Pee-Wee's Big Adventure: A Look Back
"I know you are but what am I?" was aflurry amidst the playground full of six and seven year olds at my school in the mid 1980s. The 1980s was known for a lot of things, but one that isn't brought up as much as the Star Wars films or Ninja Turtles is Pee-Wee Herman: the ingenious creation of comedian Paul Reubens.
Pee-Wee wasn't just child-like, giving people all ages a broad affection for him with kids finding his simple humor funny and adults realizing he's a little more complex a character than just that (and more adult humor than he lets on). Pee-Wee literally was a kid in an adult's body. He's innocent, incredibly gullible, finds the simplest things amusing and, with perfect comedic timing from Reubens, throws countless sight-gags, one-liners and memorable situations our way.
Upon its release, Reubens and the film's comedic style itself, was quickly compared to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and certainly the Marx Brothers- Pee-Wee a damn-near reincarnation of Groucho combined with a bit of Harpo for good measure. You can throw in other great comedic legends, such as Jacques Tati and even Don Knotts in many respects. Truth be told, Reuben's iconic creation is just as endearing as any of them. With two features, a successful television show and an even more successful stage show, Pee-Wee certainly had the popularity and success even if it was short-lived during the decade.
A Brief History of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
-After failing to be added to the cast of Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, comedian Paul Reubens created a stage production based around a character named Pee-Wee Herman - a character Reubens toyed with years before as a member of The Groundlings comedic group (and co-developed Pee-Wee with fellow member Phil Hartman).
-It found massive success in Los Angeles at the Groundlings and Roxy Theatre and spawned a hit HBO Special. This basic premise would also be reformatted into Pee-Wee's Playhouse in the late 1980s although slightly toned-down for children..
-With the success of the special, Reubens was approached to write a feature-length script based on the character. After toying with some ideas he's long wanted to do, such as reinvisioning Pollyanna, Reubens shifted gears to something more straightforward in terms of plot: a bicycle.
-Script in hand, albeit a rough one, Reubens and the Warner Brothers producers looked to find the right fit for a director. Enter Tim Burton, a young upstart and visually unique director looking for his first feature to tackle. Reubens was shown Burton's work by his friend Shelly Duval who had worked with Burton on his acclaimed short, Frankenweenie.
It just happens Burton was also a fan of the Herman special and he and Reubens connected immediately. With Burton attached, the script was reworked and eventually finalized. It played to the strength of the stage show perfectly: simple sight gags, one-liners and weird if not awkward observational humor all based on a rather simple structure of a road trip film.
-Production and principal shooting began in 1984 in various Southern California locations (San Antonio being the exception) with a modest budget of about six million. As pretty much expected with a debut film for a studio, Burton (and Reubens) had issues regarding shooting schedules and budget concerns with executives.
-The film wrapped in late 1984. Burton brought in his friend, Danny Elfman, to do the score (this being Elfman's first film as well). They continue to collaborate to this day.
-The film was released with a limited run on July 26, 1985 but went wide on August 9. It reached 4.5 million on its debut and eventually grossed over 40 million dollars.
-Despite a few bad reviews, the film was universally praised by critics. Eventually Pee-Wee's Playhouse emerged for television and one other feature, Big Top Pee-Wee, in 1988. Pee-Wee was now a household name, enjoyed by all ages and a part of pop-culture history.
-On a side note, the character of Pee-Wee lives on with Reubens finding renewed fame with an updated stage show in Los Angeles at the club Nokia (and soon to be New York). Catch it while you can if you're in the area.
Top Ten Pee-Wee Moments
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is more or less set up after set up, punchline after punchline, all somehow weaved together through the utter insanity and childlike demeanor of Pee-Wee as he ventures onward to reclaim his long lost bike. His personality is certainly theatrical, making for great bits of dialogue, and it's all just a great moment after great moment.
10: An Argument with Francis
How could this classic exchange not be in the Top Ten? With so many to choose from, from Pee-Wee's elaborate conspiracy theory to his failure as a professional bull rider, I had a lot that could lay claim to this spot. Sadly, those had to be left off, because this little bit of back-and-forth between Pee-Wee and Francis, the local rich, snobby bully, is just too damn iconic.
9: Infiltrating Francis's Bath
About this point in the film, Pee-Wee more or less begins to lose it, at least until he's told he has to get out of town and search for his bike at the Alamo. His first instincts, though, were correct: his arch enemy stole it. I don't know what's better about this scene, Pee-Wee tricking Odd-Job or admiring the massive bathtub Francis gets to play in. Either way...nobody will hear you scream.
A scene that is homage to the classic comedies of the 20s and 30s, Pee-Wee's first attempt to hit the ole dusty trail doesn't quite work out at first. He has his material possession in a classic hobo stick-n-bandanna package, a bit smile and a gray tux...why aren't people stopping? It's a simple, funny little scene that also carries over to Pee-Wee's first ride, the escaped convict with the threatening and menacing name of "Mickey"who is on the run after tearing the tag off his mattress.
7: The WB Lot Chase
Early in the film, Pee-Wee is asked what Dottie did to his bike. "Top secret James Bond stuff" he says. Perfect time to unleash all those gadgets during the most chaotic back lot chase that includes guards on bikes and carts, elephants, boats, Twisted Sister, Santa and Godzilla. We see a few things that imply Pee-Wee is a hell of a cyclist, but we see him in full-force during this sequence. "Radical" indeed.
As Pee-Wee ventures onward down the road, he makes a stop into a biker bar...a biker bar that is exclusive to the might Satan's Helpers (which sounds like the South Pole version of the North Pole's Santa Claus). Mistake number one: Pee-Wee enters the bar. Mistake number two: he asks people to quiet down. Mistake number three: he knocks over their bikes. Ah, but during all these mistakes and the rising anger, Pee-Wee is watching and observing. He sees the jukebox, assumes "Tequila" by The Champs is surely on there, notices the busboy has some fancy platform shoes and plans everything out better than Jason Bourne ever could.
Ok, the scene obviously makes no sense and was just an excuse to put the "Pee-Wee Dance" in the film somewhere, but it's damn fun.
5: The Story of Large Marge
Oh how this sequence haunted me as a child. It's all about the face - the one that looks like someone took the Dominoes Noid and rang him through a meat grinder. It's dark, but it's incredibly funny because it takes itself so seriously as Large Marge spins her tale to Pee-Wee. Other than the dream sequences, this is Pee-Wee's Big Adventure at its darkest and, as a result, one of its most memorable and iconic moments.
4: Watching the Sunrise
"You can't just wish and hope for something to come true," says Pee-Wee, subtly sincere. "You have to make it happen." There aren't a whole lot of moments like this in the film, but this one is a good one, about right in the middle, that really allows for the movie to breathe and also show that Pee-Wee isn't just some crazy little man involved in tom-foolery. He's also a sweet and nice guy with big dreams and always willing to take time to listen. This scene showed that Pee-Wee isn't just some caricature, but real person.
3: Paging Mr. Herman...
In a moment of self-awareness and with a fantastic, full-circle comedic punch, the film ends with the big premiere of the movie based on Pee-Wee's story...only now starring James Brolin as PW Herman fighting ninjas, a hot Dottie in tight clothes and a nice cameo from Pee-Wee. It's the cameo that is brilliant, though. Pee-Wee is obviously uncomfortable, keeps looking at the camera and had his lines badly dubbed over. In a sense, this is saying to us that a Pee-Wee movie could have easily ended up like this if the creators didn't get their way...although I would still want to see it because James Brolin fighting ninjas is too good to miss.
2: Leave the Snakes, Take the Puppies
I'm not entirely sure what pet store sells monkeys, but thankfully this one does and offering up help to Pee-Wee as he repeatedly goes in and out, bypassing the snakes of course, and rescuing every animal in the store from rats and puppies to fish and birds. Ah, but Pee-Wee is Pee-Wee and even thoug he may not like them, those snakes need saving too.
1: Pee-Wee's Morning
Parodied, memorable, yet simple and a perfect way to introduce Pee-Wee to the world. We see he is a big kid in a big house (dare I say..a playhouse?) loves animals, is inventive and has a sense of humor that is half goofy and unpredictable and half schizophrenic. Pee-Wee's morning is the dream morning everybody has. You get up, play with toys and have everything done for you in perfectly timed fashion. I've always wondered how long it would take Pee-Wee to set up his kitchen to do all these things, but most likely Pee-Wee has something automated to set up his automations.
An added bonus to this scene is the classic Danny Elfman score and main theme we become introduced to, as grounded and a part of the adventure has Pee-Wee's laugh and memorable quotes.
Honorable Mention: Pee-Wee's Dream
Over the course of the film, Pee-Wee has a number of dreams. A dinosaur eating his bike, winning the Tour de France and the winner of "wow, this is disturbing" award where Pee-Wee dreams his bike being operated on (or is that dissected) by clowns, then lifted by a crane and lowered into a boiling pot surrounded by devilish imps.
It's a little unfair to not put Paul Reubens up there with the great, classic comedians. Perhaps the controversy tainted it somewhat, but it doesn't take away from the utter brilliance of the Pee-Wee character, from the stage show to the feature films. Big Adventure was probably the first time most of the country was exposed to Pee-Wee. His smile, giggle and simple approach to humor made him a household name and, after a while, the man, the quotes, and the love people had for him was everywhere. I think I first saw Big Adventure of an old Betamax close to the time Pee-Wee's Playhouse first took off as well as the second feature, Big Top Pee-Wee, so I was in Pee-Wee overload by the age of nine or ten. In my little world, he seemed everywhere and at all times.
I currently live in Los Angeles where Reubens has rekindled his career by revamping the "Pee-Wee Herman Show" for the stage to critical acclaim. He's a little older now, a few more wrinkles on the face and a tad slower in step, but Pee-Wee still fits snuggly in his thin gray suit, his cheeks as rosy as his bow-tie, and with a small, distinguishing chuckle he reminds us all of his innocence and maybe even of our own childhood in the process. We may not exactly know what Pee-Wee is, but I know what I am: a big fan.