restricted access Pee-Wee Herman and the Postmodern Picaresque
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Pee-Wee Herman and the Postmodern Picaresque

“Heard any good jokes lately?”

—Pee-Wee at the MTV Music Awards

It’s been six months since “Pee-Wee’s Big Misadventure” was released to an eager public; the July 26th arrest of Paul Reubens for indecent exposure spurred renewed interest in what had been a fading cult. Only die-hards were still taping Saturday morning “Playhouse” episodes, and “Big Top Pee-Wee” had disappointed fans hoping for another jeu d’esprit on the model of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” Even a blissful cameo in the otherwise pedestrian “Back to the Beach” (Pee-Wee, balanced precariously on a surfboard, was borne shoulder-high by avatars of Tito, the Playhouse’s hunky lifeguard) failed to spark real interest. According to Peter Wilkinson’s rather solemn post-mortem, “Who Killed Pee-Wee Herman?” Rolling Stone, 3 October 1991), Paul Reubens himself was weary of being Pee-Wee; he was ready to branch out. So Pee-Wee Herman is not likely to reappear except in re-runs for some time. MTV has picked up the five years’ worth of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” episodes; both “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” a taped version of the club act that started the Pee-Wee story, and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” enjoy moderate rentals in video stores. But Paul Reubens is no longer the post-industrial Casabianca, standing at attention on the burning deck of “Entertainment Tonight,” and his hip-hop claque has gone home.

With Pee-Wee out of the way, I can finally justify a valedictory consideration of the supreme moment in his career, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” There is no denying that “Big Adventure” is the zenith of the Herman oeuvre; it is the central text in Pee-Wee criticism. “Big Top Pee-Wee,” in comparison, is an embarrassment—hardly worth a mention.

Of course, one does not discount the importance of “The Pee Wee Herman Show.” The nightclub act which, astonishingly, sparked the children’s television show merits some consideration. Only the reckless would dismiss without reflection the amazing hypnotism dummy, Dr. Mondo, encouraging Joan the audience volunteer to disrobe, or Jambi’s eye-rolling delight over that new Caucasian pair of hands (“There’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time”). Not to mention Pee-Wee himself, crooning his anthem, “I’m the Luckiest Boy in the World.” In this version of the Playhouse, the keynote is struck by the opening words of the theme song: “Where do I go / When I want to do / What I know I want to do? / Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The Playhouse draws visitors; there are no permanent residents except the furnishings—Jambi, Clockie—and Pee-Wee himself (if he does live there). Everyone else is a transient. The Playhouse is a liminal region. We see this theme taken up in the television version as well, with its elaborate closing sequence of Pee-Wee mounting his scooter for the dangerous leap onto the desert freeway. On television, though, everyone but Pee-Wee lives around or in the Playhouse. It’s still Pee-Wee’s place, but it is located firmly in the center of a neighborhood which is some distance from Pee-Wee’s primary home. In the nightclub version, all roads lead to Pee-Wee. Neighbors like Hammy are allowed to visit on sufferance, until Pee-Wee chooses to dismiss them. When Kap’n Karl and Miss Yvonne begin to like one another too much, Pee-Wee hustles them out of the Playhouse with realistic gagging gestures. But they all come back eventually. Pee-Wee is the center of this universe, the luckiest boy in this world.

It is difficult to imagine that anyone who had seen the nightclub act agreed to let Pee-Wee have five years’ worth of Saturday kids’ programming. The focus of “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” is lipsmackingly infantile sexuality. Looking up skirts may be Pee-Wee’s most common behavior; in the course of one hour he uses shoe mirrors to reflect Hammy’s sister’s panties, holds Dr. Mondo (the aforementioned hypnotism dummy) under Joan’s...