It seems impossible that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out 30 years ago. How could it be that old? How could I be that old?
The first time I saw Pee-wee Herman, he was on Letterman, and he brought a pair of giant underwear. He wrapped part of it around the back of his head, the rest around his butt, leaned over, and started moving back and forth. “Look,” he said, “A swing!”
I hadn’t yet seen his HBO special, the adult version of what would eventually become his Saturday morning show for kids. I just knew that this strange man-child made me laugh out loud with his giant underwear. He was childlike and subversive at the same time. I loved him, instantly.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the very best of all the Pee-wee stuff. I loved his show, and I loved his dirty HBO special. I loved his appearances on Letterman, and OMG, his Christmas special is hilarious! Guest stars included Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Cher, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers and Laurence Fishburne (who was a regular on the morning show). If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and find it, if only for the moment of revelation when we find out that Magic Screen’s cousin is Magic Johnson, who comes around for a sleigh ride.
I watched his movies, watched the show, and bought the toys. I had a party in college and someone swiped my talking Pee-wee Herman doll; that’s how popular he was at the time. I went to see his show on Broadway a few years ago, too, and loved it. I don’t wear it anymore, but I still have a pin—remember wearing pins?—of Pee-wee on his magnificent red bike.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure isn’t just a movie, though; it’s a work of art. I mean it. It was director Tim Burton’s very first feature film, so it’s bursting with color and whimsy, and has pockets of darkness, and surprises you at every turn. Even if you haven’t seen it since it came out, I bet you remember these eight scenes:
1. Pee-wee Getting Up in the Morning
After giggling while his bunny slippers sniff at a toy carrot, Pee-wee slides down a fireman’s pole, emerging fully dressed in his kitchen. “I want one of those!” my daughter called out the first time she saw it. So do I!
Then he cranks up his amazing, Rube Goldberg/Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque breakfast machine, which squeezes oranges, cracks and cooks eggs, makes toast, and flips pancakes. It also feeds the dog, all to the frenzied, perfect music of composer Danny Elfman (the man behind The Simpsons theme).
He stops in the bathroom to brush his teeth with an oversized toothbrush—”Mad Dog!” he yells as the foam spreads across his teeth—and to play with Scotch tape. (And yes, after I saw the movie, I had to try the Scotch-tape-on-face game too.)
Brushed and groomed, he sits down to his smiley face breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon, and pours Mr. T cereal all over it, saying, “I pity the fool who don’t eat my cereal!” For the record, we also had Mr. T cereal in our house. My mom had a weird crush on Mr. T, and we reaped the sugary benefits.
Who can forget Pee-wee buttering his toast with the giant knife, or eating Mr. T cereal with his oversized fork? The whole scene, from start to finish, is magical, something that only happens when you combine Tim Burton and Paul Reubens, and they become greater than the sum of their parts. It’s science, people.
2. Pee-wee’s Ride to the Bicycle Store
He does stunts on his bike that get progressively more ridiculous until both of his legs are up in the air. Eventually he goes flying (“ass over teakettle” as my husband likes to say) and lands in front of a group of preteen boys. “I meant to do that,” he says, gathering up his dignity. I say that every time I drop something.
3. The Terrifying Clown
I hate clowns. I’m terrified of them. But when Pee-wee pulled out 800 miles of chains to lock his bike around the giant clown, and then his bike got stolen, the clown got sinister as only a clown can, and I can never decide if it’s funny or terrifying. Must be both.
4. Large Marge
It was on a night, just like this one…
5. Pee-wee Proving That He’s in Texas
When he calls Dottie, she doesn’t believe that he’s in Texas. Pee-wee proves it by singing out, “The stars at night are big and bright,” and the passing crowd stops, claps in unison, and counters with “deep in the heart of Texas,” before going on about their business.
6. The Biker Bar
When the bikers are too rowdy, Pee-wee tries to shush them, “I’m TRYING to use THE PHONE!” he yells. The angry crowd—made up of a gang called the Satan’s Helpers—takes offense. He almost makes a getaway, then accidentally knocks over all of their motorcycles, and they drag him back in. He asks for a last request, then dazzles them with his high-heeled dance to the song “Tequila.” They give him a Harley vest, a motorcycle, and send him on his way.
7. The Pet Store
After leading a high-speed chase, Pee-wee sees a pet shop on fire and can’t help himself; he rescues (with a monkey helper) every single animal, one by one…even the snakes.
8. The Pee-wee Movie Within the Pee-wee Movie
With ’80s staples James Brolin as Pee-wee and Morgan Fairchild as Dottie, and Pee-wee himself as a baritone-voiced bellboy, you can’t go wrong.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is the first movie I ever bought on DVD, and now my kids love it too. I wasn’t a kid when I saw it for the first time, because I was 19 when it came out, but it’s a great movie on so many levels that it doesn’t matter. It’s on Netflix, so while you wait for the NEW Pee-wee movie, produced by Judd Apatow, you can watch it all over again, as many times as you want. GO!
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