As a kid, brushing my teeth seemed infinitely more exciting when I employed
Pee-wee Herman's technique. As featured in the 1985 film "Pee-wee's Big
Adventure", starring Paul Reubens as the titular eccentric, this involves lathering chompers with a toothbrush the size of a spatula and growling "Mad
Pee-wee's universe of souped-up bicycles, toast-toting pterodactyls and
prankster chewing-gum recently seduced a sell-out crowd to a screening at New York's Museum of Modern Art as part of their Tim Burton retrospective.
Not everyone knows to attribute this cheery cult classic to Burton, whose body of work skews much darker. Yet his hand can be seen in the quirky art direction and oddball details, as well as in the film's place in that murky space between gawky childhood and reluctant adulthood.
After a brief introduction by Burton, who mentioned the film's place on a number of "worst-of" lists, the adventure began with applause and appreciative yelps. The film was a surprise box-office hit when it opened, made for $6m but earning $45m in ticket sales. The screening at MoMA revealed its lasting appeal. The audience's jittery excitement was soon matched by the hysteric staccato of Danny Elfman's score, his second ever (and the start of a rich and longstanding partnership with Burton). If you haven't heard the Pee-wee theme, think of a circus marching band headed off a cliff.
This urgent tenor perfectly accompanies Pee-wee's manic antics. With high-pitched voice and apathetic sneer, he wryly mocks the adult world by tweaking its conventions. Pee-wee is both patronising and childish. At the screening such scenes elicited anticipatory laughter long before the gags and punch-lines. Much of the dialogue was recited aloud by the audience, and synchronised clapping accompanied his famous bar dance scene.
What makes Pee-wee so appealing? On a surreal quest to recover his prized bicycle, he runs away from home and encounters America's most familiar and hardened transients. Despite his androgynous voice, fey swagger and elfish features, Pee-wee manages to warm the hearts of the most rugged truckers, hobos, rodeo cowboys and Harley riders along the way. He's the quintessential American populist, humorously affirming the futility of our guises. By challenging these comfortable cultural divisions, Pee-wee shows us that a nation of rebels is, in fact, a nation with a common bond. (Need to break the ice with an ex-con? Just turn up the radio and sing along.) He is grandly affirming in his childish naiveté.
Throughout the film, Pee-wee remains uniquely dapper in his snug grey suit. Decades later, it seems Pee-wee has become a menswear muse. Take a trip to the mens' section of any urban department store and you'll see that Pee-wee's hyper slim silhouette has inspired the designs of Thom Browne, whose vacuum-packed suits feature the same slashed inseams, pocket squares and bow-ties in riotous colours. For Pee-wee, this costume is a tongue-in-cheek nod to adulthood, but in an era when one may attend boardroom meetings in jeans, the whole concept of the mens' suit has become fetishised. Its elements are parodied and reworked for a generation inclined to wear them as statements, like Pee-wee, not out of habit or ritual.
Out of the suit, Pee-wee's Paul Reubens seems to have finally shaken off his tabloid taint and has been making the rounds recently in cameo roles in television and film. To the delight of fans, Ruebens will bring Pee-wee back from a long hiatus this January in the "Pee-wee Herman Show", a live show in Los Angeles based on his original 1981 act that premiered at the Groundlings, a venerable comedy club. That first show travelled the country in the early 1980s and earned a cult following and even an HBO special. After the Burton film (with a script by Burton, Reubens and the late Phil Hartman) came "Pee-wee's Playhouse" a children's television show that aired from 1986 to 1991. Reubens will star as Pee-wee in a new film based on this kids' show, to be released in 2011.
"What I’m trying to prove now is that I still have it, I’m still around—I still am Pee-wee Herman, and Pee-wee Herman is still funny," Reubens said recently in an interview for Details magazine. Most everyone at MoMA's packed screening would seem to agree.
~ JORDAN HRUSKA