Recently, archaeologists made a startling discovery. Excavating a hitherto undiscovered burial chamber in the Great Pyramid, they came across a series of hieroglyphics in which, amid the depictions of ancient pharaohs and Egyptian gods, was a familiar figure: pale, knock-kneed, clad in a pinched grey suit and a red bow tie — the first concrete evidence that Pee-wee Herman has lived among us for thousands of years.
This is, of course, a lie, but the ageless appearance of Paul Reubens’ iconic character in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, which Netflix released on its site last Friday — more than 30 years after his first big-screen adventure and 25 after Pee-wee’s Playhouse vanished from the airwaves — suggests that he is, if not immortal, at least slightly other than human. Some icons age with grace (Charlie Chaplin let his hair go grey), but Herman can never grow old, because he defies the very idea of age. Is he a child in a man’s body, or a man who hasn’t lost touch with the joys of childhood? Both, and neither.
Pee-wee’s youthful Big Holiday mien is in part the product of modern digital wizardry, but it’s not just a matter of his physical appearance. The movie is at pains to demonstrate that nothing has changed, right down to restaging the Rube Goldberg opening of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. When our man Herman, who now inhabits the similarly out-of-time small town of Fairville, says early on, “You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new,” it’s a wink at the conventions of road movies — but it’s also a nod to the comfort-seeking imperatives of a culture mired in nostalgia. It’s all too fitting that after years trying to get any of several different Pee-wee movies made, Reubens’ comeback vehicle was bankrolled by Netflix, the home of Fuller House and the Gilmore Girls revival, and produced by Judd Apatow, the reigning auteur of boys who who won’t grow up.
Yet it’s not simple nostalgia that makes Pee-wee tick. Although he was conceived during the Carter administration, Herman came to full flower in the Reagan years, and his evocation of 1950s touchstones both played into and sent up the longing for a less complicated, pre-countercultural era. Where the B-52’s excavated the proto-queer rock ‘n’ roll of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Little Richard, Pee-wee tapped into the anarchic, off-kilter energy of live children’s television shows. Pinky Lee, the kiddie compère Reubens has cited as one of Pee-wee’s primary inspirations, was so maniacally frantic in front of the camera that when he collapsed during a broadcast as a result of a massive infection, the crew initially assumed it was part of his act.