Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 30 Years Later
Growing up 90’s, all the way through High School, the legitimacy of my heterosexuality was called into volatile questioning by unenlightened jerks, for five unapologetic reasons. I have those points of interest, ranked in order of significance, accordingly:
- I collected action figures into adulthood
- I played Pokemon on Game Boy upon its release.
- If you handed me a Tab soda, I would pop the top and drink it. No questions asked.
- I loved the music of Elton John, Queen, and David Bowie.
- I was the only person I knew that adamantly insisted that the film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was one of the finest pieces of cinema ever produced.
What my preference was or wasn’t had absolutely no bearing on my preferences of taste, whatsoever. I enjoy art. Good art. Bad art. Campy art. Feminist Art. Masculine Art. Art. I found over time, that I was a perfectly adjusted and good human being for enjoying all of these things. The types of art an individual enjoys should have absolutely no bearing on how we judge that individual.
In regards to the number one slot on that list however, I was surprisingly mum on my opinions on that subject, until around 2008. By the time I finally felt confident enough to say my real feelings about the film, I was surprisingly shocked how many of all my other friends of mine LOVED it. I mean, we’re talking about folks from different walks of subcultures and interests across the board! I mean, many of these folks grew up watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I remember watching the show as a child. But even with that, the real entertainment value of Playhouse never stuck with me until I was an adult.
I want to take this moment to talk about Paul Reubens: Paul Reubens IS Pee Wee Herman. As a kid, when actor Paul Reubens was shamed for the adult theater incident, there was something that never sat right with people’s judgment of his character. It wasn’t until as an adult, with the advent of the internet, and embracing ideals of personal liberty that I realized how much of a victim Reubens actually was in his infamous negative press situation. Not to mention, after catching Reuben’s cameos in the Cheech & Chong comedies, and his role in Mystery Men, I was kind of shocked at 80’s audiences for turning on the man the way they did. I mean, obviously he was a comedian, and an adult comedian at that. I don’t know a comedian personally, including myself, who doesn’t operate on a different liberal sense of morality as anybody else. Reuben is one of the most underappreciated comedic geniuses of an entire generation, and it’s a crying shame that his situation blacklisted him from working on many good projects. I honestly feel he is the Dalton Trumbo of his field. I love that he’s getting his due nowadays, with the work he’s doing on shows like Comedy Bang Bang.
Weren’t we talking about a movie? Oh yeah, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE! Now, to be honest, prior to my writing this article, I hadn’t seen Big Adventure since probably around 2001. Since then, I’ve seen bit pieces on cable, here and there. As time has passed, and I’ve found more and more people who adored this film, pieces of its dialogue became ideal pop culture banter in appropriate situations (“Paging Mr. Herman” is one of my favorite bits of recurring Mystery Science Theater 3000 dialogue).
Upon rewatching the movie recently, I’ve found a few bits of information regarding the development that I surprisingly never knew about. For example, I never realized late SNL alum and Simpsons legend Phil Hartman co-wrote the film, alongside Reubens and Michael Varhol; sadly, Hartman’s cameo feels somewhat wastes as a reporter. Most people who read the credits probably already knew that. I sure as heck didn’t. Something even less obscure? That crazy, tripped out Claymation sequence with Large Marge? That was animated by the Chiodo Brothers, renowned by cinephiles for their film Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and their work on gems such as Critters and Team America. And if fans of Pee Wee’s Playhouse are keen, you can catch the actors who play Miss Yvonne and Jambi in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.
What’s really remarkable about this movie, are the layers of creative and comedic brilliance that comprise its D.N.A., despite the fact that the film was clearly created to capitalize on the trending success of what amounted to be a Saturday morning kids show. Pee Wee, our naïve protagonist, is an eccentric, blindly optimistic puer aeternus, or eternal man as described by someone far better with words than myself on his Wikipedia page. Let me share with you the base definition of what a puer aeternus actually is:
Puer aeternus is Latin for eternal boy, used in mythology to designate a child-god who is forever young; psychologically, it is an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. The puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.- Wikipedia
Now, not sure about you guys, but when I first read that, as I type this article drinking chocolate milk, surrounded by Transformers toys in the comfort of my cozy Ultimate Warrior p.j.’s, I was struck by a major epiphany: Pee Wee Herman can easily be looked at as a satirical caricature of my entire generation, years ahead of our rise to empathetic lethargy and obsessive nostalgic consumption. He assures us that he’s a rebel; our initial response is to laugh at the dork, and dismiss him. But what are some of Peewee’s defining character traits? Well, he certainly doesn’t hold or dress conventionally. Rebels really don’t do that, right? Don’t they dress to challenge the status quo? Herman certainly does that. People tell him not to do something against better judgment, and what’s he do? He goes ahead and does it anyway. And he does it in a way only he is capable of pulling it off. He consistently blows off the advances of friend Dottie, because he sees her as a potential hindrance to his man-boy lifestyle; a lifestyle he puts ridiculous amounts of hard work and effort, if only for his own amusement. Herman is obnoxious, blundering, and self-centered, sure. But he’s also immensely optimistic. In all honesty, I wish I could wake up with as much joy and bewilderment as Herman displays in the film’s opening, jumping on beds and laughing at the mundane tasks of breakfast and exercise.
On the surface, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure drew obvious influence from the 1948 film The Bicycle Thief. On more subversive levels, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure serves as a larger narrative of liberal sensibilities, and how they can function as strengths over more conventional, conservative approaches. These are themes Burton would eventually revisit these concepts in films such as Ed Wood. Even though this movie sums the expanse of an entire road trip, roughly half this film, and its most important character growth take place during Pee Wee’s pilgrimage through the Lone Star State. And it’s during this stretch of the film that we really see Pee Wee’s gills gasp as a fish out of water. Burton goes to great lengths to skewer the isolationist, egalitarian mentality that comes with Texan statism. From the Alamo Tour Guide’s patronizing treatment of Mexican tourists, to the “Heart of Texas/Alamo” call and response jokes, after experiencing Texas first-hand, none of these jokes were of the mildest exaggeration. At the heart of this stretch of the story is the subplot involving Simone the waitress; a woman of impressive talent who’s trapped in a mundane career that retards and subverts her passion for French culture. To make matters worse, Simone is crushed under the oppressive weight of a submissive relationship with a man intimidated by her intelligence. I almost wish Tim Burton would revisit Simone’s story in its own whimsical drama film, much like BIG FISH.
Has this film aged well in thirty years? Well, let me say this much: When Pee Wee helps his escaped convict acquaintance Mickey by disguising in drag. A police officer makes a mild flirtation, at which point he proceeds to oblige the officer’s fancy DESPITE having every right to refuse him. And after the two refugees are obviously the clear, and the criminal ditches his disguise, Pee Wee comes off as in absolutely no hurry to ditch his make-shift feminine disguise. A kid could easily write this off as real-life Bugs Bunny escapades, humor of this caliber back in the 80’s was rare; even rarer a joke done within an LGBT context where the either an individual of that persuasion, or a drag enthusiast wasn’t vilified or the cruel but of the joke. In this instance, it is played entirely to the film’s protagonist’s strengths, which is not only something we would see in future Tim Burton projects, but have seen progress in modern cinema in the last ten years. So, right off the bat much of this film’s humor is ahead of its time. In terms of a cinematic auteur’s standpoint, we see a lot of slanted angles, and atmospheric lighting use that throws back to the 1966 Batman series, FORBIDDEN ZONE, and the work of George A. Romero. Animated sequences used to great dramatic and humorous effect. Danny Elfman’s signature score. And thanks to this film, I can’t help but look around for a pair of platform shoes every time I hear the song Tequila. I can’t help but admit that Pee Wee Herman is the prototype to my entire schtick; and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure perfectly exemplifies everything great about this character. For those of us marching to our own drum, it’s inspirational, it’s relatable, and it’s highly entertaining. And for the Burton fans, this serves as a great film to check out, if only to see the early roots of his particular aesthetic.
It would be dishonest of me to deny that Pee Wee’s Great Adventure continues to provide sentiment and inspiration to me as a fan, this far into my life. It’s playing right now, as I write this. And now that I’m wrapped up with this week’s article? I can cut watching this film short, and go for a bike ride.
Why not finish the film?
Because I don’t have to finish the film, Dottie. I lived It…
Big fan of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Commemorate thirty years of awesome with this sweet Blueswade Design…
And while we don’t have sweet cherry red dream bikes, we do have Pee Wee Longboards!
Rick McDowell, AKA Comic Geek Punk is a writer, blogger, and gentleman adventurer. His credentials include being featured on an Adult Swim bumper at two in the morning, and haven captured all 720 Pokemon through six game generations. You can reach out to him through any of Blueswade Cartoons various online media, or check out his stuff at facebook.com/comicgeekpunk.