…But What Am I?

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Pee-wee's Big Adventure | art by Tom Ralston
illustration by Tom Ralston

It’s okay to be scared. Even 37 years later, I feel intimately familiar with every fiber of the sand-colored carpet in my family’s living room in Phoenix, the suburban Sonoran Desert spot where I sat to soak in repeated streams of Betamax movies. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of my million-times-over movies, and when I was five, Large Marge (Alice Nunn) filled me with unholy terror. Every time her freight truck barreled down the dark, desert road; every time Danny Elfman’s score skulked in ominous tones; and every time Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) slowly turned, shrank, and blanched to the throes of Large Marge’s tale of “the worst accident I ever seen,” I curled up into a tiny ball on the ground and tried to disappear. When the moment of absurd denouement struck (“It looked like this!”), my little body was impossibly squished to one-third of its size, and my face was firmly planted in the sand-colored carpet.

It’s okay to be scared. I remember that as a teen, while contemplating the odd contours of my own queerness, which would not become comfortable for years to come, I saw full swaths of my family (who purportedly cared) actively shun my older, out cousin. Sometimes you crawl into a ball to protect yourself. While I vocally stood up for my cousin, I certainly internalized a bit of intimidation. As a queer icon who showed it was okay not to fit in, Pee-wee Herman proved useful as I built independence and searched for partners and allies. 

And where to find them—the Alamo? Well, not exactly. The road offers uneven promise, and arguably features in all three Pee-wee Herman films: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Pee-wee goes out on the road to find his stolen bike), Big Top Pee-wee (the road brings carnivalesque chaos to Pee-wee’s psychedelic farm), and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (in an amply-appreciated yet criminally-underrated entry into the canon, Pee-wee strikes out on the road again, this time from Fairville to attend Joe Manganiello’s birthday party in New York City). In each of these films, the road’s odd promise means that to find our stolen bike, to rescue a marooned circus, or to celebrate our cherished friend, we need to risk sitting in Large Marge’s doomed cab, getting slapped by the girl on the flying trapeze, or having to escape Grizzly Bear Daniels’s creepy cave. Maybe you’ll hitch a ride with an escaped convict. Maybe you’ll break up with your fiancé. Maybe you’ll get kidnapped by a gang of bank robbers, and tied to a chair in a desert motel as they have a pillow fight with stripper-cops. You will incur risk, but is it ultimately worth it?

Arguably, the Large Marge scene is a perfect distillation of the singular talents of the first film’s three visionaries, then just industry beginners (or even virtual unknowns): Paul Reubens, Tim Burton, and Danny Elfman. Reubens’s performance as Pee-wee Herman is proof of his genius of human expression. His face and body are absurdly apt ciphers, dazzling with vaudevillian genius that only the most brilliant clowns can achieve. Second, the direction in Big Adventure alone made me a lifelong Tim Burton apologist, and the Large Marge scene is a great foreshadowing of his effectiveness with gothic cinema, as well as his virtuosity at handling comedy and horror. Finally, every power couple needs a third, and Danny Elfman masterfully matches Reubens’s and Burton’s antics, pacing, and tone, letting dread bloom in the score as Large Marge’s tale gains steam.

The first time I saw the scene, I was unprepared. Perhaps it was even a little funny? But as I grew to expect the expected, a complete terror overtook me from the inside out, which is strange for an otherwise hilarious movie. I think this fear is not only understandable, but it relates to how we internalize shock and allow absurdities to overwhelm our senses, as well. It isn’t until much later that we can look back, laugh, and even scoff at the ridiculous thing that seemed so horrific. In the opening of her critical and cultural study of laughter, Animal Joy, Nuar Alsadir references René Girard, and suggests that a clown demonstrates that laughter is perhaps “the only socially acceptable form of catharsis.”  

As a kid, I wanted to be Pee-wee, and would often mimic his mannerisms. Alsadir references neurobiologist Vittorio Gallese, who describes this type of mirroring as “embodied simulation”:

Embodied simulation allows us to experience empathy concretely, body to body. Poetry also operates by this kind of intuition, leading us to feel moved by experiences that are not our own. Spontaneous outbursts of laughter are, in that sense, poetic.

In my quest to inhabit a Pee-wee persona, I aped his laugh and co-opted his moves in any and every setting. At dinner with grandparents? HAHA! Waiting in line with mom at the grocery store? HAHA! Riding with dad on his motorcycle? AAAAAAAAAAH!!! My shabby roller skates were perfect for launching up onto my toes and doing the Tequila “breakdance” in the Phoenix cul-de-sac in front of my childhood home, deep into the evening when the desert sun thankfully broke and set. Even when we picked up and moved to Virginia when I was seven, I exercised weirdness as a calling card. In fact, for better or for worse, clowning has been a go-to social move for me throughout my entire life. I’ve learned to tone it down—a lot—but still have a way to go. 

Alsadir describes the effectiveness of a clown insofar as he can provoke. In this way, the clown is a little like a psychoanalyst. That is, a clown’s risky provocations often get the audience to drop their defenses—or “what is being used as a cover”—before hitting on what is being covered up and why. We often perform in public and try to escape detection: “The more our concerns surround survival, in fact, the more we suppress our primal instincts and try to blend in.”

One thing to be ever grateful for is the opportunity to find someone who sees you, appreciates you, and accepts every angle of your peculiar, contorted self. The meet-cute for my partner and I was 20 years ago at a community circus in Brooklyn. As we journey down the road together, sure, we argue and bicker, perhaps even better than Francis and PW do on the corner in Big Adventure (“I don’t make monkeys, I just train ‘em!”). But no matter our rupture, we can always trust our mutual belief in the necessity to let people be their full and authentic selves. Unsurprisingly, we bonded over our shared love of Pee-wee Herman. Cue golden memories: as adults, and before we had kids, my partner and I dressed up as a cat and a dog for Halloween, took the subway downtown, and wept a little as the curtain went up and the lights illuminated Pee-wee’s Playhouse for his 2010 Broadway show. For a moment, the playhouse was real! We were both surprised by our visceral reaction to something so seemingly silly.

Imagine my delight when my partner and I moved to Southern California, and I learned that the world of Pee-wee was, in fact, real—at least as far as the peripheral limits of Hollywood can approach. As Baudrillard suggests, Disneyland exists as a site of fantasy to make the rest of Southern California appear genuine. Talk about dangerous nostalgia! Real or not, it is hard to disguise my affection for the Cabazon Dinosaurs and their modest neighbor, the “EAT” sign on the way to and from Joshua Tree. Every time I drive on the 10 with my family, I look forward to passing the site where Pee-wee strides in and naively announces, “Large Marge sent me,” shocking the entire diner. 

More importantly, this is also the site where Pee-wee makes an instant connection with Simone (Diane Salinger), a wistful waitress at the diner who dreams of moving to Paris, but is saddled with rage-addled Andy (Jon Harris), her boyfriend who flunked French in high school and thinks that “everything over there is set up to make guys like him look dumb.” Nothing passes between Pee-wee and Simone besides vulnerability and dreams, but thanks to classic playhouse innuendo (“I’ve been waiting for somebody to put it to me like that for so long”), Andy believes that their tryst in the mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is illicit, and goes ballistic. Simone and Andy epitomize extremes on the spectrum of the promise and potential peril of experiences out on the road. You might have a chance encounter with an instant friend, a kindred spirit, while her jealous boyfriend wants to bash your skull in with a plaster casting of a dinosaur bone, and will chase you from the sands of Cabazon to the streets of San Antonio, straight into a rodeo and onto the back of a bucking bull.

While life on the road may be fraught, the comforts of home inevitably take a dull or even dangerous turn. For Pee-wee, the catalyst to the road is always loss. In Big Adventure, the theft of his precious bike needs little explanation. Boy loses bike, boy freaks out, boy goes on desperate quest to find lost bike, and through myriad twists and turns, boy learns a little humility and miraculously finds his bike…pretty much back at home. The exact location of Pee-wee’s funhouse home isn’t completely explained in the film, but the actual location of the house in Pasadena is really just a stone’s throw from the raucous finale on the Warner Bros. lot. I remember the thrill of finding the actual house when I was out on a local errand. While I searched for my destination, a drab bank, I noticed the landmark Pee-wee Herman’s house on Google Maps (god bless ‘em), and stopped by for a side quest.

As a kid, that house was heaven. Mountains of toys, a flood of kitschy figures animated into the world’s greatest breakfast-making machine, fish in the bathroom window, and a fire pole stretching from the bedroom to the ground floor that automatically gets you dressed—what else could one want? It’s funny, even though Mark Holton plays Francis Buxton as a rich asshole, Pee-wee is kind of dripping in it, too. Furthermore, this outlandish décor is also rooted in Paul Reubens’s reality. Katey Sagal (of Married… with Children fame) describes how Reubens’s college dorm room was Pee-wee’s Playhouse, unlike any other undergrad’s. The glow of tchotchkes provides a fantastic nest. However, excess and comfort have their limits and may not stave off horror vacui. In light of the theft of his bike at a local strip mall (actually the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica), Pee-wee’s world loses all shades of meaning, and he doom-spirals into despair.

It’s okay to be angry. Complicated person, Pee-wee Herman is a five-year-old in a grown-up’s body. His meticulous gray suit, red bowtie, and impeccable white loafers suggest scrawny-yet-sophisticated composure, a composure that’s made only to be broken. One of his winningest aspects is his ability to inhabit authentically ugly emotions and own them in an endearing way. He can be snotty. He can be selfish. He can be petty AF. And he can be angry. Very angry. Pee-wee gets angriest in the face of loss. When Pee-wee’s precious bike—the “best bike in the whole world”—is stolen, he flails desperately, seeks answers in desperate places, and completely loses it, culminating in the hilariously cringe community meeting in Pee-wee’s basement (“IS THERE SOMETHING YOU CAN SHARE WITH THE REST OF US, AMAZING LARRY?!?”). 

While friendship saves the day in Big Holiday, Pee-wee is likewise sent into another doom-spiral due to loss. In this movie, Pee-wee works as a short-order cook at the diner in Fairville, the ultra-quaint everytown where he’s lived his entire life in idyllic splendor. But, as we find out, his stability is frangible as glass. One fateful day, Pee-wee’s entire band, the Renegades, come into the diner in matching band outfits, all to tell him at the same time that they each have new commitments (“Nights!”). The band is breaking up. Hell hath no fury like a flutophonist scorned, and Pee-wee is sent into an absolute rage. Shattered, he grits his teeth, struggles, and snaps his flutophone into shards.

If you have spent more than five minutes with me and have expressed even the slightest awareness that music exists, I have probably asked you to be in my band. Every detail of the Renegades’ breakup scene is pitch-perfect, from the squeaky-clean casting (including Josh Meyers, who, besides being Seth Meyers’s little brother, was also hunky Fireman Phineas in The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway) to the tragically beautiful, black-and-white glossy band photo that Pee-wee rips up in a rage and then burns on the stove. I laugh while my heart aches every time I watch it, as the burner consumes the image of the giddy little flutophonist surrounded by preppy, hot rockers. Ah, the story of my life. The pandemic didn’t do anyone any favors, and the loss of regular jam sessions with friends hit me hard. We need social outlets in order to let the noise of everyday life exist only as noise, otherwise it becomes our oxygen.

The road offers uncertainty while it also offers a breath of fresh air. Alsadir writes, “The road to growth, however, often passes through the towns of awkwardness and shame.” Pee-wee’s road trips are essentially parades of awkward and shame-drenched encounters, whether in the biker bar that is the private club of Satan’s Helpers, or the world’s longest and most gratuitous kissing scene, or a near-miss with Farmer Brown and his overly eager-to-wed daughters. Sometimes the motivating image of a friend can help you navigate these rough patches as you seek to maneuver out of a rut and exceed yourself. At Pee-wee’s lowest point in Fairville, Joe Manganiello strides into the diner, hilariously as “Joe Manganiello,” and the two strike up an immediate friendship, discovering a hint of romance. Some people took issue with Paul Reubens not fully “going there” in Big Holiday and playing coy with gay overtones. Personally, I feel like this narrative strategy is authentically queer in that it exists in a middle space, neither here nor there, somewhere along a spectrum of possibility. I caught a lot of flak from gay friends for not presenting as gay enough in college, and worked with a therapist to find comfort in the fact that desire runs along a wide spectrum, and flux is not only natural but also okay.

It’s okay to exist somewhere in between. Sometimes, in our most liminal states, we discover truths about ourselves that may be too difficult to face head-on. Alsadir writes

As in dream analysis or writing poetry, following a trail of associations often leads to an unexpected, previously unknown revelation. But inhibitions need to be lifted for that to be possible.

Fittingly, Pee-wee begins each movie with a dream sequence. In Big Adventure, he wins Le Tour de France in a landscape that looks suspiciously like Calabasas, California. While Danny Elfman’s score moves from a dreamy air to triumphant heralding, professional cyclists pump and churn and Pee-wee takes the lead, then cruises to victory on his cherished red bike. As confetti falls from the sky, he’s lifted from the finish line and carried across a field to the dais, as he expectantly awaits a crown to be placed upon his head from an uber-glamorous Miss France. The crown never lands on his brow. Instead, just at the point of connection, his alarm begins ringing and everyone scampers away from the field as he’s left alone, still expectantly waiting for the crown.

In Big Top Pee-wee, he dreams that he is a marquee idol, singing a song to a throng of adoring female fans about “the girl on the flying trapeze.” His high tenor is pitched down to a sultry baritone and his trademark gray suit sparkles as if a mirrorball. He gesticulates in an exaggerated, macho, Sinatra-esque swagger. To sneak out of the Majestic Theatre, he leaves the stage door dressed as Abraham Lincoln. As Pee-wee in disguise signs autographs as Mr. Lincoln, a fan gushes, “Thank you so much, I’m such a big fan of yours, Abraham.” “Thank you,” Pee-wee intones in an even deeper baritone. His fake beard falls off and all the fans freak out. It’s utter Pee-wee mania as Pee-wee hastily doffs his Lincoln disguise and begins to run from his screaming fans. Just as he’s backed into a corner, he shoots his hands up into the air and takes off, flying!

In Big Holiday, Pee-wee sits in a wooded area facing the stumpy Yul, an alien friend—a mutant ET with three sets of nostrils and a raspy, high-pitched voice. Lights from an approaching UFO overhead swirl gently as they share a teary goodbye.

Pee-wee: I’ve loved these last two weeks.
Yul: I wish I didn’t have to go.
Pee-wee: Me, too.
Yul: Come with me, back to my planet. Meet my family and friends. Live with me.
Pee-wee: I can’t. I need to stay here with the people of Earth.
Yul: I’m gonna miss my new best friend. I’ll never forget you, Pee-wee.
Pee-wee: I’ll always remember you, too, Yul.

They then put matching friendship bracelets that Pee-wee made on each other’s wrists. As they wish each other “Arrivederci,” the swirling UFO lights intensify, and Yul is lifted off of the ground in a column of smoke. As he floats higher and higher, and the melodramatic Mark Mothersbaugh score swells, Pee-wee laments, “I want to go, but I can’t leave home. I can’t leave home…”

Whether lost in the pregnant pause of a phantom victory, swamped by the rush of bizarre sex appeal, or struggling with the desire to follow a new best friend but kept back by the ironclad claims of home, Pee-wee understands that dreams are the basis for strange journeys. We need a clown to provoke us into dropping our defenses and join the uninhibited pull of raw laughter. Alsadir writes:

Instead of using guts and imagination to keep the erotic power of the yes alive inside themselves, many store it in a killing jar, then pin and frame behind glass what would not otherwise have lent itself to becoming a classifiable specimen attached to categorizable meaning. 

The best we may hope for as we laugh at fear, nurture “yes,” exceed ourselves, and venture down the road is to find a good friend. Here’s to all of my misfits, renegades, loners, and rebels as you stare down fixed expectations and scoff, “I know you are, but what am I?”