Pumped: Pee-wee’s Big AdventureFebruary 12, 2021 By Go Back
Arriving the same summer as Rambo: First Blood Part 2, Peewee’s Big Adventure offered a bracingly different portrait of masculinity on a mission. Where Sylvester Stallone, pumped and primed practically to cyborg proportions, went back to Vietnam to redeem 1985 America by rescuing P.O.W.’s, Peewee Herman hit the road in pursuit of his missing bicycle. Apart from a motivated urgency to get things done, the similarities stop right there.
Created by sketch comedian Paul Reubens, Pee-wee first gained notoriety as a one-man (boy?) show in L.A., wherein the comedian, dressed in a skintight sharkskin suit and cherry-red bowtie (same colour as the missing vehicle), invited people into his toy-stuffed domain and slightly fevered imagination. Objects came alive thanks to the running commentary provided by this cartoonish man-child, who giggled and pouted his way into accommodating hearts.
Well, some anyway. Pee-wee was a decidedly acquired taste, and former Disney animator Tim Burton’s first movie divided people even more dramatically than Stallone’s taciturn ubermensch. Annoying to the max, Pee-wee offered little room for compromise. One either loved him or hightailed it to the exit.
I first saw Pee-wee on Late Night with David Letterman, where he performed an absurd show-and-tell routine with toys, but my heart was won when he jumped up on Letterman’s desk and danced to Jefferson Starship’s We Built This City (on Rock and Roll) wearing Elton-high platform shoes and a skinny tie headband that anticipated Rambo’s signature accessorizing by a few years.
Just 27 when he made Big Adventure, Burton nevertheless perfectly understood that the only way to sustain Pee-wee as a feature-length movie protagonist was to bend the celluloid world to Pee-wee’s singular proportions. Instead of the fish-out-of-water talk show guest, the movie version of Pee-wee swam in waters poured precisely to his bizarre and stubbornly infantile requirements. Living in a Rube Goldbergian pad that anticipated TV’s Saturday morning Pee-wee’s Playhouse, blustering his way through theme parks, motorcycle gangs, gag shops and even the Alamo, Pee-wee hit the road oblivious to his own weirdness. The better to force the world to dance to his tune.
As a cartoon-obsessed grownup himself, Burton met Pee-wee at the intersection where animation meets (and bends to) real life. A dinosaur theme park comes to life, inanimate objects talk, and faces contort with boogeyman elasticity. Which compels another Rambo/Pee-wee parallel: where Stallone’s cartoonish crusader merely re-fought the Vietnam war as wish-fulfilment fantasy, Reubens’ creation bulldozed reality itself. He was a force of un-nature.
Pee-wee shoulda been a contender, and he was for a few years, reaching full cartoon saturation with Pee-wee’s Playhouse, maybe the most subversive kiddie show ever made. But the world will only take so much subversion, and Pee-wee’s real-world adventure was effectively crushed by a scandal involving Reubens, a porn theatre and an act of public auto-eroticism. It should have (and would have) been a minor glitch career-wise, but Reubens’ reputation never really recovered, despite multiple attempts at recovery. It’s hard to imagine most celebrities being brought down by the kind of act Reubens was guilty of, but it knocked something vital out of the comedian’s muse. It’s as though the world had bitten back.
It tells you something about just how threatening the giggling, sexually ambivalent boy-man was that rumours quickly circulated that Pee-wee had committed acts far worse than getting caught playing with oneself in a movie theatre. And they stuck, as convenient fictions tend to. I remember walking my dog past a parked police cruiser some years ago when the driver saw my Pee-wee t-shirt. “Hey man,” he called. “Is that a pedophile you’re wearing?”
Well, no, actually, but I let it go. Correcting cops rarely ends happily. But it said something about what people wanted to believe about Pee-wee. And it was the same thing that many people refused to believe about Michael Jackson. Like Pee-wee’s world, reality got twisted into a shape that suited what some people needed to believe about the guy. (Meanwhile, similarly scandal-touched celebs of the day, like Jackson, Hugh Grant, George Michael and the Who’s Pete Townsend, were recovered and rehabilitated with minor damage.)
Despite game attempts at a Pee-wee revival, like a Broadway show and a Netflix movie, the character has never achieved the sublimely surrealistic heights of Big Adventure and Playhouse. (And it’s a shame he never collaborated with Burton again – save a brief appearance as the Penguin’s dad in Batman Returns – who perhaps found a more acceptable, although eventually scandal-rocked, man- boy in Johnny Depp.) But those heights are still there to be enjoyed, amazed, and speculated over.
Imagine, for instance, an alternate reality where Pee-wee prevailed. Where he showed up as guest host on The Tonight Show, hosting the Oscars, being grilled by Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes or appearing as a contestant on Jeopardy. Or maybe even co-starring with Sylvester Stallone. No question about it: the world could certainly use more Pee-wee Herman.