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For children of a certain generation, Pee-wee Herman was like a god.
A god who was fond of saying, “I know you are, but what am I?”
As children, my brother and I would reenact the scenes in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure between Pee-wee and his arch-nemesis, Francis (played by Mark Holton). My brother, despite being probably seven or eight years old, could do an uncannily accurate Pee-wee impression, all the way down to his iconic laugh. We had their banter down as well:
“Shut up Pee-wee!”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“Because I don’t make monkeys, I just train ’em.”
To say this movie, and by extension this man, had an impact on our childhoods is an understatement. But based on the outpouring of personal stories and social media posts that came flooding out when the man behind this iconic character passed away on July 30th at the age of 70, we were not alone.
That man, Paul Reubens, who lost a previously undisclosed six-year battle with cancer, had dreams of performing early on. He grew up surrounded by circus performers — his hometown was the winter off-season headquarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — and eventually made his way to Los Angeles to attend the California Institute of the Arts. There he joined the famed comedy troupe the Groundlings, where Pee-wee was born. Notable Groundlings alums also include Cassandra Peterson, A.K.A. Elvira, and Saturday Night Live’s Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, all of whom, through no coincidence, appear in this film.
In fact, Hartman and Reubens were such close friends and collaborators that the former co-wrote the screenplay for Big Adventure.
So intertwined were Reubens and Pee-wee, the public persona that had catapulted him to stardom, that he did not appear out of character as himself on any talk show until a 1999 Tonight Show appearance to promote the film Mystery Men.
That is, except for the time he was infamously arrested in an adult cinema in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida in July 1991. At that point, the public’s primary exposure to him became either the image of this universally beloved children’s character or a mugshot. It must have been an odd juxtaposition at the time, these two extremes, and is better not dwelled on here, lest it overshadow this gem of a movie the way it did his career in its immediate aftermath. That is, until he made a surprise appearance at the MTV movie awards in September of that same year as Pee-wee with the line, “Heard any good jokes lately?” He received a standing ovation. This move felt subversive and ballsy in its day, but it also illustrated that the love for Pee-wee by the general populace seems as resilient as perhaps the man himself was, until the end.
There is no doubt, at any rate, that this character is beloved in a way that seems to transcend generations, time, and run-ins with the law.
His movie development deal came at the end of a five-year road, which began with him being rejected from becoming a cast member on Saturday Night Live in favor of a similar performer (rumored to be Gilbert Gottfried) who was friends with one of its producers. This rejection served as fuel to produce his own show out of spite, he liked to joke. His show selling out, going on tour, and multiple appearances on David Letterman eventually landed him a movie deal.
The film he ended up making is a modern day (now 38 years old) classic. It’s a brightly colored live-action cartoon populated with character actors and ever-changing scenery. It’s continually genre flipping: like a tour through many genres within the history of film, and somewhat of a love letter to Hollywood by its end. It was also directed by a then 27-year-old Tim Burton in his debut feature.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure contains all the delight of childhood with an impishly humorous adult as a guide. It has so many iconic scenes and lines that somehow retain their humor and delight even after repeated viewings. Mr. T Cereal is featured. As are the legendary Cabazon Dinosaurs, a 150-foot-long and a 65-foot-tall, respectively, brontosaurus and T-rex located on the outskirts of Palm Springs. Burton and Reubens both listed them as a favorite location of the shoot, and Burton said some people assumed they had been built especially for the movie. (Though you can enter the head of the T-Rex in real life, the interior featured in the film was actually built and shot on the Warner Bros. lot.)
Then there is Danny Elfman’s terrific score, which makes you feel at times like you’re watching a silent film. It does not contain a false note. His music is distinctive and powerful, and it noticeably carries the film and sets its tone before we even see a picture. (The blackness of the opening credits was attributed to budgetary constraints: the film was “low budget” for a big studio film of its day, at just $6.5 million.)
Yet, ironically, Elfman was so inexperienced with movie scoring at the time that he severely doubted his own abilities, trying to talk his way out of the job when Burton and Reubens first approached him.
Admitted Elfman, “I was terrified when I started this movie. I was really convinced that I was going to destroy their movie.”
Pee-wee, who has at times been compared to folks like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is himself almost like a silent film star in this movie. There are long segments with no dialogue and Elfman’s sweeping score, which would be right at home in the 1920s.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a road movie that is also at fleeting moments a police procedural, a Western, a biker film, a film noir, a Fellini movie, and a Tarzan film, among other things. We even see them literally shooting a Godzilla movie on a soundstage at one point, something which echoes Francis’s earlier bath time exploits.
Remembers Burton, “Every day was like a new genre.”
Reminders of classic films wash over you moment to moment upon viewing: Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Sullivan’s Travels, Ida Lupino’s The Hitchhiker, The Third Man, and elements of German Expressionism. Burton also cited ’80s television shows like CHiPs and Dynasty as genres they seemed to be hitting upon.
Reubens and Burton were like two peas in a pod and quickly developed a natural shorthand with each other despite the newness of their acquaintance. They were two highly creative misfit weirdos who were both alumni of CalArts, as was Elfman “unofficially”: the Disney-connected school 35 miles north of Los Angeles. Reubens found Burton — both men at the dawn of their careers in Hollywood — through mutual friends who could see instantly that the two would be a perfect match.
Though Burton remembers it differently, Reubens claims the studio told him Burton had rejected all previous feature film scripts they had sent his way until Big Adventure reached him. To the WB executives’ great surprise, he accepted immediately.
For die-hard fans of this film, a variety of interesting facts remain. The previously mentioned Elvira, aka Cassandra Peterson, has a cameo as an almost unrecognizable biker chick. The actress who played the now-infamous Large Marge later received enormous reactions from people every time they realized who she was. They originally wanted Andre the Giant for the role of Simone’s jealous boyfriend and Sean Connery for “P.W.,” the role that eventually went to James Brolin.
As far as favorites go, Reubens spoke of the ridiculous cameo he makes in the film within the film in this movie as, “Probably one of the funnest things I ever shot in my whole life. Bad acting.”
If you’ve seen this movie 500 times or if it’s your first viewing, do yourself a favor and come pay your respects to Pee-wee, a modern-day icon, who may have just left us but will now pass into the realm of legend. As Pee-wee said to Francis, and as Paul Reubens himself was fond of saying, to punctuate any story he felt was overly long or perhaps bordered on being bland, “I love that story!”