BY Charlie Fox in Opinion | 09 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 181

I Know You Are (But What Am I?)

The return of Pee-wee Herman’s queer carnivalesque 

BY Charlie Fox in Opinion | 09 AUG 16

Hey, boys and girls, Pee-wee Herman is back! Everybody’s favourite 1980s imp of the perverse returns in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016), 25 years after his last cinematic adventure. Despite that mighty lacuna, Paul Reubens’s comic alter ego, with the brain of a pre-teen oddball and the body of a 1950s teenager, is in wicked shape, his magician’s bow tie intact and his adenoidal whine still making his vowels stretch like bubblegum. In this uproarious new road movie, he plays ‘Jingle Bells’ to a band of flabbergasted Amish folk, bids a tearful farewell to E.T.’s doppelgänger and jousts in slow motion with the hunky actor Joe Manganiello astride a rainbow-coloured piñata as the two of them are showered with golden sparks. As that wise owl Samuel Beckett observed: ‘We are all born mad. Some remain so.’ If Herman’s reappearance suggests childish nostalgia for an old television character – Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran from 1986 to 1990 – duh, guess again: he was always on an infinitely more ambiguous and outré wavelength than any of the kids on 21 Jump Street (1987–91). 

A figure of uncommonly various and contrary pop-cultural meaning, Pee-wee was at once a cute role model prone to bounding around like a monkey with flubber on his paws and a warped anti-authority jester whose mischief was responsive to even the loopiest postmodern critiques. He dressed up as the devil for David Letterman, whacked Andy Warhol with a toy hammer on MTV in 1985 (‘Smarten up, Drella!’) and was the subject of extensive hipster cogitation, showing up on the cover of The Face two years later with his deadpan inscrutability signalled by the headline, ‘Who or What is Pee-wee Herman?’

In the accompanying article, the critic Ian Penman dashes down the hall of mirrors in pursuit – ‘Pee-wee is a 3D projection of the imaginary friends many kids have,’ he writes, while invoking ‘Henry from Eraserhead [1977]’ as one of the character’s relatives – and marvels at the Playhouse’s ‘lode of drop-jaw non sequiturs’. Oh, and speaking of non sequiturs, Reubens conducted all his press interviews while in character and claimed to be close pals with Prince: ‘We usually go out and have spaghetti.’ Like His Royal Purpleness or Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (1957), Pee-wee was also a tutor in illicit stuff not on any childhood curriculum, including kitsch, camp and surrealism. 

Thirty years on from their original airing, all five seasons of Pee-wee’s Playhouse remain an invitation to Saturday morning anarchy like no other. The Playhouse visits outer space; Pee-wee meets a runaway monster named Roger; that merry velvet cow channelling a blotto Margaret Dumont gobbles all the cake. As a butterscotch sphinx jockeys for space with a pink snowman in the opening credits, the dame on the theme tune squeals; ‘Golly, it’s cuckoo!’ And she’s right. John Waters was a devotee, which is totally comprehensible, since the whole Playhouse cast radiate the same spirit of carefree perversity as the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders – the rotund Mrs. Steve even resembled a Divine tribute act. All this wackiness makes the show a faithful representation of a child’s fantasy world. From the talking floorboards to the armchair that’s also a drooling hound, anthropomorphic nuttiness reigns and the whole place is as colourful as a circus. Even the window has eyeballs. Pee-wee can hopscotch into a chromakey dreamscape anytime he likes and everybody gets ice-cream soup for dinner.

If anyone wondered where the show’s untrammelled zaniness came from, all they had to do was research the staff. There was plenty of feral downtown energy circulating behind the scenes at the Playhouse, since many of its recruits were straight from art school or the margins of the Los Angeles music scene. Much of the flamboyant design jumped from the brain of Gary Panter (whose new comic features in this issue of frieze), an underground comix artist who created flyers for punk nihilists such as The Germs and was responsible for The Asshole (1979), a legendary strip about the adventures of a sociopathic doodle. Panter claimed he wanted to create ‘a 3D collage of American kitsch’ on the set. Thus the purple glitter all over the fireplace, the funky biomorphic forms on the wallpaper – grooving on Keith Haring’s tribal frequency – or the Playhouse door upholstered in lurid, cherry-red leather. (Penman pinpointed the outrageous vibes of the decor with characteristic laser-beam acuity: ‘Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet [1920] meets Las Vegas.’) Sculptural attractions are on offer too, including Pee-wee’s enormous tin-foil boulder that could have come from Tom Friedman’s workshop, while the background is crammed with tchotchkes: check out how a reproduction of Thomas Gainsborough’s brooding The Blue Boy (c.1770) cohabits with a Martian in a Viking helmet and a fan-club snap of Dorothy cuddling Toto from the Wizard of Oz (1939). Pee-wee has a magpie fascination for toys and trinkets that only Harpo Marx can match.

Pee-wee Herman on the cover of The Face magazine, July 1987

Such kooky bricolage and unorthodox collaborators should be expected since Reubens has always been happy to spotlight the artiness of his project. He was a student at CalArts during the carnivalesque heyday of Fluxus in the late 1960s, and counted Allan Kaprow as one of his teachers. ‘There was an element of performance art to Pee-wee Herman,’ he told an audience at the South by Southwest Festival in 2011, ‘I’d try to make the public believe he was a real person.’ (Hence the credit wherever he appears: ‘Pee-wee Herman as himself’.) This ambition was obvious from the beginning when Reubens decided to debut Pee-wee as a contestant on television’s The Dating Game in 1978 with nobody else in on the joke. In this eagerness to bewilder his audience or disappear into character, Reubens has much in common with his contemporary, the great Andy Kaufman, who similarly couched his outlandish shenanigans in the style of 1950s entertainments, performing flawless Elvis impersonations or taking his audience out for milk and cookies.

Children’s television has always provided a lush ecosystem in which artists with eccentric daydreams can go wild. Consider the enchanting works of animators Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, or the Krofft brothers’ psychotropic productions, such as H.R. Pufnstuf (1969), where ‘The Living Island’ is populated by depressive vultures and a kindhearted dragon with kaleidoscope fur. What’s especially fascinating about Pee-wee’s world, though, is the polymorphic kinkiness of the proceedings. Desires are always a little screwy in our hero’s orbit. He once married a fruit salad but then snuck a look under Ms. Yvonne’s skirt when he was invisible, too. Much of the critical response stimulated by Pee-wee’s Big Holiday revolves around its supposed disclosure that Pee-wee really was gay all along, thanks to his moony admiration of Manganiello’s bodacious muscles. But the climax to their infatuation is coy: they swear their friendship is immortal. Friends are what really counts for a boy like Pee-wee, even when he’s awkwardly smooching Alia Shawkat. That close encounter with the weeping extraterrestrial only underscores his otherworldliness and, whether literal or not, befriending the alien would be a neat rubric for much of what Pee-wee invites his audience to do, by introducing himself and his far-out pals.

But perhaps the biggest sign of his swishiness was the holiday special Christmas with Pee-wee Herman (1988). (Maybe the pic of Dorothy on set was a clue.) Way before Wes Anderson cajoled Jarvis Cocker into his corduroy minstrel cameo for Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Reubens called up an assortment of special guest stars, many of them heroes to all the smitten queer kids and adults who tuned in. Grace Jones arrives in a latex bodice to sing ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and Pee-wee ice-skates with Little Richard. Now that the kids first entranced by Pee-wee are all grown up, his significance for a generation of queer artists is obvious. With its ragtag cast of hyperactive misfits, Ryan Trecartin’s film A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) jolts all the Playhouse’s fun-time exuberance into maniacal overdrive. For a taste, see the ‘cosmic puke’ interlude where amoral adolescent pixies cavort around a sparkly lair. But Reubens’s creation is too nimble to play along with anybody else for long. He acknowledges his essential elusiveness by taking as his catchphrase the playground conundrum, ‘I know you are but what am I?’ He might be the embodiment of childhood imagination in all its wonderful unruliness, making the house explode with delight again and again.

Charlie Fox is a writer who lives in London, UK. His book of essays, This Young Monster (2017), is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.