Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Written by Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, & Michael Varhol
Directed by Tim Burton
Pee-Wee Herman was a 1980s phenomenon that aggressively embedded itself in pop culture and then fizzled out fast in the latter part of the decade. He was the creation of comedian/actor Paul Reubens who was a member of the Los Angeles-based improv troupe The Groundlings. Reubens became close friends with fellow Groundling Phil Hartman, and the two of them developed the persona of Pee-Wee. The origins of the character were slow, with components coming together starting in the late 1970s. Pee-Wee started as a character who was attempting to be a stand-up comedian but couldn’t remember jokes and engaged in antagonistic banter with the audience. The breakout occurred when Reubens was booked on The Dating Game to play Pee-Wee as a sort of troll bachelor in the competition.
Reubens created the Pee-Wee Herman Show after not getting hired for Saturday Night Live in 1980. This stage show brought in many of his Groundlings castmates and began shaping the foundations of what would become Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The humor was much more sexual, but that would be toned down as the decision to market Pee-Wee as a children’s character was decided upon. There is still bawdy humor through double-entendres in the films and television series, but it is cleverly hidden. The Pee-Wee Herman Show was aired as an hour HBO comedy special in 1981, and it was this public presentation that got the ball rolling on the first feature film.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was initially started as a remake of Disney’s Pollyanna with Pee-Wee in the lead role. Strange, yes? Reubens cites Pollyanna as his favorite film but changed course when he noticed the number of bikes being used by staff on the Warner Brothers backlot. The comedian followed Syd Field’s Screenplay text to the letter and structured out his plot as directed, complete with a MacGuffin, the famous bike. And so the whole world, anyone who was still unaware, was introduced to Pee-Wee.
Pee-Wee Herman owns a tricked out bike that is the envy of his neighborhood nemesis Francis. The bike is stolen after Pee-Wee takes a trip to the local mall to pick up magic supplies and a new horn for said bike. This sends the man on a whirlwind road trip after a psychic tells him the cherished bike is being held in the basement of the Alamo. Pee-Wee runs into a convict who has just escaped, a waitress yearning for Paris, a biker gang, the ghost of a trucker, and eventually makes his way to Hollywood for the grand finale.
I love this movie. I cannot explain precisely why, but there is something so compelling about the Pee-Wee character. Pee-Wee shouldn’t pull in the audience’s sympathies with his annoying voice and manic behavior, but he is so endlessly watchable. I think Reubens makes some fantastic comedic choices in this film and shows a good bit of range. The sequence where Pee-Wee becomes obsessed with determining what happened to his bike is one of my favorites, Burton chooses to film these scenes like a noir picture and Pee-Wee interrogating a whole host of friends and acquaintances is genuinely hilarious.
Burton and Reubens are a perfect pair made clear by how terrible the sequel, without Burton’s involvement, was. They are not afraid to make the movie a little dark with the Large Marge scene and the clown operating room. But they never lose sight of the comedy. There’s no character arc, but that works because Pee-Wee is in the tradition of people like Groucho Marx. This is a persona that doesn’t change in the films and television he appears in and doesn’t have growth. The purpose to watch a familiar clown in a variety of scenarios making us laugh.
Reubens has attempted to recapture this early magic in the 2010s with a revival of the stage show and a Netflix original movie. They just don’t have the same feel and are built around audience expectations. Big Adventure was so good because everything about it was so unexpected; from scene to scene, you cannot predict what is going to happen next. That spontaneity of comedy dissolves once a character becomes as iconic as Pee-Wee has. Big Adventure still holds up today and is one of my favorite comedies of the 1980s.