“Let’s all admit that we’d give up one of our immediate family members to have Phil Hartman back.”
Big Top Pee-wee
By Brett Ballard-Beach
July 19, 2012
(Random quote floating out through various social media webs in the last week.)
Three Pee-wee related memories (and one non-memory) to begin with:
1) I have a recollection of being five and catching a few minutes of The Pee-wee Herman Show on HBO, filmed at the Roxy in Los Angeles and aired as part of the channel’s “On Location” series. (And thanks to a Facebook group I just joined, Vintage HBO Guides, I can confirm that it was probably September 1981, its debut month and perhaps the evening of the 14th when it aired early enough - 5:30 pm - that this might have been possible.)
I have never seen the entire special, though I did watch a few online clips for this column, but I apparently caught and or remembered the more risqué moments, especially the one involving Pee-wee hypnotizing a female audience member and having her undress. I don’t remember watching it uninterrupted which makes me think I must have nervously switched back and forth (or away from it) lest one of my parents come down into the den while I was watching.
2) I remember vividly seeing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure shortly after it debuted on VHS (most likely in 1986) and watching it with my best friend during a sleepover. I do not recall laughing harder at any other film during my pre-adolescent years. We watched it on repeat throughout the night (in between, gasp, actually sleeping) and probably rented it several more times over the next year. I watched it again a few weeks ago, for the first time in probably 20 years, and was pleased to find that a good portion of my delight was retained (and none was sullied). To boot, I was reminded why my ten-year-old self continued to eat Mr. T cereal long after I had decided that it tasted like a bad Cap’n Crunch knockoff.
Additionally, I became aware for the first time that Phil Hartman was a co-writer of the screenplay, and of his professional involvement with Paul Reubens from the Groundlings improvisational comedy group in the 1970s on through various Pee-wee projects up until the mid-‘80s when their partnership was apparently severed due to a falling-out over money.
3) After Pee-wee’s Playhouse’s debuted on CBS in the fall of 1986, I would catch moments here and there when I flicked back and forth from NBC programming during the commercial breaks on its Saturday morning lineup. I became very familiar with the opening credits and with the concept of the series, but I could never sustain any extended interest in the show.
The reasons behind this may be twofold: It felt like a manic show aimed at younger kids (younger than my worldly ten anyways) and I was something of a Saturday morning snob. I would watch NBC religiously, ABC on a case-by-case basis, and CBS as a last-ditch alternative to commercials, interstitials and “One(s) to Grow On”. Whence this snobbery came, I know not. I watched half of the first season and second season episodes over the last week, as well as the Christmas special from December 1988. This marked the first time I had seen a complete episode. More thoughts on the show to follow.
I had no desire to see Big Top Pee-wee when it came out in the summer of 1988, or when it came out on VHS, or when it finally tumbled onto DVD in the ‘00s. Unlike the 25th anniversary edition of Big Adventure from Warner Bros. in 2010, which included a Reubens/Tim Burton commentary track, I doubt Paramount will be marking the occasion with a DVD re-release featuring a Reubens/Randall Kleiser audio in 2013. (Although considering how bewildering I find Big Top Pee-wee to be, perhaps that is my loss.)
The second Pee-wee Herman big screen adventure grossed almost identically what the first one had three years prior in its opening weekend ($4.62 million to $4.54 million) but had none of the legs, lasting only two weeks in the top ten and finishing with $15 million, while its predecessor spent eight weeks in the top five, and wound up with a final gross just shy of $40 million.
Here are the three things I find (most) puzzling about Big Top Pee-wee:
1) The success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure opened the door for the live action Pee-wee’s Playhouse series (after an initial pass at an animated effort was a non-starter) which ran for four years and 45 episodes. Big Top Pee-wee was conceived and filmed in the midst of the show’s success and Reubens co-wrote the screenplay with George McGrath, a co-writer on all of the first and second season episodes and the voice for several of the Playhouse characters. It is surprising (to me) that Big Top Pee-wee bears little to no trace of any influence from Playhouse. It is doubly surprising that Big Top Pee-wee has nothing to do as well with Big Adventure.
It neither continues the story nor makes any attempt to replicate it (via, say, another road journey), except perhaps in the bare bones of its structure. Pee-wee is simply set loose again, in a different milieu. In a very, very tenuous “squint and maybe you’ll agree” manner, this reminds me of Jacques Tati’s creation Monsieur Hulot, a character he played and guided through several decades and many films and all manners of modern French life (including a final film set within a circus).
2) The first film benefits from someone already possessed with a clear directorial vision (an affinity for emotionally arrested male lead characters at sea in worlds that exists somewhere between magical realism and full-fledged grotesqueries). Big Adventure may be Tim Burton’s sunniest film in several respects, but it was a fortuitous pairing with Paul Reubens’ vision. Randall Kleiser’s career began with episodic TV and tele-movies but his big-screen efforts - then as now - have mostly balanced family and/or kid friendly entertainment (Grease, White Fang, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, Lovewrecked) with tales of sexual awakenings of all sort (The Blue Lagoon, Summer Lovers, Grandview, U.S.A., Getting it Right).
I find Big Top Pee-wee so unsettling for the lion’s share - almost an hour of its 86 minute running time - precisely because it attempts to merge these two fairly incompatible strands. The film in Kleiser’s oeuvre of which it most reminds me is, tellingly, the one just prior: 1986’s Flight of the Navigator. The first of his three films for Walt Disney Productions, Navigator is, on the surface, a tale of a boy taken on a wild (mostly off-screen) interplanetary ride by a smartass spaceship.
At heart (through adult eyes), it is a near tragedy mining the presumed loss of a child and the extended grief of a family for a moral fable about appreciating one’s relations… or else! This theme was in keeping with other G and PG-rated Disney live-action fare of the 1980s such as Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and One Magic Christmas. Paul Mall - a.k.a. Paul Reubens - provided the voice of the spaceship and I can only speculate that some kind of vibe clicked between director and (voice) actor for them to be able to recreate the same uneasy vibe all over again. Big Top Pee-wee offers some well-intentioned bromides in the direction of finding your passion and place in life and as well as a greater acceptance of and appreciation for humanity in all its shapes and sizes. The closing five-minute musical number and Pee-wee’s “death-defying” high-wire act encompass this message beautifully and almost quell the sour taste of all that precedes it.
3) Big Top Pee-wee takes place too much in “a real world.” I was going to say “the real world”, but that’s not true. There are a few modern nods (the high-tech nature of Pee-wee’s combination greenhouse & laboratory) but otherwise the set design of the town near to Pee-wee’s home - the only one we ever see - is a very unwieldy amalgam of the 1950s (automobile types, diner) and the 1850s (blacksmith, dry goods general store, schoolhouse). All the townspeople in key supporting roles (with the exception of Penelope Ann Miller as the schoolmarm/fiancée) are old cranks. On a side note, this makes me wonder where all the families and a lot of the children show up from to witness the performance finale.
Thinking back to the all the people Pee-wee encountered on his Big Adventure, most if not all existed somewhere between cartoon and caricature. This seemed appropriate for dealing with someone who was nothing so much as a cartoon turned to live action. By contrast, all the supporting players in Big Top, from the townspeople to the menagerie of circus acts (including Benicio Del Toro as a dog-faced boy) have been rendered with as much realism as possible, an ill-fated decision. There is nothing fantastical about any of them, which renders the film’s attempts to invoke wonder from spectacle moot. This extends through to the romantic triangle, which occupies way too much space at the heart of the film. More thoughts on that to follow shortly.
The “more thoughts that have now followed shortly” section:
The similarities in beats in the early going between Big Adventure and Big Top are striking to note. Both begin with a Pee-wee dream (winning the Tour de France, becoming a singing idol beloved by the bobbysoxers set) which then becomes a glimpse into the daily routine of our hero, which is then significantly upset by a catastrophic event at the end of the first reel (bike gets stolen, tornado brings new meaning to “the circus just blew into town.”). Pee-wee then undertakes a journey - physical in the former, spiritual in the latter - to find what he has lost.
I was not able to watch more than two episodes in a row of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The level of mania in the early going was quite overwhelming, exemplified for me by the 150 second opening credits sequence, which abruptly shifts from its idyllic Claymation woodsy/folksy opening to the high-pitched boisterousness of Pee-wee’s theme song (a pseudonymous Cyndi Lauper channeling Betty Boop) which is accompanied by his hyper-kinetic movements and introductions to the (non-human) inhabitants of his playhouse. My favorite of the first season episode skits would undoubtedly be the one where Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne) teaches Pee-wee to square dance (cue rear projection of couples at a hoedown) and in return Pee-wee schools CC in how to “pogo” (the pair dawn punk wigs while a circle slam of fairly polite punkers screens behind them).
What I did note is that the second season intro is slightly less manic, through the use of longer shots, less frenetic movements and alternate angles on some of the actions. This attitude is perhaps mirrored in an episode where Pee-wee and his juvenile charges play-act a school day. Pee-wee leads them through the Pledge of Allegiance - which they recite in its entirety - without any untoward behavior. (I am not sure if I find that or the first season punk interlude more surprising.)
Reubens gave an interview to Time several years back in which he iterated that he wanted Pee-wee to be a role model for kids and for the show to “have a strong moral backbone . . . teach them about the Golden Rule and celebrate the differences in each other.” As I stated above, Big Top Pee-wee strives for that and succeeds to an extent (it deals with the grumpy old contingent with a climax straight out of Spielberg’s contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie) but Reubens also pushes his creation into an area I don’t feel he (Pee-wee) is capable of sustaining: lover.
The only apt comparison I can make is to Jughead from the Archie comics, another fellow so asexually realized that giving him a girlfriend on occasion felt, if not exactly wrong, then definitely not right. Reubens walked this line perfectly in the first film, as Pee-wee seems uncomfortable around Dottie’s affections and is nothing more than a platonic friend for the waitress with the abusive boyfriend.
In Big Top Pee-wee, Pee-wee’s fiancée Winnie seems not to realize the man-child she has on her hands. She is unperturbed by his lack of affection for her egg salad sandwich, his obsession with stroking her hair, or his repeated attempts to jump on top of her. When his affections drift towards the acrobat Gina who has just (literally) blown into town along with a complete circus, their romantic tension culminates in a completely serious 90 second kiss complete with swelling music, a camera crane back and a brief push forward at the end, all in an unbroken shot. It’s magnificent as filmmaking, if one can stand aside from the subject matter. I am not sure how this works for or if it might interest the juvenile audience (I think it does neither for adults) but it feels inherently creepy.
I am aware that The Pee-wee Herman Show had both midnight versions for an adult audience and matinees for kids and families and that Big Top Pee-wee may have been an attempt to bring a little more maturity to his character, to bridge those two worlds in a PG and not R-rated manner, but the romantic melodrama plays out in a fairly realistic fashion even as it completely upends convention: Winnie and Pee-wee remain broken up after she discovers he has cheated on her. By the tale’s end, he has won Gina’s heart, and both have taken up with the circus, with Winnie betrothed to Gina’s four older brothers. If this is meant as subversion it fails and there aren’t enough gags or goodwill at hand to paper over the emotional void.
There are a few highlights worth mentioning: the charming opening credits sequence; the sight of Pee-wee lip-syncing on stage to “The Girl on The Flying Trapeze” (actually sung by Reubens) while wearing a bedazzled version of his signature gray suit; the moments when a woefully miscast but endearing Kris Kristofferson flashes a smile from underneath his surface-level gruff. These are however, few and far between, and what remains is something to be puzzled over, more so than enjoyed.
1) My uneasiness with the Pee-wee dichotomy may as yet prove to be more fully answered in coming years: Reubens is at work on one, possibly two big-screen reprises: a Playhouse road trip, and a dark “perils of fame” tale. Guess which one Judd Apatow is producing?
2) I found the Christmas episode of Playhouse to be a more enticing brew of the surreal, the unfathomable, and a kindly spirit than other episodes or Big Top, and all wrapped up in a festive holiday bow. My personal highlights were Grace Jones’ indescribable rendering of The Little Drummer Boy, k.d. lang’s boisterous romp through Jingle Bell Rock, and Cher’s introduction of the secret word, seemingly filmed right around the moment of her “If I Could Turn Back Time” commercial comeback.
Next time: A logical progression - Paul Reubens has played or voiced nearly four dozen non-Pee-wee roles, including several other Chapter Twos, in the last 35 years. Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz’ follow-up to Happiness, is one of them. DVD Spine #576