Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

August 9, 1985

In an attempt to put a finger on the ineffable singularity of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, let us consider the Rube Goldberg machines of Summer of 1985 so far:

THE GOONIES. First scene after the prologue. Mikey pulls a string that drops a bowling ball into a bucket and sets off a chain reaction that involves a balloon, a hen, a football and a sprinkler, just to pull open the gate for Chunk. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s cute. Its cool. Kids like it. No reason needed.

BACK TO THE FUTURE. Opening titles. A series of timers act as Doc Brown’s breakfast machine. The coffeemaker turns on, an alarm swings an arm that flips a switch that turns on the morning news, the toaster is toasting, a can of dog food slides down to a robot arm that swings around to a can opener that opens it and it dumps into a dog bowl. It’s not as elaborate or chain reaction based as the GOONIES machine, but it’s more organic to the story because it’s the work of an inventor who’s a genius and a nut and interested in time. And also maybe Steven Spielberg is just into these things, since he produced both movies.

And now, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. Again, the first scene after the prologue. Another breakfast machine. After getting out of bed in the morning, Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens in his followup to MEAT BALLS PART II) tells his dog Speck, “Come on, let’s get some breakfast!” He turns on a fan and lights a candle under a string. The reaction involves a row of interlocked pinwheels, a dropping anvil, a toy ferris wheel… this one could be an homage to the one in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, but with the addition of kitsch: an egg rolls through a tube and is cracked open by a Drinking Bird, wooden models of dinosaur skeletons carry bread slices and squeeze oranges, an Abraham Lincoln statue flips pancakes. As the meal is made (and the dog food is served) the orchestral score builds from dreamy, tinkly chimes to a booming, stomping anthem. And in the end the food is somehow plated with eggs for eyes, a strawberry for a nose and bacon strips for lips. Pee-wee calls him “Mr. Breakfast,” and they seem to already be acquainted. For his own breakfast, Mr. Breakfast requests Mr. T Cereal.

Unlike Doc Brown, Pee-wee is not (in this movie) an inventor. There’s no narrative reason why he would or could create something like this. But his overwhelming dedication to play, absurdity and nonsense mean it would be ludicrous and unacceptable for him to not start off his day like this. The sequence is pure Pee-wee Herman, pure (first time feature director) Tim Burton and pure (first time orchestral score composer) Danny Elfman. It is their sense of humor, their style, their personality. This is the third major Rube Goldberg device of the Summer of 1985 movie season, and – nothing against those other two – this time it feels like the gimmick has achieved its ultimate form.

I think you all know what the movie is, but I’ll go over the basics. Pee-wee’s beloved bike (a 1947 Schwinn Western Flyer tricked out with fins, a plastic tiger head siren and James Bond gadgets like an ejector seat) is stolen on behalf of his bratty rich kid rival Frances Buxton (played by another adult – Mark Holton, two episodes of Webster). A scamming fortune teller (Erica Yohn, THE GODFATHER PART II) tells Pee-wee his bike is in the basement of the Alamo, so he embarks on a road trip to get it back. Along the way he befriends various timeless movie archetypes including but not limited to an escaped convict on the lam (Judd Omen, RED DAWN), a truck driver who’s actually a ghost (Alice Nunn, THE FURY), a rail-riding hobo (Carmen Filpi, “Bum,” ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), and a biker gang called The Satan’s Helpers. When his talks with a small town diner waitress with big dreams (Diane Salinger, CREATURE) are misinterpreted (“Everyone I know has a big ‘but.’ C’mon Simone, let’s talk about your big ‘but,’”) he gets chased around by a jealous, grunting boyfriend (Jon Harris, a.k.a. 7’ 7” A.W.A. wrestler Silo Sam) who seems like a live action Bluto. During his adventure, Pee-wee sneaks past a road block in disguise, drives off a cliff, accidentally enters a rodeo, is hospitalized after a motorcycle accident, is involved in a high speed chase on the Warner Brothers backlot, and makes a cameo in a movie based (very loosely) on his own life.

It’s a very traditional plot structure; in figuring out how to bring his popular Groundlings, off-Broadway and HBO special character to the big screen, Reubens bought the book Screenplay by Syd Field, and he and co-writers Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol followed the prescribed formula exactly. We may or may not need this sturdy skeleton to ground us in Pee-wee’s world, where everyone and everything is heightened, but it works great. Burton’s past making misfit shorts at Disney comes in handy for hand-crafted cartoon gags: Pee-wee becoming an animated pair of eyes in the dark, a stop motion t-rex terrorizing him in his nightmares, and of course the animated googly eyes of Large Marge, cinema’s funniest jump scare.

It’s a distinct tone and style that’s instantly understandable but difficult to describe. Seeing it in the theater as a youth, it seemed like the funniest movie ever. As I got older it was one of my most repeatedly rented tapes, and after 35 years of this it not only holds up, but takes on new dimensions. In February I was lucky enough to see it with a big crowd and subsequent 90 minute talk by Reubens for this year’s anniversary tour – the last big pre-Covid event I attended – and I still enjoyed watching it again this week.

There are so many types of jokes. Corny ones like Mickey having been imprisoned for taking a tag off a mattress. Personality-based ones like Pee-wee rejecting Dottie’s advances by pretending to be a loner (and then cracking up when he turns his back). And so many performance-based ones, like Pee-wee’s terrible stint as an extra in the movie-within-the-movie, awkwardly centering himself in the frame, looking at the director, seemingly getting in trouble and turning to look away.

One of BIG ADVENTURE’s top 100 or so most beloved jokes is defined by its complete lack of context. During an overblown neighborhood meeting about the theft of his bike, Pee-wee suddenly admonishes someone for whispering during his presentation. “Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?!” he yells at a man in his ‘50s sporting a colorful mohawk. The deleted scenes on the DVD contain the explanation for why this man would have that name and hairdo (don’t worry, I won’t give it away), and it would’ve been a funny joke. Removing the setup, turning the punchline into a bizarre mystery, makes it a legendary joke. And it’s the kind of movie where that fits in perfectly.

Lately the little touch of absurdity that amuses me most is the outcome of the famous “Tequila” scene, where Pee-wee convinces the biker gang who are about to kill him to let him do a dance on top of the bar first. After the song it cuts to what must be hours of drinks later when they leave the bar, arms around Pee-wee, now so enamored of him they’ve given him one of their vests and motorcycles. (Even funnier: the cut from his immediate wipe out to the caravan of bikes escorting his ambulance to the hospital.)

You see a scene so many times you take it for granted, and then years later you remember how little sense it makes. For some reason they went from planning to murder this guy to treating him like a family member… because he did a funny dance for them. That’s how Pee-wee wants the world to be. Beautiful.

This is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously for one second, yet it seems entirely sincere, including in its notion that Pee-wee Herman can be an honorary Satan’s Helper, because he can get along with anyone but Francis Buxton. True, he’s often a selfish brat, but that’s always the joke. The point of view of the movie itself (and virtually all of the Pee-wee-ography) is one of non-judgment. Other than Francis and entitled child star Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey, POLICE ACADEMY 2), I don’t think there’s a character in the movie that Burton dislikes. And even Francis gets to play giant monster in the swimming pool, which is something Pee-wee would also do.

The hero of 1985’s biggest hit, BACK TO THE FUTURE, is supposed to represent some kind of accessible ‘80s cool. Marty McFly plays electric guitar, rides a skateboard, tries to teach the squares of 1955 about rock ’n roll before they’re ready. Pee-wee works by going in the opposite direction. He wears a fucking bow tie, his suit and hair are both cut to look unflattering. He’s so entirely uninterested in hipness that he becomes much more hip than the guy wearing sunglasses with his collar flipped up – even while residing in a world where “edginess” doesn’t exist. Burton injects his creepy (cartoony) imagery into the nightmare sequences, but there’s no cynicism, no real darkness. Even BACK TO THE FUTURE has an attempted rape and Libyan terrorists shooting a beloved character with uzis. That BIG ADVENTURE can be so thoroughly nonconformist while being purely joyful seems almost subversive to me.

BACK TO THE FUTURE and THE HEAVENLY KID look back at the ‘50s and early ‘60s with nostalgia and, by going backwards to show how the parents of suburban ’80s teens got together and provided for them, they reaffirm some of the family values associated with that period. Pee-wee instead celebrates only the surface of past eras – the trinkets and totems and design aesthetics, horded and crammed together in mass quantities – while casually ignoring societal expectations for his lifestyle. Somehow he owns a nice all-American house, but its white picket fence encases statues of livestock, several Native Americans with a horse and a teepee, Santa Claus, a deep sea diver, gnomes, a rocket – a random assortment of clutter that would outrage any neighborhood association. During the era when American males worshiped the Trans-Am, the Ferrari and the Lamborghini, Pee-wee pampers and flaunts an old bicycle. He talks like a little boy, obeys no laws of masculinity, and according to his scale is literally a 98-pound weakling. He lives alone, no apparent interest in a wife or kids, and goes out of his way to not even acknowledge interest from his female friend Dottie (Elizabeth Daily, STREETS OF FIRE). Pee-wee doesn’t give a fuck.

Yet not one person seems to object to him. He’s friends with everyone in his neighborhood from the old man next door to the local bicycling community to the owner of the magic shop to Amazing Larry. And everywhere he stops from California (?) to the Alamo he makes new friends, all of whom he remembers to invite to his movie premiere. Even Francis’s rivalry with him is about jealousy, about money not being able to buy him everything Pee-wee has. He doesn’t think Pee-wee is a weirdo. He probly wishes he was him.

And just like Pee-wee violates all notions of how an adult man is supposed to live his life, Reubens and Burton – the latter finally free of bosses who say his work is great but too weird to use – broke numerous unwritten rules of ‘80s filmmaking. Instead of trying to create a relatable everynerd like Marty or Gary and Wyatt, or a cool smartass like Brewster or Fletch, they give us a bizarre manchild who defies any possibility of backstory, explanation or identification. At the height of the Lucas/Spielberg/ILM era of innovation they chose intentionally crude and lo-fi FX. Arguably the “Tequila” scene fits the mold of the BACK TO THE FUTURE “Johnny B. Goode” oldie-based set piece, but this was the era of pop theme songs, and they hired the same guy who did that for WEIRD SCIENCE… to try to figure out how the fuck to do an orchestral score. Even today it’s rare to make an all-out comedy that’s so concerned with visual style and world building; most directors just point the camera at the guy saying the funny thing and then go have lunch. Here’s a movie where no one would doubt that both the director and the star personally fussed over every last prop in a given shot. These guys do it their own way, not knowing another way, not being interested in another way, not particularly caring about whichever dumb motherfucker would think they were doing it wrong.

Recruiting Elfman to do the score changed movies. It was such an outside the box notion that Elfman himself didn’t think it made sense. He and Oingo Boingo had done the musical FORBIDDEN ZONE, but that was a rock/new wave band. He wasn’t in the market to become a film composer, and didn’t even think he would be able to do it. In 1990 he told the Washington Post, “Tim said he was interviewing primarily nontraditional composers, that he had heard my music with the band and thought he heard bits of orchestral or filmatic potential. I didn’t agree with him. But I’m glad that he persisted, because I have a career out of it.”

(So in a world where Burton got to do Frankenweenie in stop motion like he wanted we never would’ve had Tim Burton the live action director or Danny Elfman the film composer.)

Oingo Boingo lead guitarist Steve Bartek, having more musical training than Elfman, came along as his arranger, and they made a timeless carnival of a score completely unlike other movies of the era, occasionally imitated but never duplicated, much like the movie itself.

It’s hard to believe now, but according to the book Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon by Caseen Gaines, Warner Brothers was so befuddled by the finished movie that they considered not releasing it. “The studio executives were doubtful that the film would attract an audience and some thought it might be better to cut their losses instead of spending the money making prints of the film and publicizing it across the nation. Reubens and his team were crushed.”

But the producers convinced the studio to screen it in three cities, and strategically chose Austin as one of the locations, “a city that had had a particularly strong outpouring of support among college students during the Pee-wee Herman Party tour a year earlier.” The response convinced the studio to release the film after all.

Though August is often a dumping ground for movies studios don’t believe in, they did book Reubens to promote the movie in character on various TV shows, and he even hosted an MTV broadcast of the Hollywood premiere, interviewing and/or taunting the red carpet arrivals of Eddie Murphy, Alice Cooper, The Fat Boys, Mr. T, Steve Martin, David Lee Roth and others.

When PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE opened wide it went to #3, behind BACK TO THE FUTURE (week 6) and SUMMER RENTAL, and went on to make $40 million on a $7 million budget. I know from my experience that many people loved it immediately, but apparently some didn’t. On Siskel & Ebert, Gene “hated” the movie “from start to finish” so much that he chose it to be on their Worst of the Year special. He sounded pissed as he said he was a fan of Pee-wee on Letterman and tried to see him live, but “didn’t think he was funny at all in the movie. I was shocked.” Roger had been on vacation when it was released and hadn’t seen it, but later referred to it as “magical” in a review of its sequel.


I know you’re supposed to say your favorite comedy of the ‘80s is GHOSTBUSTERS or PRINCESS BRIDE or THIS IS SPINAL TAP or something, but I believe PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE may be mine. (The other possible contenders are RAISING ARIZONA and THE BLUES BROTHERS.) It’s so god damn funny and original, and it shows the value of approaching art – and life – from the perspective of enthusiastic outsiders who just don’t know any better than to be themselves. When you do that, you can do things other people couldn’t understand. Things they shouldn’t understand. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE is the best.


Summer of 1985 connections:

Poster artist John Alvin also did posters for THE GOONIES, COCOON and THE BLACK CAULDRON. Those don’t look similar, though.

There are many references to James Bond, harking back to A VIEW TO A KILL earlier in the summer, as well as references in THE GOONIES. Like EXPLORERS, it has a major scene at a drive-in.

Though Pee-wee was not yet on a children’s TV show populated by puppets (only a stage show that simulated one), it’s interesting that he and Big Bird both made delightful road trip comedies released so close together.

Jason Hervey (asshole child star Kevin Morton) was briefly in BACK TO THE FUTURE. Ralph Seymour (Francis’ ‘50s juvenile delinquent style bike thief accomplice) was Creasy in FLETCH. James Brolin (himself)’s son was in THE GOONIES. An IMDb trivia entry claims that, “Corey Feldman was originally offered the role of Francis Buxton but turned the role down due to scheduling conflicts with THE GOONIES (1985).” I’ve found no other sources that support this, and it seems much easier to believe that he would’ve had the Jason Hervey role as the asshole child star. But the idea of Pee-wee’s rival being an actual kid is kind of funny in a different way.

As long as we’re talking IMDb trivia, one points out that this and MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME are both “about a man who sets out to recover his stolen vehicle.”

Pop culture:

In a certain way, Pee-wee lives outside of time. His house is decorated with Halloween and Christmas decorations simultaneously, after all. Reubens and Burton both curate a certain retro style of kitsch and camp, so most of the pop culture imagery on display is from things that have remained popular for decades, like Godzilla, Mickey Mouse and Gumby toys. The things that seem more specific to 1985 are the proliferation of BMX and freestyle bikes, Twisted Sister filming a video, and Mr. T Cereal (though the latter also fits exactly into the Pee-wee wheelhouse and I’m sure he’s still eating it today).


Well, not much. Unless you count that the Pee-wee Herman character continued onto five seasons of the even more groundbreaking TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, as well as the underappreciated-for-being-different theatrical film BIG TOP PEE-WEE (1988), the funny but too-much-of-a-retread-in-my-opinion straight-to-Netflix PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (2016) and a live Broadway show (2011).

Oh, and the success of this plus BEETLEJUICE seeming to be going well got Tim Burton the job of directing BATMAN, which had a seismic effect on pop culture through most of the ‘90s. He became a unique auteur of the cartoon goth culture – an arguably even bigger influence when you consider how many apparel items he sold at Hot Topic and the Haunted Mansion gift shop and how many shitty cartoonists he inspired – before sort of losing his mojo and mostly being a guy who makes very expensive mixed-bag remakes of old movies and TV shows.

And Danny Elfman suddenly had a new job as a film composer, working not only with Burton but Sam Raimi, Clive Barker, the Hughes Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Brian DePalma, Peter Jackson, Barry Sonnenfeld, Ang Lee and Guillermo Del Toro. Some of his great scores include BATMAN, NIGHTBREED, DICK TRACY and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and he’s still going (though I miss when he had an unmistakable sound).

Steve Bartek also transitioned into a new career in film scoring as Elfman’s long time orchestrator, as well as an occasional composer (CABIN BOY, COLDBLOODED, ROMY AND MICHELE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION, AN EXTREMELY GOOFY MOVIE).

Phil Hartman unfortunately didn’t write another movie, but of course was a great cast member of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and NewsRadio (plus playing Captain Carl on Pee-wee’s Playhouse) before his tragic death in 1998.

Michael Varhol was a writer for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Christopher Guest’s directorial debut THE BIG PICTURE (1989).

At the time, stop motion animators Stephen Chiodo and Rick Heinrichs each had a few credits to their name and had worked on Burton’s shorts Vincent and Hansel and Gretel. Chiodo went on to become a reliable maker of animatronic characters (with his brothers Charles and Edward) and director of the cult classic KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988). Heinrichs became a renowned production designer, not only for Burton (six movies so far starting with SLEEPY HOLLOW) but for the Coen Brothers (FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and notably cool looking movies like LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, two of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and THE LAST JEDI. Three of those got him Oscar nominations.

Jorgen Klubien, the guy who animated Pee-wee’s eyeballs in the dark, has a writing credit on CARS.

Darla, a bichon frise who made her movie debut in the pet shop fire scene, went on to co-star in THE ‘BURBS and best picture winner SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Mark Holton (Frances) soon co-starred as “Chubby” in TEEN WOLF and TEEN WOLF TOO. He was also in LEPRECHAUN, LEPRECHAUN RETURNS and RUMPELSTILTSKIN and in 2003 played the title role in GACY.

David Glasser, who played one of the BMX kids, became a producer in the early ‘90s, and has credits on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, LION, WIND RIVER and Yellowstone.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 12th, 2020 at 9:16 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

53 Responses to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”

  1. A fuckin’ classic. I can’t tell you how many times I have quoted the “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel” speech, both ironically and not. This was one of Lil’ Majestyk’s first real exposures to that hard-to-pinpoint concept known as “style.” There are sequences in this film that made me feel emotions and sensations far beyond what the story was telling me. I couldn’t understand why I was seeing what I was seeing and why it looked and sounded the way it did and I wasn’t even sure I liked it but I was never once tempted to look away. It was one of my first inklings that a movie was more than just a recording of stuff happening.

    Also, it’s the only movie ever made where the full-frame VHS version is superior. I know now that the rails the street signs moved on to simulate driving and the chain coming out of the bottom of Pee Wee’s bike were not supposed to be seen, but to Lil’ Majestyk they were some formative examples of meta humor. I thought the throwaway nature of these accidental gags was utter genius, and I still miss them when I watch the movie in its proper aspect ratio.

    Fun fact: Elizabeth Daily was also a pop star who recorded as E.G. Daily. She had songs on a number of prominent 80s soundtracks, including SCARFACE, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and, my personal favorite, SUMMER SCHOOL (which also had a Danny Elfman score). She’s now both a prominent voice actress and one of Rob Zombie’s regulars. Sounds like a cool chick.

  2. Okay, lemme tell you about Germans and Pee-Wee Herman. He is VERY obscure here. Apparently both of his classic movies were released theatrically, but most people don’t know them or the character. The only way to get this one on DVD with German sound, is a French import. The only way to get it on Blu-Ray is an OOP release from 2012 that was released with little fanfare. (Not even a mention of Tim Burton on the cover.) This information might not be 100% accurate, but as far as I know, it only graced German TV screens twice. Once on a Sunday morning in the 90s (where my mother unfortunately made me switch the channel, because the protagonist annoyed her) and once a few years ago when our great arthouse TV channel did a Tim Burton retrospective. (Even in HD!) And PLAYHOUSE? That was never shown over here until 2015, when Netflix announced they were making another movie and apparently got the worldwide rights for it, so we finally got a taste of it too.

    I really like this movie, it’s a lot of fun. Back before Netflix did a really great job at blocking VPNs, I was even able to watch BIG TOP PEE-WEE on the American site and enjoyed it, but also felt a bit befuddled by some of the things in it. (Especially giving Pee-Wee a hair fetish and a sex scene.) BIG HOLIDAY was fun and I loved how they did the tired “Celebrity plays himself as wacky caricature” gag, but instead of turning John Manganiello into an arrogant jerk, he was the coolest and purest guy in the world.

  3. I don’t think Paul Reubens gets enough credit for being as great of an actor that he is. He managed to come across as a badass in his scenes in The Blacklist. He is always a welcome addition to any movie I’ve seen him in. It’s a shame that society was as it was when he got in trouble for being at an adult theater. Glad we got over that shit.

    Also, I’m surprised that Pee Wee’s Playhouse was only two seasons because I swear it last through my whole childhood.

  4. Oh, one more thing. My first “encounter” with this movie was in a book that came out after MARS ATTACKS and analyzes his body of work in an extremly dry and academic tone. Also it seems to overanalyze every single aspect ,like wondering if Pee-Wee might actually be gay or trans, because of his androgynous look, him dressing up as a woman once and “saving himself from getting gang banged by bikers by dancing for them”. Yes, the writer either has no idea what a gang bang is or never saw the movie. Which might be a possibility, considering that he writes some other stuff about the history of Pee-Wee, that I can by now simply verify as completly false, just by googling them.

  5. I forgot to mention my favorite thing about Big Holiday is Pee Wee does my favorite kind of joke twice in the film and I laughed so hard. It’s the one were something happens over and over and over where it starts funny, becomes unfunny and suddenly becomes funny again. Just thinking about how kinda jokes is making me chuckle right now.

  6. Despite the fact that I just finished watching this about a half hour ago, there’s not much I can say that Mr. M didn’t. This movie definitely changed the way little me thought what movies were, or could be, back in ’85 (and subsequent ‘kid’s club’ theatrical viewings over the next couple of years). But I think it taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned: outside of the necessities of survival, you don’t have to conform to ANY aspect of society. You can be whoever the hell you want, and if someone wants to judge you it’s on them.

    And I think the reason that lesson stuck with me is that the movie is, to quote TRIGGER HAPPY (or MAD DOG TIME)-one of my favorite overlooked movies- “fuckin’ full of joy”. Pee Wee just IS, like a mythical creature. He’s a myth of Americana in a movie that is a celebration of it in it’s purest form.

    Anyway, I’m day drinking and I’ve already got Batman on, so I’ll try to come back with something more coherent. But if you put this one on today, watch for Cassandra ‘Elvira’ Peterson as the lady Satan’s Helper!

  7. Sternsheim, that is actually something that happens quite often to me recently. I remember some shows from my childhood that seemed to go on for years, then I look them up and they had maybe one or two seasons and only less than 30 episodes. Also full agreement about Reubens acting abilities, especially in THE BLACKLIST. I wish they had given him a few more episodes.

  8. Welp, guess it’s time to confess that I’ve never seen this one. Like THE GOONIES, it completely passed me by as a kid but, unlike THE GOONIES, nobody ever evangelized it enough to get me to sit down and watch it as an adult. This is a lovely review though, and certainly has made me more interested in finally getting to it than anything I’ve learned about it through pop-culture osmosis over the years.

  9. I think the two seasons thing is a mistake maybe? Wikipedia says 5 seasons and a Christmas Special between 1986 and 1990, although one of those “seasons” is only 2 episodes. 45 episodes (and the Special) in total.

  10. It was indeed five seasons. I don’t know where I got two. Sorry for the confusion.

  11. Mr. Fix-It: Phil Hartman almost-starring film by director Gil Bettman (Never Too Young To Die) with Robert Zemeckis producing:
    Los Angeles Times September 1986
    He’s become a much-in-demand screenwriter since co-writing “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” with longtime friend and former Groundling Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens. Hartman sold his first solo screenplay, “Mr. Fix-it,” to MGM, and currently is co-writing a vehicle for Lovitz’s “The Liar” character with Lovitz, Michaels and writer-performer Brown.

    “We’re feverishly trying to get the first draft finished while we’re working on the show,” Hartman said.

    “The show”–“SNL”–could give his career a kick into a different orbit, one in which his face is as much in demand as his name on a script. “There’s a lot of heat on me as a writer and we figured with the exposure I’ll get on ‘SNL’ my acting will catch up with my writing in terms of salability,’ Hartman said.

    “I wanted to do ‘SNL’ because I wanted to get the exposure that would give me box-office credibility so I can write movies for myself,” he continued. “For example, I wrote ‘Mr. Fix-it’ for myself, yet I realized I couldn’t star in it.” He’ll be seen soon in three films, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which stars Whoopi Goldberg, “The Three Amigos,” starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short, and as Bruce Willis’ brother in “Blind Date.” But none of those are starring roles.

    South Florida Sun Sentinel October 1991
    The Mr. Fix-It black comedy by Saturday Night Live co-star Phil Hartman is finally ready to roll — as soon as filmmaker Robert Zemeckis finds a backer for the project.

    Hartman has just completed what is expected to be the final version of the script. Gil Bettman is set to direct. And now it’s a matter of convincing a studio the story is not too dark. And that could take some doing. Hartman describes it as “sort of a merger of horror and comedy, like Beetlejuice and Throw Momma From the Train. It’s an American nightmare about a family torn asunder. They live next to a toxic dump site, their water supply is poisoned, the mother and son go insane and try to murder each other, the father’s face is torn off in a terrible disfiguring accident in the first act. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s got a good message and a positive, upbeat ending.”

  12. This movie is a treasure. And it’s all tone, there are barely actual jokes in it. It’s just hysterically funny. I love the fig leaf of a plot, that’s all they needed to just have a string of weirdo vignettes propel the movie. It’s a brilliant move too, because now instead of a boring plot you basically have a number of 4-5 minute sketches, each with their own big punchline. Now I kind of wish they HAD cast a kid as Francis. And actually they have 3-4 pretty great stunts in the movie too.

    The weird thing is, even in scenes that make no logical sense, they kind of do. Take the bikers. Pee Wee is dancing, they think he’s an idiot. Then he starts breaking shit, and they start laughing, he’s speaking their language, now they’re into it. Then Pee Wee is doing tricks and he’s really entertaining them. So they become friends, all for a stupid gag where he crashes.

    I found the Amazing Larry scene on Youtube. I love how there’s no reference to him, but damn either way works great…seeing him in the basement after is a great gag after seeing the deleted scene.

    If you listen to Oingo Boingo, there are definitely a few songs that sound very close to the soundtrack. Nasty Habits is one of them. I bet Burton talked to Mark Mothersbaugh too.

    And the Twisted Sister cameo is one of my favorite movie scenes ever. So ridiculously funny, from the evil song they’re doing about burning in hell, to the capper where Godzilla is launched onto their limo.

  13. Strange short story: I missed this in theaters but caught it on video (probably not until 1986, I’d guess?), and I really enjoyed it…..but I haven’t seen even one single scene of it since.

    This review is great, though, and it reminds me that I should watch the movie again. The older I get the less inclined I am to watch movies twice, but this would almost be like watching it for the first time again.

  14. An all time classic. Even though it certainly gets respected, I still don’t think it gets recognized for how truly close to perfect it is. There isn’t a moment which doesn’t work. I saw this in the theater for a friend’s 10th (?) birthday party. Man, I feel sorry for his parents, who had to endure a pizza party of pre-teen boys doing their best Pee Wee impressions. Great write up, Vern.

  15. This is Top 10 all-timer for me. You know, I would love comment further on this movie, but how can I when she is just so late on her cues?

  16. Brazil, also from 1985, though not a summer movie, ALSO has a machine that makes breakfast, like Pee Wee and BTTF, and, while it’s closer to the BTTF functional version, it’s vaguely Rube Goldberg-y too. Was there something in the culture that these movies were all influenced by? Or just coincidental?

  17. “It’s the one were something happens over and over and over where it starts funny, becomes unfunny and suddenly becomes funny again.”

    Sternshein, my absolutely favorite example of this is Rob Brydon’s Roger Moore impression in THE TRIP TO SPAIN.

    It’s like a jump scare when all of the sudden it’s fucking hilarious again.

  18. Great review, Vern. You really put your finger on the beauty of Pee-Wee and of the film. Clearly, this is the unifying theme of Burton’s work: singular folks with both the vision and courage to live as true individuals. Ed Wood, Willy Wonka, Batman, list goes on. People with the courage to tell their own stories.

    For whatever reason, I guess this makes me think of any extreme act of heartfelt non-conformity, particularly the courage to be an openly gay person prior to, say, in the early 90s. When your whole social world tells you that your desires and way of being are hopelessly wrong. To have the courage to be like, “No, I’m not. This is what’s right for me.” It’s very simple and very profound, and this film is really a celebration of the beauty of diverse individuals, which is Pee-wee’s whole cross-country journey, befriending very different but like-hearted souls.

    Anyway, this is up there with the unfairly maligned ALMOST HEROES as one of the most quotable movies of all time.

  19. I believe HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS also has a breakfast machine, if I remember correctly. Burton himself would do a similar (albeit way more gothic) food machine in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS too, so I guess he didn’t quite get it all out of his system here.

  20. Thank you for this review, the conclusion (before the notes) made me tear up a little bit. Your work is a similar affirmation of an outlook that is so valuable. I cannot thank you enough for an influence and example which has helped me to live more appreciatively, of the world itself and being an individual in it.

    It is all the more moving to think of how your writing and perspective have impacted a great many others around the planet that we share.

    My favorite underrated Pee-Wee catchphrase is “I love that story”, most hilariously and absurdly said by Vance the talking pig in BIG TOP PEE-WEE.

    Thanks again for everything.

  21. P.S. You know what rules is the Pee-Wee episode of 227.

  22. Vern, you neglected to mention another 1980s comedy role from Mark Holton – his one line “It’s Enrico Pallazzo!” near the end of NAKED GUN. As a kid I was shocked to immediately recognize “Francis” getting one single line in an extreme wide shot.

    Also, when I finally saw Vittorio De Sica’s acclaimed 1948 Italian neorealist tragedy THE BICYCLE THIEF I lost it when the guy finally tries to find his needed bicycle by going to a fortune teller and my mind was suddenly in a much sillier place than De Sica could ever have intended.

    Ever since then I’ve just assumed that Paul Reubens and/or his writers were intentionally referencing that movie, though it seems like an oddly brooding choice of source material for a movie that set out to follow a crowd-pleasing Hollywood formula literally right out of the industry textbook. Now part of me almost wonders if it’s just a bizarre coincidence.

  23. Sternshein/Hurtado: THE SIMPSONS did that quite a few times, finding humor in repetition

    The Simpsons - Mount Splashmore

    The trauma center is ON PREMISES! AMAZING!! If you join Robinhood, we'll both get a share of stock like Apple, Groupon, Ford, or Sprint for free! Takes like ...

    Sideshow bob stepping on rakes

    Sideshow bob stepping on rakes, from the episode Cape Feare, S05E02, of The Simpsons

  24. How fucked up is it that Paul Reubens had his career take a serious tumble for jacking it in an adult film theater while all manner of known sexual abusers continued – and continue – to have Hollywood careers?

  25. I honestly think the system would have rallied around him if he was a rapist and not a masturbater. Rape is something these scumbags understand. “Hey, Pauly baby, don’t worry about it. Who doesn’t get carried away with a broad every now and then, right? I’ll put in a few calls, make it go away. Us men of the world gotta watch each other’s backs.” But jerking it in public isn’t a scandal; it’s just embarrassing. And embarrassment is the one thing you can’t get away it. I liken it to the decade-long shaming Winona Ryder faced after her shoplifting incident. It was a petty crime she immediately got caught for, but it made her look desperate and sad, which is not sexy, so that was it for her movie career. Robert Downey Jr. committed half a dozen far more grievous crimes before breakfast on the average Tuesday during his wild years but they made him look troubled (which IS sexy), not pitiful, so he was considered redeemable.

  26. I always thought the Danny Elfman hire had to do with an acknowledgment and/or penance that Rubens and Burton took A LOT from Forbidden Zone. Which makes t kind of lame that Danny got a very successful career out of it, while his brother–well–didn’t.

  27. There are two things you have to remember in terms of Reuben’s near-career end:

    1) He got caught in the act. There was no (sorry for sounding like a rape apologist here, I swear I don’t condone this type of thinking) “An anonymous source said she saw him three years ago with his dick in his hand, there were no other witnesses”, which would make many people think “Eh, why didn’t she say something right away? She must be lying!”

    2) He was the most beloved kids entertainer in the US at this time. A popcultural powerhouse. It was not just that way too many people were most likely waiting for him to fall on his face at this point anyway, the fact that your kid was playing with a doll of a guy who whipped it out in public, added an extra layer of shock to it.

  28. jojo, have you seen Richard Elfman’s other work? I agree that the cult status of FORBIDDEN ZONE should’ve at least led to one shot at mainstream success, but let’s be honest…well…y’know…

  29. Love this movie. It influenced me so much as a kid that I did the Tequila dance for a talent contest in elementary school. No laughs, a few stray claps which my mother led, and just kind of befuddled looks all around the gymnasium. Freak flag firmly flying from a very young age.

  30. Reubens got arrested in July 1991, and was back in BATMAN RETURNS and BUFFY the next summer, so his career didn’t suffer too much.

  31. Well, not sure if a cameo behind a thick mustache in a friend’s movie counts and who knows when BUFFY was shot, but it should be mentioned that after these two movies (and his voice work for NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS), he doesn’t have anything listed on IMDb until 1996.

  32. I gotta disagree with you there. He went from having his own show/merchandising empire to a couple of cameos he filmed the year before. He then didn’t have a live action role for four years and the only voice acting he did in the meantime was for his pal Burton because no one else would touch him with a ten-foot pole. His bread-and-butter creation was completely dead, so he had to reinvent himself under his own name, which no one knew. It wasn’t until 1999 and MYSTERY MEN that he started becoming “Paul Reubens, character actor” and not “that disgraced pervert who used to be Pee Wee Herman.” I’d say the only actor who came out of a scandal in the 90s in worse shape was OJ Simpson.

  33. And even OJ got a book deal out of it.

  34. The unfinished Arrive Alive (written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue) with Willem Dafoe (added slapstick made him quit and production was stopped when no replacement was found) might have been the right film role if Reubens wanted to get away from Pee Wee in 1991 prior to the final Playhouse season start in September 1990.

  35. jojo, have you seen Richard Elfman’s other work?

    No, because… well… y’know

  36. The most amazing thing about FORBIDDEN ZONE (a movie I would like to like more than I do) is that Elfman swears its theme song was the first pop song he ever wrote. Prior to the film, The Mystic Knights is the Oingo Boingo was more of a troupe of weird performance art old timey ragtime troubadours. And yet the theme song to FORBIDDEN ZONE is a fuckin’ rager, every bit as catchy and propulsive as any of the hits Oingo Boingo would make later. This is similar to Elfman swearing he had no idea how to score a movie and probably shouldn’t be hired to do so and then pumping out the all-timer score to BIG ADVENTURE. Enough with the humility, Danny. Just admit you can do anything.

  37. Wes, that was the most obscure reference I’ve ever seen listed here. I am going to have to look up what you said because I only understood Willem Defoe.

  38. I’m sure the scandal closed up opportunities for him, but he had already decided he was done with Pee-wee’s Playhouse and had had the episodes in the can for a long time (which is why he could have long hair in the mugshot). So I think some of the gap in his career comes from him hiding out a little after the embarrassment of the media attention. Maybe otherwise he would’ve launched right into some new, different project, but he became kind of a recluse for a while.

  39. Sternshein, click on my name in this or previous post for the answer.

  40. Ruebens appeared as Pee-Wee three weeks after the masturbation incident at the 1991 MTV music awards to wild audience applause. I think this was him officially retiring the character…he wouldn’t play him again until 2007 I think.

    Pee-Wee Herman's Big Comeback - MTV Video Music Awards 1991

    Pee-Wee's big comeback introducing the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards. "Heard any good jokes lately?" Pee-Wee, you are the man!

  41. Only skimming this, but, notwithstanding the MTV Awards publicity stunt and Burton throwing a cameo bone here and there, the masturbation scandal brought his career and Pee-Wee to a screeching halt, and the Pee-Wee character never really recovered until maybe that Netflix movie (and like a limited live performance run here or there). If you had a character that was your most identifiable thing, and it was huge iconic character business, and you essentially couldn’t market that character for 25 years, I’d say that’s in impact. His biggest thing since/other than that has bee BLOW, right? HUGE (in Trump voice) impact. Big League! Sad! etc.

    Also, there was a subsequent thing with him and Jeffrey Jones (FERRIS BUELLER’s principal and fellow Burton-verse chum) that involved some nude pics of kids, so, I mean, I don’t have a good sense of what all of that was about, but it certainly didn’t do Reubens any favors.

  42. PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE did have a revival on Broadway several years back

  43. Reubens’ career definitely suffered but fortunately Hollywood loves a comeback. Since he didn’t do anything unforgiveable, his Pee Wee revival was a resounding success that led to the Netflix movie.

    It does irk me that it took him so many years for something so minor when Louis CK gets back on stage in a year. At least Spacey’s still unhirable I guess.

  44. My favorite line of this movie is when the escaped convict says something about “The Law”, and Pee Wee looks kind of sideways and repeats in his best tough guy voice, “The Law!”. It is so perfectly delivered that I rewind and watch it again every time I see it.

    Also when Pee Wee is in Texas and his girl friend doesn’t believe him, so he sings out from the phone booth and everybody answers. Classic stuff.

    Vern you nailed it, this movie is anchored on its devil-may-care honesty and genuineness. So was Pee Week’s Playhouse. It was weird, but fun, and kids loved it, and if they liked watching this weirdo that was fine as long as he wasn’t some kind of a pervert. Then he got caught masturbating and it made every inkling of weirdness that had gone off in parents’ heads turn from “that is odd, but wholesome I think?” into “ugh I knew that guy was a pervert”. Too bad.

  45. Vern, I think the only natural route to go now is to review the movie Reubens was watching when he got arrested.

  46. Skani, the thing with the child pics was in Reuben’s case that he is a collector of antique photography and apparently got busted for owning such pics with nude models that looked very underage. However he could prove that he purchased the pictures in huge bundles without being able to review each single one of them beforehand and that around 1900 or whatever society wasn’t always concerned about asking models for their IDs. Also his collection was huge and the questionable pics were only a very small percentage, which made his defense even more believable, so for a change everything was okay in that regard.

    The thing with Jones was a bit more sinister however.

  47. A bit like when the Oscar winner THE TIN DRUM was accused of containing child pornography.

  48. Thanks, CJ. Yeah, I dug in a little bit on that yesterday myself and found the same information. I can only imagine what a stressful experience that would be. Reubens has been through some shit.

    The Jeffrey Jones thing is just sad. I have enjoyed him as an actor in quite a few things, not only Principal Rooney, but also RAVENOUS, BEETLEJUICE, and some other things I enjoyed as a kid that almost certainly would not hold up, like WHO’S HARRY CRUMB and this other Matthew Broderick movie OUT ON A LIMB. Closest thing I could compare him to is a William Atherton type, but he’s got an acting energy all his own. Anyway, I think he’s a fine actor who elevate whatever he’s in.

    Having pedophile tendencies must be about as close as one can come to being cursed in the sense that I can’t believe it’s something anyone asks for, but if you’ve got it, there’s really nothing to do but suppress and/or conceal it for as long as possible and maybe you get through life or maybe you self-destruct and abuse people and scar a bunch of people for life in the process. The best social deterrent solution at present is threat of becoming a pariah, the deterrent threat or protective reality of prison, or being released more or less into the wild (like with Jones) with limited to no supervision and the hope that your behavior doesn’t revert or, worse, escalate. And the risks of people acting on these urges at some point and then recidivating at some point are pretty high. So, the threat is real, chances for recovery are probably up there with the effectiveness of any other “conversion therapy,” and so our best technology at this point is probably the modern equivalent of torches and pitchforks.

    Pessimism about pedophilia - Harvard Health

    Pedophilia, the sexual attraction to children who have not yet reached puberty, remains a vexing challenge for clinicians and public officials. Classified as a paraphilia, an abnormal sexual behavior, researchers have found no effective treatment. Li...

  49. Bonzob2000 – Gilliam has claimed that Steven Spielberg copied the idea from Brazil, adding it to Back to the Future as he was directing second unit footage for the later film.

  50. Second unit directors don’t make decisions like adding a whole component to a movie. Now Spielberg WAS producing BTTF so he could have added it in that capacity, but I lean more on coincidence and Gilliam is a paranoid lunatic.

  51. Burton kinda looks like Beto O’Rourke in that photo

  52. Stacy Livitsanis

    August 20th, 2020 at 6:58 am

    I used to think the Breakfast Machine in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the machines in The Goonies, and to a lesser extent Back to the Future, took at least some unacknowledged inspiration from the amazing experimental film The Way Things Go, by Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, which consists of half an hour of these ingenious contraptions. But looking it up, The Way Things Go was made in 1987, after all these films. There you go. Memory playing tricks on me. It used to be on YouTube but seems to have. Well worth tracking down. An excerpt:

    The Way Things Go - Trailer

    Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss have collaborated on kinetic installations since 1979. All of their work to date, whether in photography, film, d...

  53. Someone has uploaded the Snyder Cut of the 80s, or at least the WAKE UP RON BURGANDY, the TV version of CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE (featuring Paul Rubens as Pee-Wee) that cuts out all of the drug references and replaces them with diamonds. It also features animation and special effects sequence which weren’t in the theatrical film that seem like they would have been a lot of effort to not put into the formal release, but I guess I wasn’t funding movies in the early 80s so I don’t know.


    (It’s in 11 parts that link from there)

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