In Praise of Pee-wee

Probably everybody’s heard by now about the resurgence of Pee-wee Herman, actor Paul Reubens’ singular creation, who’s now enjoying a joyous renaissance on the Broadway stage after wowing audiences in L.A. with a new version of his classic stage show of the 1980s.  As a super fan of Pee-wee and Reuben I’ve been following the latest reviews since his show opened the other day.  While the Los Angeles critics seemed to be totally into the revivial, the NYC press is an interesting mix of reactions, from the adoring to the “Huh?”, which suggests to me that the latter reviewers simply never got into Pee-wee and his particular brand of absurdist amusement.  Not to say that everybody has to like the character or the show, but to not “get” Pee-wee…well, if you don’t buy into the premise, there’s no way his world view is going to make any sense, or more importantly, make you laugh.  But for those of us who love Pee-wee, and maybe even for people who don’t, 1985′s big screen success Pee-wee’s Big Adventure should provide enough evidence that Paul Reubens’ character of the child-man Pee-Wee Herman is a classic of movie comedy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrzqBwuxHV8]

I love Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (I know, why don’t I marry it?), and the film, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary holds up just as shiny, spiffy and wonderful as Pee’s adored red bicycle, the object of his affection that in fact propels the action in the movie.  The bike is the stuff of which Pee-wee’s dream are made of, and it’s also so beautiful that the local rich kid covets and eventually has someone steal for him after Pee-wee refuses to sell it to him.  But that’s about 15 minutes into the movie, after director Tim Burton‘s affectionate, nutty but not creepy (yet), introduction to Pee-wee’s super-saturated-colorful home life.  Pee-wee’s completely delighted with himself and the world he inhabits, and his satisfaction is catching.  He’s so cheery, so serendipitous, so open to enjoyment that we are won over — or maybe we’re not, in which case you probably missed falling for Reubens as he honed Pee-wee through his work with The Groundlings, then his stage show (filmed for HBO and available on DVD, and highly recommended), and then this movie.  (It might be hard to believe but the Saturday morning TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse followed this movie.)

Those of us who love Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and haven’t seen it for a while — as I hadn’t (I’m watching it on Netflix instant view right now as I type this — might have forgotten some of the build-up to the more well-known segments of the film.  I’m sure more diligent than fans than I have it all down, but I forgot a lot of his morning routine jokes, and the antics with his bike, and the magic shop.  One thing that makes Pee-wee so charming, a quality that far trumps any notion of “what is wrong with this guy?” that grumpier audience members might harbor, is his constant good cheer.  He waves to his neighbor, pats his little stone deer on the head, lovingly polishes the tiger on his bike, greets the toy monkey in front of the magic shop, waves to the clown figure guarding his cycle, and has clearly established friendships with a wide variety of people and things around him.  This is no out-of-touch loner; Pee-wee hangs with BMX biker kids, shopkeepers, little kids, the Amazing Larry, magicians…everybody.  He’s completely different but everybody loves him.  Amen to that!  There’s such a positive energy coming from Pee-wee that we truly understand how devasted he is when he discovers his beloved bike has been stolen.  He’s in complete despair, disconsolate, desperate, a feeling that morphs into a delirious paranoia that fuels the rest of the movie

From the moment he runs out of the Police Station to engage in a Tarzan-and-the-alligator-type underwater wrestling match with the evil rich kid until he’s…you know, there might be some people out there who haven’t seen the movie yet.  I can’t ruin the sublime pleasure that a Pee-wee newbie would get from watching this terrific movie for the first time, or even the pleasure that Pee-wee veterans would get from watching it again and laughing unexpectedly at some bit of wonderful that we forgot about.  I’ve already done that several times as I’m watching now.  So I’m just going to shut up, pretty much.  But if you have seen it, you remember The Alamo, don’t you?  Or Large Marge?  Or the pet shop rescue?  Or the clown dream?  Or Tequila?  Or his movie studio caper?  Of course you do, and that’s why you’d better get to watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure for yourself.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the unforgettable music score written by Danny Elfman, the tremendous screenplay written by Reubens, Michael Varhol, and the late Phil Hartman, the wonderful writer/actor/comedian/fellow Reubens Groundling who played the role of Captain Carl in the original stage version of The Pee-wee Herman Show.  Hartman’s shocking death in 1998 still boggles the mind, and if you watch HBO’s special you will be extra, extra-sad, because Hartman is that great in it.  (“The sea, Pee…the sea.”)

I will leave you with a selection of screengrabs from the first third of the film, to where he’s just start his road journey.  Just look at that face…that fabulous face (to borrow a phrase from The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd) of Pee-wee Herman.  If that isn’t enough to make your day, then you should go back to sleep and try again.

Okay, you’re on your own now.  It gets even better from here on.  You have to watch the movie, don’t you?  Thought so!

14 Responses In Praise of Pee-wee
Posted By suzidoll : November 17, 2010 11:27 pm

I can’t believe the movie is 25 years old. Good grief. Thanks for reminding me to watch it, though.

Posted By suzidoll : November 17, 2010 11:27 pm

I can’t believe the movie is 25 years old. Good grief. Thanks for reminding me to watch it, though.

Posted By keelsetter : November 17, 2010 11:59 pm

We need more movies that show this kind of bicycle adoration! The first title most people suggest is BICYCLE THIEVES (1948) but, let’s face it, that had less to do with “love of bikes” and more to do with “putting food on the table.” Now, BREAKING AWAY (1979), on the other hand, puts Dennis Christopher right up there with Reubens in terms of passion for his two-wheeler. Either way, all those great screen-grabs make me want to see the Big Adventure again. This Thanksgiving I was going to finally watch THE WALKING DEAD (which does feature a “Bicycle Girl Zombie” character), but your post gives me “cause for pause.” Perhaps it’s time to revisit Pee Wee’s trials & tribulations. I’m pretty sure my friends and family would be thankful for something a bit more upbeat.

Posted By keelsetter : November 17, 2010 11:59 pm

We need more movies that show this kind of bicycle adoration! The first title most people suggest is BICYCLE THIEVES (1948) but, let’s face it, that had less to do with “love of bikes” and more to do with “putting food on the table.” Now, BREAKING AWAY (1979), on the other hand, puts Dennis Christopher right up there with Reubens in terms of passion for his two-wheeler. Either way, all those great screen-grabs make me want to see the Big Adventure again. This Thanksgiving I was going to finally watch THE WALKING DEAD (which does feature a “Bicycle Girl Zombie” character), but your post gives me “cause for pause.” Perhaps it’s time to revisit Pee Wee’s trials & tribulations. I’m pretty sure my friends and family would be thankful for something a bit more upbeat.

Posted By morlockjeff : November 18, 2010 1:07 am

I just love these images. Pee Wee holding a folk art rendering of a map of Texas and posing like a model for JCPenney brings tears of joy to my memory banks. PR is back…he never really left. We did…and we so stupid.

Posted By morlockjeff : November 18, 2010 1:07 am

I just love these images. Pee Wee holding a folk art rendering of a map of Texas and posing like a model for JCPenney brings tears of joy to my memory banks. PR is back…he never really left. We did…and we so stupid.

Posted By medusamorlock : November 18, 2010 10:16 am

The movie is so entertaining! It’s always a good time to revisit this one — it’s timeless. 25 years *sounds* like a long time, and is, sort of, but the movie is utterly contemporary because it doesn’t exist in a time but a state of mind.

So funny! Hail Pee-wee Herman and Paul Reubens!

Posted By medusamorlock : November 18, 2010 10:16 am

The movie is so entertaining! It’s always a good time to revisit this one — it’s timeless. 25 years *sounds* like a long time, and is, sort of, but the movie is utterly contemporary because it doesn’t exist in a time but a state of mind.

So funny! Hail Pee-wee Herman and Paul Reubens!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 19, 2010 3:55 pm

I’m with Suzi. I can’t believe 25 years have passed me by since this was originally released.

I like Paul Reubens a lot and I’m glad he’s making a comeback!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 19, 2010 3:55 pm

I’m with Suzi. I can’t believe 25 years have passed me by since this was originally released.

I like Paul Reubens a lot and I’m glad he’s making a comeback!

Posted By Deanna : November 23, 2010 2:59 pm

One of my very favorite movies (and THINGS) of all time!

Posted By Deanna : November 23, 2010 2:59 pm

One of my very favorite movies (and THINGS) of all time!

Posted By Vince : November 24, 2010 10:41 pm

I had the good fortune to see this movie in the theater when it came out – the audience was hollering with delight all the way through, shouting at the action – “Get him, Pee-Wee!” – with unrestrained passion. It was perfect!

I had seen a wonderfully creepy-but-affectionate little stop-motion cartoon “Vincent” a couple of years earlier, and it was only later that I learned these two gems were the work of one Tim Burton – I kept my eye out for more of him ever since.

Posted By Vince : November 24, 2010 10:41 pm

I had the good fortune to see this movie in the theater when it came out – the audience was hollering with delight all the way through, shouting at the action – “Get him, Pee-Wee!” – with unrestrained passion. It was perfect!

I had seen a wonderfully creepy-but-affectionate little stop-motion cartoon “Vincent” a couple of years earlier, and it was only later that I learned these two gems were the work of one Tim Burton – I kept my eye out for more of him ever since.

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