Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Watching Pee-Wee's Big Adventure For the First Time

I guess I just never got Pee-Wee Herman. As a kid his show kind of creeped me out. I didn't and still don't really get what's funny about him. The idea of a wide-eyed, unflappably optimistic kid in a grown-up's body, overcoming all obstacles with his infectiously silly energy, is a great bit in theory, but in execution I think Pee-Wee always rang false (and, as I said, a little terrifying) to me. I think for a bit like that to hold up, you need to commit to the character in a way Pee-Wee just never did. There was always something external, something dark and cynical about it that undermined what seemed to be the whole point of the character. And maybe the cynicism is part of the character, too, but I think that only works if there's something else going on — some element of satire or subversion, or another character to act as a counterpoint. Or at least a straight man.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure doesn't have any of those things to speak of. Or at least not as far as I can tell. It's a soft, two-dimensional, consequence-less world in which Pee-Wee is mostly accepted without reservation, but it's also a world that is weird, colorful, confusing and often scary. It's a world without any straight men or realism to temper it, and because of that it's hard to get a handle on what constitutes a joke. Are we supposed to laugh at the way Pee-Wee acts? What about the way people treat him? Are we meant to see Pee-Wee as an equal or below us? Is it all supposed to be as creepy as it seems? For what reason?

It’s not a bad movie. I actually enjoyed it. But that enjoyment was tempered with a greasy sheen of disappointment. Pee-Wee is just a confusing character, with often contradicting motivations. And the movie built around him is similarly confusing. The characters in it don’t have any real weight and mostly serve to move the plot forward, like a series of sketches where each new scene partner tells Pee-Wee what to do next. Pee-Wee generally helps them in return, which is nice, but if the brief interactions they have aren’t funny and don’t have any real consequence, why are they telling this story?

I gotta take issue with Tim Burton’s direction, too. His super-specific brand of weirdness has started to look pretty precious after 25 years — especially in this, his directorial debut, where the Tim Burton Style® seems more broad and rudimentary and less connected to the story being told. And without any real fantasy conceit to the story, as in Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, the dutch angles, funhouse lighting, claymation accents and oompah-heavy Danny Elfman score just feel unnecessary.

I can dissect the film and the characters all I want, but I can’t really condemn a movie on this site without citing the humor. Fortunately for this ol' crab, the humor is pretty weak, too. Paul Reubens is a funny guy, and it’s obvious that Pee-Wee is a character he’s put a ton of thought and talent and energy into. The physical stuff he gets to do is a lot of fun, and his reactions and giggles are fun in appropriate doses. But they rarely pass for jokes on their own, and I wish they were used as punctuation rather than punchlines. There’s so much great potential here for solid jokes, and it’s largely wasted. You've got a great, totally bizarre character on an adventure — that gives you precocious kid jokes, fish-out-of-water jokes, road-trip jokes, crime-solving jokes, all begging to be made at every turn, but these opportunities are ignored way more often than they’re taken. There are a few good jokes here and there — the basement briefing scene, the pet shop rescue scene, and little one-off gags here and there (“Deep in the Heart of Texas!”) — but those feel like exceptions to the rule, and with such fertile ground everywhere, it’s frustrating to spend so much would-be joke time with twee set pieces and crazy camera angles. Why not spend some time fleshing out the potentially hilarious rivalry with Pee-Wee’s nemesis Francis rather than showing the lengthy development of Pee-Wee’s non-relationship with the truck stop waitress? Why not show more of Pee-Wee’s ups and downs, broaden his range of reactions, rather than glossing over entire situations with a “Hah!” and a wave while he skips off to the next scene? There are more biker jokes to make. More Alamo jokes. More fugitive and rebel and Hollywood jokes. Why waste time with extended clown-hospital dream sequences?

But in classic Burton form, there aren’t so much jokes as quirkily amusing situations, and like Beetlejuice, it almost seems unfair to dissect the gags when there are so few of them. Which is a shame, because there is so much room for good stuff, here more than in most (if not all) other Burton films.

The naive man-child who beats the odds is a good character, but it's one that has been done better since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Spongebob Squarepants comes immediately to mind, because it takes the potential of the world and characters it creates and runs with it. The world Spongebob lives in is truly bizarre, it's full of funny gags and situations, and the characters around him act as either straight men or partners in crazy, depending on what a particular bit needs. Spongebob is a guy who is likeable and irritating, idiotic and inspiring, simultaneously, and he has clear motivations without cynicism or fakery. He's like Pee-Wee with a more clear-cut purpose, and a lot more jokes. And I’d be willing to bet the character is inspired by him, too.

But that’s the real rub of my job for this column. I can't only look at what it did then, I have to recognize what it does (or in this case, doesn’t do) now. And as far as the comedy is concerned, it’s been done better, more relatable and funnier since 1985. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure holds up as a pretty cute, pretty good-looking, pretty strange film. But as a comedy? I’m afraid it doesn’t, if it ever did. If it were in the hands of a director less concerned with his own weird style and more interested in the unmitigated, wall-to-wall silliness I think Pee-Wee’s world is supposed to contain, I think you’d be on to something. As it is, though, it feels like an experiment in style and character that doesn’t do justice to the potential of either the character or the director. Is it so wrong to expect more?

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Morgan-Phillips/502432487 Morgan Phillips

    I saw this movie in the theater 8 times as a kid, it's probably still my favorite of all time, and it never would have occurred to me to call it a comedy. Deeply weird, yes, but not a comedy. Except in the Golden Globes sense of the word.

  • radam04

    I think it's really funny. Maybe it should be looked at the way Tim & Eric is

  • Some Guy

    Remind me again why I should read comedy articles by a guy who JUST SAW PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE?

    And of course he didn't like it because he is an idiot with ZERO credibility. Fire this idiot.

    • http://www.sidecarcomedy.com Alden Ford

      Come on, man. That's not nice.

      If you'll notice I did like the movie. I just had a problem with the direction, mostly. It's a funny character and a great story. I just wanted there to be more jokes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Morgan-Phillips/502432487 Morgan Phillips

      Alden's column is awesome, and so is he. It's not his fault he was raised by wolves.

      • http://www.sidecarcomedy.com Alden Ford

        Thank you, Morgan.

  • cellardoor

    How is Pee-Wee's Big Adventure not a comedy again? You do realize that it was co-written by Phil Hartman, one of this site's comedy gods, right? And that Pee-wee came from the Groundlings? How about a little historical insight into Pee-wee's place in comedy history?

    You're telling me you didn't laugh at the Amazing Larry line? At Jan Hooks as the Alamo guide? At "paging Mr. Herman"? At literally everything Pee-wee says to Dottie?

    And tell me how this exchange, from the truck-stop waitress scene that you deem useless, is not a joke:

    Simone: Do you have any dreams, Pee-wee?
    Pee-wee: Yeah, I'm all alone. I'm rolling a big doughnut and this snake wearing a vest…

    To not appreciate Pee-wee's Big Adventure as a comedy is to have a boring definition of what comedy is. Comedy is more than The Hangover and Will Ferrell movies. Do you consider Big Lebowski a comedy? If so, then Pee-wee's Big Adventure is a comedy. How can you miss that Pee-wee's Playhouse is a satire of cheesy kids shows? Why are some of the greatest films of all time being reviewed by someone with zero understanding of film and comedy? What is it like to not ever experience joy?

    • http://www.sidecarcomedy.com Alden Ford

      I'm sorry you assume all those terrible things about me.

      I just think this movie was made at a time when that specific brand of weird and quirky passed for funny, and I don't think it does anymore. Style shouldn't be a substitute for substance. Jokes can hold up, but style will become obsolete eventually. Especially when you're talking about early-period Tim Burton, which is so specific a style it's become a cliche.

      I liked the movie, and there are a handful great jokes in it (the doughnut and Amazing Larry lines included). But considering all this film had going for it – Hartman's involvement, the great character and actor, an up-and-coming director, a super weird and cool premise – I wish there had been more.

      • hypnosifl

        I just think this movie was made at a time when that specific brand of weird and quirky passed for funny, and I don't think it does anymore.

        Well, someone could make the same comment about Monty Python or the Marx Brothers, but I don't think it's much in the way of criticism because it just says "oh, that's so passé now" without really explaining any specifics about what's wrong with it. Personally I think absurdist "silly" comedy, when done well, ages a lot better than most other forms–hard for me to think of any 1930s era comedy funnier than the Marx Brothers, or 1960s era comedy funnier than Monty Python! Look, comedy criticism is hard since it's famously difficult to analyze intellectually why a joke works or doesn't work, but to be semi-successful I think you have to at least go through specific scenes in order to try to explain why you felt specific jokes fell flat (I can hardly think of any scenes in that movie that didn't have great gags!), rather than just speak in generalities about the movie as a whole.

        • http://www.sidecarcomedy.com Alden Ford

          I'm referring mostly to Burton's filmmaking style, not Reubens' brand of comedy. I think the idea of Pee-Wee Herman still works, but the execution in this film is too concerned with Burton's lighting and camera angles, which was weird and whimsical and funny in 1985, but isn't so much now.

          It should be noted that I think the Marx Brothers and Monty Python totally hold up now. I don't think either are passe, unless you count the topical stuff. And you're right – their continued relevance is largely due to the absurdity, which tends to keep working because a non sequitur is always a non sequitur, and good physical comedy keeps working for a long, long time.

          Pee-Wee's Big Adventure SHOULD hold up, since all the tools are there to make it hold up. But 25 years later, too much of what made it unique in 1985 has become less interesting because it's been done many times over (and in some cases, better) since. As I said, mostly in terms of direction.

          Here's the thing – I don't think there were any jokes that fell flat per se. I just didn't think there were enough of them. I think people are assuming I liked this movie a lot less than I did. I think there were wasted opportunities, and I outlined them in the article, but what did work worked very well.

          • hypnosifl

            but the execution in this film is too concerned with Burton's lighting and camera angles, which was weird and whimsical and funny in 1985, but isn't so much now.

            But the movie is filled with dialogue and character interactions most of which is intended to be funny (along with plenty of silent visual gags like Pee Wee repeatedly wincing at the clown sculpture or hissing at the gang of toughs or being grossed out by snakes or bicycling through the hollywood sets), it's not like there are a lot of long stretches where Burton forgoes humor so he can show off his camera techniques. Pick any three-minute segment of the movie and I think there'd be a bunch of things in there that I found funny (more than in most comedies I can think of, which is part of why this movie is a classic for me), you'd presumably think a lot of them fell flat since you said there were only "a few good jokes here and there" throughout the whole thing. That's why I thought it'd have been more useful if you picked some specific scene(s) and said which parts didn't work for you (not that I'm asking you to do that now in the comments, probably beating a dead horse at this point).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Morgan-Phillips/502432487 Morgan Phillips

      I don't think of the Big Lebowski as a comedy, either.

  • fnumbers
  • fnumbers

    I think if Mr. Ford had seen it around the time of its release, he would understand how brilliant it is.

    • wbean

      Alden nailed it, and need not be apologetic for being insightful. Enjoyed the movie when it came out and so recently shared it with my daughter. What an error. It has little redeeming in it as a kid's film. It is, as Ford writes, creepy and confused in its purpose assuming there is one. It is a vehicle for Reubens and not much more than that. I am surprised it is on many Good Movies for Kids lists and its inclusion makes me sad for the current states of both parenting and film appreciation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eliza-Skinner/552321043 Eliza Skinner
  • http://www.darrenmillercomedy.com Darren Miller

    I was a big fan of Pee-Wee growing up, but I think Ford makes really good points in this article. I think it's important that the context of this whole column is to take these films out of their historical context. The fact that Ford never happened to see these movies and DOES have credibility as a comedian and a writer gives us the opportunity to see analysis from a present-day perspective. And with that in mind, these points are totally valid. I don't agree with all of them but I'm not crying bullshit either. Maybe I or someone who DID love it and see it when it was out should watch it again and see if they still like it as much, aside from the nostalgia.

  • WDG

    It's an interesting analysis to say the least.

    For me, Pee Wee was the baseline for what made me laugh as kid. At the time (7-12 years old), I didn't care about anything which Ford lists in his article as its "downfall", because it made me and lots of others laugh, and that's ALL that mattered.

    We sometimes get so caught up in the comedy snobbery, that we forget that some things shouldn't be analyzed any deeper than face value.

    Certainly, it could have been better or worse.

  • dchadwick

    Some things just have their place and time — and let's face it, their ideal age. Being an adult in 2011 and watching Pee-Wee's Big Adverture for the first time is never going to be the same experience as being a kid 20 years earlier and watching it.


    I don't recall any "dark and cynical" elements to Pee-Wee. It was tongue-in-cheek, yet sincere at the same time, which is where the magic of the show came from. And I was very afraid of ET as a kid, but I wanted to be friends with everyone on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, so I also never found it scary. Everyone was nice and friendly and silly. My kind of people. Just sayin'.