TV

Do We Still Love Pee-wee Herman 30 Years Later?

After decades off, Pee-wee rides again in a new adventure.

By Brenden Gallagher

With a number of their recent moves, Netflix has attempted to make nostalgia a key part of their business. The streaming service is already the go-to destination for when you want to revisit 90s sitcoms and 80s cult classics, but with recent projects, Netflix has moved on to manufacturing their own nostalgia. While shows like Fuller House and the upcoming multi-cam throwback The Ranch feel like little more than desperate cash grabs, sometimes nostalgia can be a good thing. Their newest attempt, PeeWee’s Big Holiday, proves that not only can you go home again, but sometimes going home again feels pretty great.

The Glory Days

Pee-wee Herman was an incredible cultural phenomenon in the 80s, perfecting the art of
kid-friendly material with an adult edge. So many PG-rated projects grasp for that perfect balance, and only great projects like Looney Tunes and Pee-wee ever find it. The 80s belonged to Pee-wee, as The Pee-wee Herman Show ran from 1981-1984 and Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran from 1986-1990. Today, Paul Reubens is probably best remembered for the 1985 classic Peewee’s Big Adventure directed by Tim Burton. Not only was the movie a hit, but Big Adventure has lived on as a family favorite, and even appears on film school curriculums. Reubens was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989 and was generating tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue at the peak of Pee-wee’s popularity. Reubens was on the way to solidifying his position as a comedy legend, when a very public 1991 arrest for lewd behavior derailed his career. Though he continued to work steadily in Hollywood, a subsequent arrest in 2002, further hampered Reubens’ attempts to resurrect the Herman character. The death of his father in 2004 and an ongoing struggle with depression didn’t help matters. Though he worked steadily in the intervening years between his arrest and the launch of his full-fledged Pee-wee comeback in 2010, it is clear that media scrutiny left a mark on 63-year-old actor.

Following his second arrest, Reubens aggressively attempted to get a new Pee-wee film made. He landed a number of bit parts on comedies as he rebuilt his career including memorable stints on Reno 911 and 30 Rock. In 2010, Reubens launched a live show aimed at introducing Pee-wee to a new generation. During this period, Reubens worked on two scripts that he shopped around and pushed through various stages of development. These projects moved forward in fits and starts and nothing got off the ground until he teamed with Judd Apatow on a third project that year. Finally, six years later, Pee-wee rides again.

A Long-Awaited Comeback

Producer Judd Apatow has enjoyed his newfound position as comedy career kingmaker, launching Lena Dunham and Paul Rust’s (Rust co-wrote this film with Reubens) careers while helping established artists like Amy Schumer get to the next level. Now, Apatow looks to become the Jack White of comedy by resurrecting the career of Reubens and his Pee-wee character. Though it took years to get Pee-wee’s Big Holiday made, it doesn’t skip a beat. From the first moments of the film, it is clear that the intent is to be true to what once made the character great as Pee-wee is introduced to a new generation. Most of the first ten minutes of the movie are devoted to an extended sequence of Pee-wee beginning his day as part of a ridiculous Rube Goldberg machine. It involves an extended trip across his entire town which includes everything from skateboarding with a grandmother to driving through an in-home breakfast buffet. From the start, it is clear that Pee-wee is back in form.

Not only do Pee-wee Herman projects mix adult and children’s themes, but the Pee-wee-verse has always integrated physical comedy into the jokey stories through the use of amazing props and set decoration. The film is full of great practical comedy gags that are incredibly refreshing in the age of CGI. From a salesman of magnetic pranks (Patrick Egan) who keeps a bag of groceries permanently attached to his car to Free Wheelin’, a team of creative hairstylists whose hairdos combine to form a map of the United States. The brilliant visual gags come at a rapid-fire clip and never lets up. There is even a scene where Pee-wee duels Joe Maganiello atop giant pinatas surrounded by sparklers that will probably stick with you long after this one leaves your Netflix queue.

One of the things that always made Pee-wee special is that Reubens offers a world of creativity you can touch. Not only do the incredibly practical effects make for amazing production design, but there is a unique appeal to fantastic bits accomplished with real props. Even in an adult mind, Pee-wee movies awaken the imagination. You’ll get envious if you try to imagine what this movie will inspire in children who watch. You start to see the magic possibilities in everyday life when the film shows you a giant porch swing or a flying helicopter wig. The ordinary becomes magical: a trick that Pee-wee accomplished better than anyone else.

A World Rebuilt

Though not every joke lands, and some scenes aren’t as strong as others, the world is so carefully curated you’re more forgiving when they misfire on humor. Also the cast is so game to execute the plan that you just don’t care. You’ll find yourself laughing at the bits that aren’t funny because the film captures Pee-wee’s infectious humor and wide-eyed charm. Co-star Joe Manganiello proves that Magic Mike XXL wasn’t a fluke with his equally charming performance as a childlike version of himself. Manganiello never winks at his character, even when he is shoving himself into a tiny treehouse or sipping root beer out of a hard candy shell. Every other actor, from Mangianiello to an old farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) on the American prairie to a wealthy heiress flying a car in the sky understands that a Pee-wee character has to be completely earnest. The cast comes together seamlessly to achieve the delicate balancing act of sharp comic delivery and cheerful wonder that makes the world of Pee-wee Herman so great.

There is a lot of great children’s entertainment out there today, so it is hard to be one of those people who claims “they don’t make them like they used to” when Pixar is in the middle of a historic run. However, that doesn’t mean that Pee-wee Herman doesn’t have something unique to offer a new generation. Nobody achieves that perfect balance of adult humor viewed through children’s eyes quite like Pee-wee. Who else could pull off a scene involving a group of sexy female criminals hiring male strippers for a pillow fight? It’s hard to imagine that working in any world other than Pee-wee’s.

There are many projects that Hollywood producers are trying to reboot in hopes of capitalizing on the warm nostalgia a parent feels when they share something they loved as a child with their kids. You can’t help but view Star Wars, Fuller House and any number of other reboots through that lens. Still, sometimes there is a reason to resurrect old properties, especially if they can make a new generation of children laugh with wild wide-eyed wonder.

They say there are no second acts in American lives. It’s good to know that in Pee-wee Herman’s world, that rule doesn’t apply.