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.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which ran for for 46 episodes between 1986 and 1990, was an artistic free-for-all in the guise of anodyne Saturday morning glurge. The set, a cross between an overstuffed toy chest and an M.C. Escher doodle, was designed by a cadre of avant-garde artists including cartoonist Gary Panter, and over the course of five seasons, the show featured music by the Residents, Mark Mothersbaugh, Todd Rundgren, Van Dyke Parks, and Danny Elfman. Although the characters were largely established archetypes — sea captain, strongman, mail carrier — Reubens’ version was conspicuously more diverse than its 1950s equivalent: Playhouse’s Cowboy Curtis was played by a pre-Boyz N The Hood Laurence Fishburne. In Big Holiday, he hitches a ride with four black hairdressers whose outrageous ‘dos mesh to form a map of the continental U.S., giving new meaning to the term “Afro-American.”
Pee-wee Herman isn’t just the character; it’s the world he inhabits, which seems to shape itself around him the way iron filings circle a magnet. In Big Adventure, when he needs to prove where he’s calling from, he steps outside the phone booth and starts to belt out the chorus of “Deep in the Heart of Texas”; the passers-by join him in perfect unison, without missing a step. He makes common cause with outlaw bikers and Amish farmers, escaped convicts and boxcar-hopping hobos. In Big Holiday, he finds perhaps his unlikeliest companion of all in Joe Mangianello — playing a meta-version of himself — whose hyperbolic physique evokes Reubens’ fondness for vintage muscle magazines. The actor is taken aback that Pee-wee doesn’t recognize him; when he asked if he’s seen the Magic Mike movies, Pee-wee nonchalantly replies, “You’d think so, but no.” Luckily, the two turn out to be peas in a pod, bonded by a common fondness for … candy root-beer barrels.
Mangianello’s oozing sexuality lends a homoerotic frisson to Big Holiday, which chronicles Pee-wee’s cross-country odyssey to make it to New York in time for his celebrity BFF’s birthday party, but Pee-wee himself remains oblivious. The character isn’t exactly pre-sexual — Elizabeth Daily’s Dottie spends much of Big Adventure trying to coax Pee-wee into accompanying her to the drive-in, and in Big Holiday, Alia Shawkat’s Russ Meyer-homage heroine plants a big wet smacker on his rouged lips — but he’s pre-aware, more curious than fully engaged. In the 1981 HBO special The Pee-wee Herman Show, Pee-wee and a male pal frantically affix mirrors to the tops of their shoes as his buddy’s sister approaches so they can see up her skirt and catch a glimpse of her underwear; they’re crestfallen when she informs them she’s not wearing any.
Whether you grew up with Herman or not, the character serves as a means to reconnect with the simple pleasures of childhood; Big Holiday‘s most joyous sequence involves an unbroken two-minute take of Pee-wee slowly letting air out of a balloon. But he’s also a reminder that childhood was never as simple, or as innocent as we remember. David Letterman observed early on that Pee-wee “has the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it’s being controlled by the incubus — the manifestation of evil itself.” In truth, Pee-wee Herman is beyond good and evil. When you gaze into Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee Herman gazes also into you.