Memorials have rightfully recognized Paul Rubens’, better known as Pee-wee Herman, importance to comedy, children’s entertainment, and surrealism. Ruben’s character was, indeed, a 1980s-era embodiment of existentialism for the young. Pee-wee Herman’s inexhaustible ability to find play alone with objects provided children with the benevolent unification of Dada and Sartre in an unexpected genre.
I teach university students about the emergence of complex societies and material culture by using clips from Tim Burton’s 1985 film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Most didn’t know who he was. I work to correct that. The only thing conventional about the way he looked was the grey suit. At 98 pounds, he still found one that was both three sizes too small and too big. A bright Oxford shirt was held on his frame by the tiny red bowtie that was always tight around his thin neck. His shoes were very white, like his socks. The cuffs of his pants were about four inches too short, while his jacket sleeves were long enough that his shirt cuffs were swallowed up long before anyone could see them.
Instead of being made by it, Pee-wee’s small body was always larger than the suit. A straightforward reading of his vestments would tell us that we are constricted by our social roles or society in general. I think it was a message that people, and especially what they experience, even pee-wees, were bigger than what others assumed them to be.
Pee-wee’s skinny arms and legs flailed with any movement or emotion. His voice jumped from high-pitched to higher. When he was amused, which was often, movement and sound became even more spastic. His laugh, part bullhorn, part kazoo, screamed out of a Pez dispenser-like mouth. His giggles had the whimsy of whipped cream piled atop Cool Whip. His suits tried to contain his body, but his body could never contain his happiness. Feeling his joy was unavoidable, especially for children. He was the tip of the spear for humanity’s glee—our secular cherub in a holy war against frowns.
For Pee-wee Herman, almost any moment had the possibility for play. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, breakfast is produced by a delightfully complex and ridiculous Rube Goldberg-like machine. In the precious first moments of rising out of the world of dreams and into the one we share, he slays a dragon with a laser gun, feeds the bunny rabbit slippers on his feet a plastic carrot, pushes his toy train across the manifest destiny of his floor and descends from his bedroom into the kitchen through a fireman’s pole. His bed-to-the-table journey traverses an epic domestic playground. Why is Pee-wee Herman’s omnipresent playfulness so important?
Pee-wee is Nietzsche’s modern person. He lives in a cosmos without a supernatural giver of laws. In such a world, Nietzsche says we must be like children and invent a world of meaning. Otherwise, we will be consumed by the great void. This power to invent meaning in one’s own world might best be called “play”. One can play other people’s games but the ability to create one’s own game is play on top of play – the whipped cream on top of the Cool Whip. This subjective turn away from the external world and into one self-defined is made explicitly in his next film, 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee, directed by Randal Kleiser. Here, he gives up his dream of getting a Nobel Prize by inventing a tree that grows hotdogs to cure world hunger. Although he seems awfully close to finishing his work, he chooses self-validation. He finds love and the pleasure of kissing and decides to join a circus that a tornado recently blew onto his farm—a world of perpetual play.
Play is not just for living things. In his television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired from 1986 to 1990, the armchair, window, clock, globe, floor, and food, among other things in his world, become animate with distinct personalities. Such animism produces possibilities for relating to things beyond the subject-object dichotomy. If you have a personal relationship with a chair, it has meaning, and your world may be even richer with that chair in your room than a chair sitting bereft in an Ikea showroom.
Pee-wee’s original fetish object from Pee-wee’s Big Adventures is his bike: a Schwinn Deluxe Cruiser with a headlight, cargo saddle boxes, fin, and tassels. Its curvaceousness, like the 1950s American transportation products it replicates, rightfully produces lust. But the 20th century fortitude and probity by which such things were built tempers the libido with respect. We first see his bike in his dreams, where he and it win the Tour de France together. In real life, his bike is not like a kids’ BMX or adult racing bike, but his very own. Together they do wheelies and race some with road bikes but Pee-wee and his bike’s love does not parade itself, but rejoices in the truth that their relationship is for one another and no one else.
When his bike is stolen, his big adventure begins. His first hunch that Francis (played by Holton), the spoiled rich kid, took the bike is correct, but he is thrown off the scent and suspects the Soviets were involved. From a psychic, he learns that the bike is in the basement of the Alamo. A classic trope in fiction and human development is that in questing after something, one more deeply finds oneself and others.
Pee-wee begins to know the world and the people in it. He meets a convict escaping a sentence for cutting the label of a mattress, a truck-stop waitress dreaming of a life in Paris, a phantom, a biker gang with hearts of gold, and a hyperverbal hobo. He finds out that his bike is not in the Alamo, which doesn’t even have a basement. Eventually, Pee-wee sees on television that his bike is being used for a film in a Hollywood studio. To evade responsibility for its disappearance, Francis removed the evidence of his theft and sent the bike far away. Disguised as a nun, Pee-wee steals his bike back and escapes. A medium-speed chase follows, and through trickery, he and his bike, unlike Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape, reach freedom.
Immediately Pee-wee Herman is confronted with an existentialist choice. One may be free from others but never oneself. In front of him is a pet store that is on fire. He must choose between a life frolicking with his bike or rescuing God’s creatures. Choosing the latter means the police, searching for who stole the bike from the Hollywood set, will catch up with him. He saves the animals according to the hierarchy of the great chain of cuteness: chimps, puppies, ducks, rats, etc. Finally, he comes to the animal punished to slither rather than walk by God. After scooping up the snakes, he runs outside and passes out on the pavement. The police catch him. He is pardoned by the head of the studio in exchange for the rights to his story for a film starring hunky James Brolin.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure ends with a drive-in screening of the studio’s production. The audience at the drive-in is full of the characters Pee-wee met on his voyage. Pee-wee distributes snacks and, it seems, might fall in love with a woman called Dottie (played by Elizabeth Daily). She used to be only the girl who fixed his bike, but now she is a real person to him.
Celebrity status could be the validation that Pee-wee always wanted, but it isn’t because such things cannot be given properly by others. His quasi-girlfriend asks him if he is sure that he wants to leave before the end of the movie. He responds: “I don’t have to see it, Dottie; I lived it.” That’s an existentialist statement if there ever was one.
Out of playfulness can come purpose—one’s own purpose. Pee-wee Herman often said, “I know you are, but what am I?” In his adventure, he got to know other people. Through play and the love of it, we, too, might come to understand what we are and what we can live with.