the awful irony of a children’s entertainer being caught up not only in the 1991 indecent exposure arrest, but also a more recent charge of possessing child pornography (by his own admission Reubens owned some unusual vintage erotica including images of children, but he insists that none of it could be described as child porn per se and that he is no pedophile.) Unlike Hugh Grant’s recovery of his clean-cut image even after a solicitation arrest, Peewee’s persona could not bounce back from scandal, and Reubens went on to work steadily but never as prominently.
But it is doubtful that Pee-wee could have lasted into the 1990s. Peewee’s success owes as much to the Max Headroomish-Ferris Bueller ’80s as he does to the innocent slapstick clowns of the silent movies or to Reubens’ own talent. Such overboard and caricatural comedy will never be completely out of style, but the look and the ‘tude of twenty years ago decidedly are. There is an appreciation of the magical in Pee-wee that will make him live on for kids, though, and for the college students and lonesome twentysomethings who were cheered by him in the freewheeling Reagan decade.