Pee-Wee Herman has experienced a bit of a resurgence lately. For years the perpetual man-child's image was somewhat sullied by Pee-Wee creator Paul Reubens' indecent exposure and child pornography charges, although Paul Reubens-the-actor got some respectable roles in films (as a drug dealer in 2001's Blow, heralded as his "comeback" role) and cameos on TV (his disturbing turn as an inbred Austrian prince on the "Black Tie" episode in the first season of 30 Rock is something to be seen). Ushered in by the creation of a Twitter account, Pee-Wee's comeback began. High-profile late show appearances, a social media-fueled publicity campaign and a Pee-Wee's Playhouse stage show on Broadway (which ended its run Jan. 2) soon followed. Most recently he was seen doing shots and terrorizing Anderson Cooper with Andy Sandberg on a Saturday Night Live Digital Short (below).
With a Judd Apatow-produced Pee-Wee movie in the works, now's the time revisit the Pee-Wee oeuvre. Besides watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse (which is truly a relic of children's entertainment of yesteryears — few modern parents would endorse "ice cream soup" as a proper afternoon snack, and double entendres abound) and the series' magnificent Christmas special, check out Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, which the Prytania Theatre screens as its midnight movie this weekend.
The 1985 film sees our hero embarking on a cross-country adventure after his nemesis Francis — the primary recipient of Pee-Wee-patented insults such as "I know you are, but what am I?" — steals his tricked-out bicycle. Along the way, Pee-Wee encounters such characters as an escaped convict who ended up in the clink after destroying a "do not remove" label on a mattress and trucker Large Marge (whose terrifying face left an indelible image in my mind when I saw the film as a 5-year-old). And of course there's Pee-Wee's discovery that there's no basement in the Alamo, his stint as biker bar go-go dancer, and the epic chase scene through Warner Brothers Studios in the end. The cultural impact of the movie is pretty pervasive, evident in people's reaction to The Champs' "Tequila" and my generation's general disappointment with the Alamo (the film makes it seem much bigger and more exciting; at the real-life Alamo, there's not even a tour in which guests are taught the word "adobe").
Although it's gained status as a cult film, there is some artfulness amid the camp. Tim Burton's direction gives the film a subversive quality, and Danny Elfman's score is perfect in many of the film's scenes that are largely silent (like the above breakfast-machine sequence). People can also appreciate appearances by Saturday Night Live cast members Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman — who co-wrote the script and played Captain Carl on Pee-Wee's Playhouse — James Brolin, Morgan Fairchild and the band Twisted Sister, who all have small roles. Also, for fellow '90s kids: Elizabeth Daily, who was the voice of Tommy Pickles on Nickelodeon's Rugrats, plays the role of Dottie in the film.
It's a great film — regardless of your personal opinion of Pee-Wee — and it gets bonus points for not being The Rocky Horror Picture show, which seems to dominate the Prytania's midnight movie roster.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure plays at midnight tonight and Saturday at the Prytania Theatre.