Release Date: July 26th
Box Office: $40,940,662
Pee Wee Herman is interesting. The character goes back to the late 70s and early 80s and was created and played by Paul Reubens. This was when he was in The Groundlings, an improv and sketch comedy troupe based in LA. Never heard of it? Some of the people who came out of it include Will Ferrel, Jack Black, Lisa Kudrow and Kristen Wiig. Not all at the same time, obviously.
This is interesting because this makes it a contemporary to the first few years of Saturday Night Live and that era of comedy. Reubens auditioned for SNL and missed out to Gilbert Gottfried who had a similar acting style and friends behind the scenes. Reubens decided to make his own show for the sage, The Pee Wee Herman Show which became popular enough to get a HBO version. Even at this stage, whilst the character was aimed at adults with midnight showings of the stage show, there would be a weekend matinee for children which would foreshadow things to come.
It was also at this time when Reubens would withdraw and leave Herman in the spotlight. He would only appear as Pee Wee and not himself, would appear on the David Letterman Show in character. This is not unlike another of his contemporaries, Andy Kaufman, who would also hide behind his characters and keep his real persona secret. This is in marked contrast to the rest of their field at this time, names like Belushi and Martin and Williams. There was no real distinction between them and their characters. Just think of Chevy Chase’s impersonation of President Gerald Ford on SNL, where its quite clearly Chevy Chase being Chevy Chase just saying he’s the President.
This urge to keep themselves secret is about as far as the comparisons between Kaufman and Reubens go. Whilst they do share the fact that they made a kids show, their acts were different. Kaufman was about manipulating his audience, of misdirection, of that being the joke. Herman was born on the stage to entertain, Reubens kept himself hidden to maintain the reality of that character rather than to confuse his audience.
The stage show toured America and the appearances on the Letterman show made Herman famous, famous enough for Hollywood to come knocking.
Tim Burton had made his name whilst working as an animator at Disney with two short films, the first was an animated tale called Vincent, featuring the macabre voice of Vincent Price. The second switched to live action and ended up getting Burton fired from the company on the basis of wasting company resources: the short had been meant to run in front of an upcoming re-release of Pinnochio but the dark tones of the tale of a small boy reanimating the corpse of his beloved dog was deemed not suitable for the usual Disney audience. It would be a different story in 2012 but for now Frankenweenie was a calling card and little else.
Paul Reubens liked it, however, and decided that Burton might be a good fit for his upcoming movie version of Pee Wee Herman. Warner Bros had hired him to work on a feature length version of The Pee Wee Herman Show, he worked on the script with another Groundlings alumni Phil Hartman. He had worked with Reubens when the character was first being developed and often collaborated with him. At this stage of his career Hartman was mainly doing cameos and voice over work for cartoons. It would be in the next few years that he would become The Glue of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons.
The film was originally to be based on Pollyanna before it became a loose remake of The Bicycle Thieves; Pee Wee Herman’s beloved bike is stolen, sending him on an adventure across America as he searches for it.
Despite being a Burton film, it’s his first Burton film so does’t have that style that would later dominate his work. There’s no Helena Bonham Carter cameo for starters. It’s clear that on some level Reubens and Burton click and clearly understand Pee Wee. Despite being an eternal child in the ‘real’ world he’s not mocked. People seem to just accept Herman for what he is, there’s no malice aimed towards him. They recognise the innocence in the character and focus on that and the simple story being told.
It’s a road movie caper, pure and simple. It’s pretty much the same as the first Muppet Movie but that’s no bad thing. The simplicity to the story gives room for the oddball characters to breathe. Pee Wee as a character could easily grate, especially at his gurning shouting worst, but he’s never done obnoxiously which helps.
As a film it’s a great introduction to the character. He would discover his natural home in the next few years as he moved back to TV with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, a pure children’s show where the character probably worked best. It never really resonated on this side of the Pond as much as it did in America, mainly due to the influences on the show being US children’s shows of the 50s and 60s like Howdy Doody. It was a different tradition that the more formal style of shows we had in the UK, a tradition that also influenced Andy Kaufman to mention his name again. The sheer surreal fun nature of the show was enough to carry it; everything is new to kids and if it’s funny then it’s funny. The show remains a treat, the postmodern reinterpretation of past kids TV blended with the outright creativity on display hasn’t aged too much at all.
It’s certainly weathered time better than Big Adventure. It’s not a bad film, it’s just one that catches something in evolution. Both Burton and Pee Wee would go onto greater things; Pee Wee’s TV show and Burton as a Director would garner plaudits and awards. At the beginning, with this film, its clear that there’s something there but it’s still rough around the edges.