The Joyous Blast of Pee-wee Herman Will Be Deeply Missed

Paul Reubens and his brilliant character Pee-wee Herman offered viewers a kind of weird, joyful, hilarious television and film that we aren’t lucky enough to get very often.

Still from Pee-wee's Playhouse. (John Kisch Archive / Getty Images)

It’s been a tough week saying goodbye to both Sinéad O’Connor and Pee-wee Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, two brilliantly gifted entertainers whose careers were dragged down for stupid reasons in the early 1990s. But at least those who love them are expressing their belated appreciation.

The affectionate oddities are the most heartwarming. For example, I just read a post on the official Facebook page of “The Alamo” in honor Pee-wee Herman that was very touching, even in its capitalistic publicity-tie-in kind of way:

Since 1985, not a day has passed without visitors consistently inquiring about the location of the basement at the Alamo. This tradition owes its origins to the comedic acting of Mr. Paul Reubens from the movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. We are immensely grateful for his unforgettable contribution to Alamo pop culture. However, we can confirm that while there is not a basement in the Alamo Church, there is one next door, under our gift shop!

May he rest in peace.

This testimony to the impact of the beloved figure at the center of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure should really send you hurrying to rewatch the 1985 film, which remains as bright, fresh, and hilarious as the day it debuted. It demonstrates not only Reubens’s unique gifts, but also the fact that Tim Burton really was a talented filmmaker once upon a time.

The film is a wonderful comedic riff off of the premise of the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves involving Pee-wee’s obsessive quest for his stolen bike. A phony psychic tells him it’s in the basement of the Alamo, so he hitchhikes to Texas. It’s a journey fraught with riotous road trip encounters through all sorts of recognizable American pop culture events, such as thumbing a ride with an escaping prisoner — in this case, Mickey, whose crime was tearing off the mattress tag that warns “Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law.”

Then Pee-wee gets picked up along a midnight highway by the ghost of Large Marge, who died in the worst trucking accident anybody ever saw. And after that he falls into a brief but meaningful truck-stop communion with Yvonne, the waitress, who dreams of living in Paris, but is thwarted, like most people who don’t fulfill their dreams, by the all-too-human obstacle Pee-wee calls the “Big But.”

Then Pee-wee gets to the end of his trek only to be cruelly disillusioned by the Alamo’s tragic lack of a basement. Still, he finds unexpected delights in Texas, such as winning over an ugly crowd in a biker bar by dancing his signature chicken-winged “‘Tequila’ Dance” in platform shoes and proving he’s in the Lone Star State by singing out, “The stars at night are big and bright,” and having every cowboy-hatted stranger on the street shout in unison, “Deep in the heart of Texas!”

The bike-fixated film includes Pee-wee’s nightmare, imagery that’s modeled on Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), an experimental film transgressively centered on a homoerotically dreamy, neo-Nazi-leaning biker gang, with an American mainstream pop music score, a combination that Anger felt represented the “death-cult” reality of early 1960s culture in the United States. The casual sophistication of this “quote,” which doesn’t at all call attention to itself any more than the reference to Bicycle Thieves, if you don’t happen to know the film referenced, is one of the joys of the film.

For many of us, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was our introduction to the unique alter ego of actor Paul Reubens, born Paul Rubenfeld. But he had a long gestation that also ranged widely through show business traditions.

Partially inspired by 1950s children’s show hosts like Pinky Lee, Reubens invented the character in the late 1970s while performing as a member of the Los Angeles–based comedy troupe the Groundlings. He developed it further on stage in the successful Pee-wee Herman Show, and the HBO special that followed, as well as several cameo or guest appearances including The Dating Game, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, Mork & Mindy, and Late Night with David Letterman.

The groundbreaking TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1991, represents the culmination of the stage and movie versions of Pee-wee Herman and his world. The show’s famed inclusivity broke down racial, gender, and sexual boundaries in a reflection of Reubens’s own desire for a liberating, everyone’s-a-star safe space:

I felt like a total oddball, like, almost every minute of growing up. . . . But I think that sort of was the whole point of the show was that it would be hard to stand out in the Playhouse. Like, everything stood out in the Playhouse, so you could sort of feel right at home no matter who you are or what you were thinking or anything.

That most people who hadn’t yet experienced Pee-wee “got” him instantly when watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a tribute to Reubens’s ability to channel this uncanny character dressed in a signature tight gray suit with big white shoes and red bowtie, looking as much like a doll or an animated figure as a human, with his glossy black hair, dark buttonlike eyes, and rosy cheeks. Even Pee-wee’s age is hard to pin down — he’s like a child, an adolescent, and an odd, fey little man all in one, floating among characteristics associated with each.

Like an adult, he lives alone in his own house (other than his tiny dog, Speck), but the house is an elaborate, brightly colored Rube Goldberg machine playhouse suitable for an exuberant kid who’s also a wacky inventor and laughs a contagiously weird laugh of huge “HA HAs” followed by sly muttering “heh heh hehs.” Plus he’s negotiating his first teenage-type relationship with Dottie, a girl/woman who works at Chuck’s Bike-o-Rama and has a crush on him — though he warns her, “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Still of Dottie and Pee-wee from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. (Warner Bros)

Not since silent film star Harry Langdon had a comic actor managed so successfully this tightrope walk among the Ages of Man, which always threatens to become discomfiting if he tips too far over toward any one specific age. With the Pee-wee Herman character, Reubens added an incredibly disarming combination of childlike innocence with camp and queer references and iconography.

In one memorable example, the 1988 CBS special Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Reubens, who never publicly declared his own sexuality, both evoked and subverted Ronald Reagan–era neo-traditionalism and “the 1980s fetishism of the 1950s” in one lighthearted package:

It works because it’s played exactly like a regular Christmas special, and if you’re not up on queer iconography it just looks like a fun thing. It’s almost more fun watching it now that all these guest stars — like k.d. lang, Grace Jones, Joan Rivers — have such a different meaning in culture. It’s like a prank that we’re in on.

The special reflected Reubens’s amazing showbiz balancing act continued for years until an extraneous event finally tipped Pee-wee Herman over: Reubens’s 1991 arrest on the absurd charge of “indecent exposure” because he was caught masturbating during a screening in an adult film theater in Sarasota, Florida — Reubens’s hometown — by vice squad cops who regularly cruised through adult theaters in sting operations. (Two other men were arrested along with Reubens.) The crazily overblown scandal that resulted led Reubens to shelve the Pee-wee Herman character almost entirely for a number of years. Though Pee-wee got resurrected intermittently, Reubens’s career never regained its former momentum.

Still, both Pee-wee Herman and Paul Reubens remained beloved figures, liable to pop up anywhere. Reubens acted in many films and TV shows over the years, and The Pee-wee Herman Show got revived on Broadway in 2010. The last Herman/Reubens appearance was in a final Pee-wee film released on Netflix, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016), a sequel to Big Top Pee-wee (1988).

But to get the most joyous blast of Pee-wee Herman’s appeal, you can’t do better than rewatching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. “Why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer,” was one of Pee-wee Herman’s retro catchphrases. In this case, it’s a comfort that such a great comedy character has been captured on generous amounts of film that can be watched again and again.