Neither gay nor straight, child nor adult, rich nor poor, Pee-wee Herman transcends labels at every turn. As enacted by Paul Reubens, he appeared in the late 70s like a martian flung from space, eerily well-versed in pop culture, magic tricks and sugar-coated Americana. Sporting a bright red bowtie and a grey linen suit, he was a parody of Pinky Lee, the 1950s children’s show host, albeit with a lot more irony, camp and gender-bending.
In 1981, his stage act was turned into a hit HBO special and he made the rounds on late night talk shows, eventually selling out Carnegie Hall in 1984. Reubens then collaborated with Phil Hartman and wrote the screenplay for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Directed by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman, the film became one of the best comedies of the 80s and remains one of the greatest road trips in film history. With the March 18 premiere of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on Netflix, the film deserves a revisit. Thirty years after its release, the gender play, sexual politics and physical comedy shine as brightly as the 100-watt headlight on its star’s beloved bike.
If Pee-wee’s durability as a cultural figure has a single cause, it’s his boundless optimism. From the moment his alarm sounds, he takes infinite delight in his waking routine, a mesmerizing process that’s powered by a music-playing, egg-cracking, dog food-pouring Rube Goldberg machine. This is mise-en-scène at its best: Pee-wee doesn’t have to utter a word and we know everything about him. Quick to awe, clap in delight or address inanimate objects, he’s enlivened by the wonder of the world, but that’s not to say he doesn’t get annoyed sometimes. When Francis (Mark Holton) comes skipping down the street and demands to buy his bike, Pee-wee rolls his eyes and laughs in his face. His bike is priceless. He wouldn’t sell it for a “million trillion dollars.”
Of course, the bike gets stolen and Pee-wee is devastated. Drawing inspiration from Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, the remainder of the film is propelled by his single-minded search for the bike, a seemingly simple premise that takes on epic proportions. The narrative is a classic quest, and the journey grows to include a runaway convict, a truck-driving ghost, a motorcycle gang, a bull-riding competition and a meta-chase sequence through the Warner Bros. lot. Lest we forget, it’s all fueled by Elfman’s virtuosic score and Burton’s consummate, visual brilliance.
While the film merits a scene-by-scene breakdown in order to fully appreciate its significance, for the sake of brevity, we can understand the film’s subversive power by focusing on a single scene. In this case, let’s consider the moment when Pee-wee is picked up hitchhiking by a prisoner on run from the law.
Mickey (Judd Omen) is the virile, masculine antithesis of Pee-wee, and yet they get along. Never one to judge, Pee-wee befriends him instantly and sympathizes with his plight as a troubled escapee. In fact, Pee-wee sees in Mickey shades of the “rebel” and “loner” he longs to be. Already, this mish-mash of social “types” indicates the way Big Adventure plays with identity, revealing difference to be not a dilemma, but a virtue — not a stable category, but an act.
When they’re forced to confront a police barricade, Mickey is prepared to give up, but Pee-wee has an idea. Aha — the effeminate weirdo might actually save the day. It’s a brilliant switch that undermines the social hierarchy. A few seconds later, the car pulls up to the barricade and Mickey and Pee-wee are unrecognizable. Mickey is disguised by facial hair, and Pee-wee is wearing a woman’s wig and a teal dress. His female outfit is so convincing that the officer asks him to step outside the car, just so that he can see her in that pretty dress. While Mickey sweats in the driver’s seat, Pee-wee spins and curtsies, relishing the attention from the officer. Back in the car, Mickey rips off his fake facial hair and turns toward Pee-wee, expecting him to do the same. Instead, he’s giggling to himself, happy just the way he is.
The scene is barely four minutes, and yet it illustrates everything that’s ingeniously comical and totally subversive about Pee-wee Herman. By affording him a position of compassionate obliviousness in an atmosphere of universal physical comedy, Reubens created one of the most important queer icons in entertainment history. If the politics go over your head, that’s okay too. It’s fun to laugh at a man in a dress, and when it’s someone like Pee-wee, you can bet it always will be.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.