“Going Bonkers” (Revisited): A Father-Son Conversation About Pee-Wee (Part One)

This conversation contains mild spoilers about The Pee-Wee Herman Show.

Photo of actor Paul Reubens as "Pee-Wee H...

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Henry 3:In the late 1980s, when Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was in its prime, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and you were in Kindergarten and we were each in our own ways huge fans of the series. My essay, “‘Going Bonkers’: Children, Play and Pee-Wee,” was one of my first academic publications, appearing in Camera Obscura in 1988, and subsequently reprinted in Constance Penley and Sharon Willis’s Male Trouble and in my own The Wow Climax.

In the process of writing the article, we hosted a Pee-Wee Party at our apartment and you played a central role in the research process, identifying who to invite and why, discussing with me what you observed about the experience. At the party, your kindergarten classmate watched and commented on episodes, made up stories, drew pictures, and play games around the Pee-Wee characters, though as you noted, they were often “going bonkers” and not totally focused on the series.

The essay is still taught today and I often encounter people who still imagine that you are in kindergarten, since you are such a vivid voice in the piece, forgetting that several decades have past since “that crazy show” (as one of your friends called it) was on the air. Paul Reubens, who played Pee-Wee Herman, is now 57 years old, after all, though still extraordinarily nimble. He’s bringing back The Pee-Wee Herman Show after all of this time, reconstructing something approximating the sets of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and giving live performances at Club Nokia here in Los Angeles.

Your mother, you, and I were lucky enough to get sixth row tickets to the opening performance of the show. I thought we could use this blog post to reflect on that experience and at the same time, reflect back on what Pee-Wee meant in our lives several decades ago.

I don’t know about you but I felt positively misty-eyed when Pee-Wee walked back on the stage in character for the first time in several decades, only to be met with an extended, impassioned standing ovation from the audience.

When I was young, I remember reading about a stage revival of The Howdy Dowdy Show, where Buffalo Bill and Clarabell took to the road to visit college campuses and reconnect with members of the Peanut Gallery who had grown up watching the series. I’m sure the experience must have been very similar for you and others of your generation.

Henry 4: 24 years have passed since our Pee-Wee Party.

This morning I read “Going Bonkers” for the first time as an adult. It was a great read, but sort of unsettling. The Henry in the story – the 5 year old me – feels like a stranger. There are some similarities. We’re both fans, and as storytellers we steal heavily from TV. We have playful sides, but we’re irked by classmates whose behavior seems age-inappropriate. We’re both close with our dads.

Really, though, I’m tempted to say I’ve never met this Henry kid. I don’t remember what it was like to be him.

I do remember a few details of the party. I know that I was excited to be the center of attention, and to enjoy the show with my friends from school. But I was worried they wouldn’t have seen Pee-Wee’s Playhouse before. I didn’t know some of them as well as I wanted to, and even at the age of 5 I was afraid they would think it was strange that I was so excited about the show.

I also remember that I insisted on inviting a pretty little girl from my kindergarten class named Stephanie. I had met her on the first day of school and proceeded to break down sobbing in front of her when my mom left. Awkward! I was intensely curious about her story and her crayon drawing. Some things never change.

I almost feel guilty telling you, my memories of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse were very vague before I saw the play. I couldn’t have told you that Conky was a robot or that Jambi The Genie was a disembodied head. The moment when the curtain lifted and everyone sang was something of a revelation for me because so many memories came rushing back at once.

Perhaps it speaks to the disconnected way kids watch television that the stage and puppets reminded me of the toy replicas I used to play with more so than the TV show originals. Ask me to describe the plot of even one episode of the series and I still couldn’t do it. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse has become, for me, a set of props, sets, catch phrases, funny voices and mannerisms, rather than a story. Judging from your article, it always was.

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is an ordered narrative I could quote scene for scene, and at moments line for line. I have watched that movie around once every other year since I was in kindergarten. But it’s that Pee-Wee I remember far better than the Pee-Wee from television.

None the less, like you, I was thrilled to see Pee Wee step on stage, and it was emotional to see him get such an exceptional standing ovation. I know what a long road this has been for him because it stretches back before most of my memories formed. To me, Paul Reubens’ appearance in Batman Returns had seemed like a long-awaited comeback. That was 18 years ago.

He really did look exactly the same with all that makeup on. His voices and body language seemed so displaced from time that they almost shouldn’t have been possible today. We were seeing the past come to life. But your experience was sure to have been different from mine because you saw Pee-Wee originally as a parent.

Henry 3: Pee-Wee’s Playhouse always had a double address. Pee-Wee told an interviewer at the time, “The most fun we had writing the show was when we could come up with stuff we knew was going to kill the five-year-olds.” yet it was also clear that he was fully aware of addressing a large adult population — some of whom were parents watching the show with their children, but many of whom were young single, often queer adults, watching the show for their own entertainment. How could it be otherwise? The character and some of his friends emerged through The Groundlings, one of the legendary improv comedy groups; The original Pee-Wee Herman Show, on stage and then as an HBO special, was intended as an adults-only spoof of traditional kiddie show. Only gradually was the project reconceived as an actual Saturday morning program for children, one cast mostly with veterans of experimental theater. The great underground comics creator Gary Panther was a key contributor to the set design. The music for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure came from Danny Elfman who at the time was crossing over from Oingo Boingo and the Negative Zone to become a more mainstream composer. And of course, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was directed by Tim Burton who was crossing over from doing animated shorts into live action feature.

At the time, most of the adult discussion centered around the “queerness” of Pee-Wee at a moment of increased gay visibility in American culture and on the eve of the gays in the military debate which would shape the early years of the Clinton administration. So, the show adults saw was radically different from the show that kids saw. Even so, before you can say there was nothing like it on television before, keep in mind it was also evoking memories, also very faint in my case, of earlier children shows with almost equally surreal hosts and characters — specifically those associated with Soupy Sales (who passed away last year) and Pinky Lee.

On a more personal level, I also have some difficulty recovering who I was when I watched the show. I was a young graduate student still trying to find my voice as a scholar, doing some of my first explicitly ethnographic research. I remember writing the essay sitting in a walk in closset in our apartment which we had converted into a home office. It was incredible narrow and there was still a coat bar hanging over my desk. The computer cord stretched down the hall and into the bathroom. On the day I was writing this essay, I wrote in a burst of inspiration for several hours without thinking to hit the save key. All of a sudden, young Henry came racing down the hall in desperation for the john, tripped over the cord, and I watched with sputtering rage as all of that writing — the better part of the essay — disappeared in a flash. That moment came to mind when Pee-Wee did an extended bit in the stage show centering around an out of date computer and the sputtering sounds it made when trying to go online. So, for me, too, there is something unnerving about seeing the Pee-Wee character, seemingly unchanged, a figure of eternal youth, which allows me to reflect on the changes in my own life and which embodies a new beginning at the same time.

Your point about remembering Pee-Wee as a series of fragmented impressions is a key one. Lynn Spigel and I did an essay on the Adam West Batman series which found something similar. When we interviewed people who had grown up watching the series, some 25-30 years earlier, they recalled isolated elements, mostly recurring details, from the show, but had difficulty reconstructing whole storylines. They were much better at connecting elements of the show to aspects of their own personal identity, using it to explain who they were, who they had become, and how they had gotten there, than they were at discussing the show as a series of episodic narratives.

I do think this is consistent with the distracted, interactive, ways that the children in our study watched the show, but it may also tell us something bigger about how our memories of popular culture work. I am finding myself thinking about how many recurring elements from the show Pee-Wee included in this performance — not simply reconnecting the character to popular memory but also the Playhouse world. After all, he’s talking about making a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse movie and not simply a Pee-Wee movie. And that may be why both of us felt flashes of recognition as we recovered things we once knew and had forgotten as we watched the show. To some degree, the producers are shrewdly reigniting smoldering memories, even as they are playing on our more generalized affection for the host’s persona and as they are tapping a pent up anger many felt that Pee-Wee was prematurely and unjustly removed from circulation. The new show seems very much aimed at adults who happened to be the same five year olds who Pee-Wee enjoyed entertaining two decades ago and for many of them, it is all about rediscovering a place which is at once faintly remembered and beloved. In a way, it is an experience of re-remembering things that are on the threshold of our consciousness and bringing it back to a more central place in the popular imagination.

Henry 4: Maybe you shouldn’t have put the computer cord in the bathroom. I’d trip over that now.

I do feel dreadful, though, and all the more impressed by your essay, knowing it was a repeat. There’s nothing worse than losing a work of perfect self-expression and then needing to mechanically repeat yourself. When I was in college I used to write these long, meticulous posts on a message board that would automatically log you off if you weren’t active within an hour. Then if you tried to hit the back button to reclaim your message you just got a blank form. There was nothing that topped off a frustrating day quite like losing one of those posts. I had some long walks home knowing I’d spent all evening without anyone even being able to enjoy my geeky insights.

I think as a five year old I was fairly unaware of the queerness in Pee-Wee. Rewatching some of my childhood favorites as an adult was very eye opening. The Ghostbusters swilled liquor, swore and had one night stands? Danny Zucko in Grease sings about female orgasms? And don’t even get me started on Roger and Jessica Rabbit. Where was I during this? ‘Going bonkers’ on the Hoppity Hop apparently.

I do remember thinking there was something amusing about the scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure where Pee-Wee offers Francis’ father a choice of gum – fruit or licorice. You could just tell from Pee-Wee’s tone of voice that fruit was a peculiar answer, though really, when was the last time you saw licorice gum? That’s why I’m convinced that kids must watch all movies the way I watch foreign movies. They know they won’t understand more than every other line, but they can still get the drift.

I was very struck during the new Pee Wee Herman Show by how the audience would laugh uproariously when Pee Wee did the old bits I remember but go quiet when he made jokes that seemed out of place. When he tells Chairy how glad he is he doesn’t have to deal with all that mushy girl stuff, she asks him how he avoids it and he holds up his left hand. The audience blanched and then, at the perfect moment, he explained. “Abstinence ring! Haha!” If I’d been five I would have vaguely wondered what an abstinence ring was and just enjoyed his laugh. Now, there was no doubt in my mind what he was talking about but it sort of took my breath away. For viewers who haven’t seen him since they were kids, those jokes ran the risk of being pop culture blasphemy in the middle of this sentimental journey. I actually don’t think the audience liked some of those jokes.

On the other hand, the jokes where a mute man in a giant bear costume plays charades to explain he’s got gas from eating chili were almost inexplicably hilarious to me. They relied on a five year old’s sense of humor. I’m telling you: Even though I can’t remember the plots of the old episodes, I still sense that I was watching the new play from a kid’s point of view as much as an adult’s.

It sort of points to the old philosophical question: Is perception reality? If most kids perceived the Pee-Wee Herman Show to be sarcastic, rebellious, gross, but basically clean, then wasn’t that show as real as the one about queerness that you saw?

(More To Come)

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