PRINT Summer 1987


Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.
—Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”

“Mr. Rockford, are you a connoisseur of art?”
“I had a painted turtle when I was a kid.”
The Rockford Files

Camp is first of all a second childhood.
—Philip Core, Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth

PEE-WEE HERMAN IS A BEACON, incandescent, illuminating. He’s a flaming star—one very, very intense thing. Pee-wee Herman casts a tall shadow for a guy named Pee-wee. He’s a movie star and a TV star. His audience is “children of all ages.” He’s the first real children’s star to emerge in many years, and then he’s the first big children’s star to cross over into the adult arena. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, his show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, is the only nonanimated children’s show on television on Saturday morning. It’s a very special show. CBS has been talking about showing Peewee in a late time slot in addition to the early slot for those Pee-wee fans unable to rise by ten on Saturday morning. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is one of those rare entertainments that is not so much a kids’ show as a Platonic kid’s show—a show about the idea of being a kid.

Pee-wee Herman, the character created and performed by Paul Reubens, began as a sketch in an improvisational theater group. He went on to emcee punk-rock shows in California, to become a one-man theatrical show, an HBO special, then a feature film (produced by, written by, and starring. . . ), now a weekly network series costing $325,000 per episode. Pee-wee could be an industry (toys, clothing, books, games, theme parks) except that Pee-wee Herman has refrained from advertising anything (except L.A. Eyeworks: “A face is like a work of art. It deserves a great frame”) or merchandising himself. So far.

Pee-wee is supposed to be the name of a little guy, although Pee Wee Reese hit 16 home runs for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, and Pee-wee Herman, the child star, is nearly six feet tall. Pee-wee is small only in that he is a child in the fashion sense of the word, in the dramaturgical sense of the word, and in the political and philosophical sense of the word. Pee-wee has adopted youth as an avocation. And in doing so he has become a great symbol of America, where everyone attempts to be younger than they are, and of his generation as it careens toward social-security bankruptcy in blue jeans. Pee-wee puts the boom in “baby boom.”

Pee-wee comes from a planet where starlet is bigger than star, this planet. The dictionary defines “peewee” as “any relatively or unusually small person or thing.” It also means small in the sense of “concentrated.” It may be a “whimsical formation on wee,” which comes from the middle English “we,” a small amount. It could have something to do with a bird called a pewee or a “small olive-brown North American woodland bird of the genus Contopus,” so named because of its cry: “pee wee!” But let’s not forget that pee is pee and peewee also means a little piss. Pee-wee is a little pisser. He is also peewee in the sense that the big guy is often named Tiny. Because Pee-wee is, in the box-office sense and more, a monster.

Paul Reubens, 34, is not exactly Pee-wee; he incarnates Pee-wee. But he is like Pee-wee. Paul means little, peewee, in Latin. Reubens means understanding. Pee-wee Herman means little warrior.


In his cable-TV special, which introduced him to a national audience, Pee-wee described himself as “the luckiest boy in the world.” What makes Peewee the luckiest boy in the world, among other things, is eternal youth. Pee-wee Herman is the new, improved Peter Pan.

Where Peter Pan was ultimately a failure, Peewee Herman is a success at not growing up. Peter Pan’s logistically impossible taunt was “I won’t grow up,” but Pee-wee’s tactic is “I am grown-up,” a grown-up child. He is the dream child of every parent: well behaved, safety conscious, able to entertain himself (and other kids) endlessly—the expert child.

Pee-wee is the best at what he does. He’s the best person at being a kid that ever was a kid. And he has what every kid wants—including his own playhouse, with an endless array of fascinating toys and playmates, and best of all: no parents. Pee-wee seems to have sprung into life (from Dad’s forehead maybe) fully formed, presumably fully dressed in a tight gray suit and bow tie.

Pee-wee exploits youth for its immunity. The small child has the freedom to speak his mind. And Pee-wee exploits his “diplomatic immunity” to the hilt. Smiling and observing the trappings of politeness, he can say anything. Pee-wee constantly works to different plateaux of meaning, conspiratorially coding his words for literal politeness (the adult world), ironic double entendre (the juvenile world), and Zen transcendence (the enlightened world). “Hold it up to your ear,” says Captain Carl to Pee-wee. “Not your rear!”

Pee-wee is a scientific catalogue of humor. He knows how many different kinds of laughs there are and he does most of them. There is ha-ha. Short equal bursts implying a personal triumph as engineer of a feat or a joke. There is ha-HA. The iambic laugh, signifying perception of the absurd, the existential sign of appreciation. There is ha-ha-HA, the anapestic laugh. There is HA-ha-ha. The crazed, on-a-roll, dactylic laugh, the introduction to frenzy. There is HA-HA, the spondaic laugh, a forced, crowing laugh signifying adversity engaged.

He is an athlete of humor. Like Curly of the Three Stooges. Pee-wee has perfected the chuckle and the roar and the giggle and the snicker, and he knows what prances, twists, and dips of the body mean. He knows the gymnastics of the titter, the smirk, and the guffaw, and he transmits these gestures to a young and sometimes influential cult. Pee-wee creates a Kabuki of the Kooky, refining every mental reaction into a perfect gesture until his mind becomes visible. He is the perfect silent actor. But he is also the perfect performer of nonliteral language.

Pee-wee, like the great stars of MGM, knows his good side. In this case both sides: Pee-wee uses them more than the front. He specializes in sidelong glances and conspiratorial lateral approaches.


Camp is an art without artists.
—Philip Core, Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth

Pee-wee opened his first Playhouse episode as a show in progress, in medias res. “What should we do now? I know! Let’s look at my toys.” He then introduced his multileveled motorized toy shelf and its collection of delightfully chimerical toys—a quadruped on casters with a death’s-head, a cherub head with an animal body and B-52 wings, something like a Jetsons version of the beast of Revelations with all those arms and eyes. “I love my toys!” declared Pee-wee after modestly showing off his treasures. “But I’m not going to marry them!” he giggled.

He is the ultimate collector of toys and tchatchkes and “bad taste” objets d’art. (As is, apparently, Paul Reubens.) Pee-wee is into art overkill. Everything in his life is the most artistic one available. He is the shopper/collector as artist. It’s not a “collection of art.” The collection is the art.

Pee-wee has eliminated work from his life by transforming it into play. In his first film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), he jumps for joy at finding himself awake in the morning because it means a whole day of play. The play, not work, is the thing. In order to transform work into play one must transform tools into toys, and that’s what Pee-wee has done.

In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure making breakfast has been automated, with toys serving as the machinery. A pterodactyl skeleton drops slices of bread into the toaster. An Abraham Lincoln dummy flips the pancakes. Like Rube Goldberg or Francis Picabia, Pee-wee sees in automation more entertainment than utility.

Pee-wee collects objects that tread the fine line between trash and treasure. Nearly every object around him at home in his movie is an object that at one time or other would have been an endangered species. These are the pipe dreams of anonymous wackos, the rococo mistakes of forgotten toymakers, outdated visions of the future and canceled utopias. Pee-wee, the eternal optimist, still sees the idealism invested in the object and, he believes, recharging the object with magic.

Further, Pee-wee’s toys are enhanced by one another. A great toy is even greater in a great arsenal of toys. On television, Pee-wee’s playhouse and most of the toys in it are brand-new pipe dreams and extravagant mistakes designed by an exceptional group of artists collected by Paul Reubens. Gary Panter is the Pee-wee’s Playhouse production designer. A wild painter and cartoonist, he heads the team that created the radical atmosphere of the playhouse. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is written by George McGrath (who plays Globey and Cowntess), John Paragon (Jambi and Pterri), Paul Reubens (Pee-wee), Max Robert, and Michael Varhol (the photographer in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). The music is by Mark Mothersbaugh, Mitch Froom, Todd Rundgren, and Danny Elfman.

The playhouse is the Sistine Chapel of nurseries.


Pee-wee’s world is one of total anthropomorphism. Everything is endowed with life and then loaded with personality—the chairs, the windows, the kite flying outside, the flowers in the window box, the globe that resembles Nikita Khrushchev and seems to have a Russian accent. Pee-wee has extinct pets, like Pterri, the miniature talking pterodactyl. And the dinosaur family that live in the mouse hole. Everything is enchanted, everything runs on magic.

Before each show really gets rolling Pee-wee reveals the secret word. The secret word is selected by computer—Conky, a robot computer that’s made out of things like a ghetto-blaster and old-fashioned camera flash attachments. Conky stutters a bit, “scratching” his words like a rap dj or like Max Headroom, the computerized TV star: “R-r-r-ready to assist you P-p-pee-wee!” Then Conky spits out the tape with the secret word on it, and as Peewee reads it, the word is flashed on the screen.

“Whenever you hear the secret word today, scream real loud,” says Pee-wee. Not whenever you hear the secret word during the show, but all day. Are mom and dad still sleeping? They won’t be after the secret word is spoken a few times and every kid in the house screams real loud. “Wake up!” is a big part of the message of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The only solution is for mom and dad to join in and scream along all day.

The secret word is part of the lodge aspect of the playhouse. Pee-wee’s Playhouse is a secret society. To be in it you just have to want to be. Pee-wee is for the initiated, although initiation in the playhouse is a matter of degrees and the more you watch the more you get.

Pee-wee’s most magical assistant is Jambi, a very glamorous genie—a bit of a drag queen maybe, but a hearty, amiable, and witty fellow. Jambi lives in a box that’s sort of like a ’50s futurist console TV painted in a rather John Torreano manner. He is a very droll genie—sort of an anchor genie, a talking turbaned head in the box.

Jambi is Pee-wee’s best foil, but his main function is to grant one wish to Pee-wee per show. When Pee-wee comes up with a wish, often a wish that will help one of his friends, Jambi grants it by asking him and the clubhouse gang and the gang at home to say the magic words together. The magic words are very nice: very jazz age, scatlike words. Sometimes Jambi changes the magic-word procedure around a little bit. Once after a couple of chants of “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho!” he said, “Okay, now just the single parents in the audience.” Jambi, the genie in the cabinet, is the first famous person of that name since Jambi the servant and heir of Arthur Rimbaud.

Another of Pee-wee’s magical allies is the Magic Screen, which has a face and a voice and a personality and is sort of a drawing tool combined with an interdimensional vehicle. Each week Pee-wee enters the Magic Screen and tosses up a pattern of dots, which when connected (as we sing “Connect the dots. . . la, la, la, la. . . connect the dots. . . la, la, la, la”) create an object, like an automobile or a flying saucer. Usually Pee-wee jumps into the object and takes off. It’s one of the most primitive schticks on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s probably the part of the show that’s liked most by kids under six and it probably has the most-cosmic television metaphors of any part of the show. It’s the magic of their surrogate human entering the world of animation.

In the animated opening sequence of the show, where we get an exterior shot of the playhouse, we see that part of it consists of a large sphinx Peewee. The playhouse is literally inside Pee-wee’s head. Sphinxes guard mysteries and Pee-wee’s world is on the edge of another dimension. Art. Pee-wee crosses over any time he wants. He becomes art. He says “I was being creative. I used my imagination. You can do this at home too.”

Every episode of the show is a lodge meeting. The initiated look forward to seeing the same things again and again. Rituals like “let’s see how big the foil hall is this week.” And every week the kids see the light that comes from looking on the light side.


It seems to be true that you either love Pee-wee or you pretty much hate him. Pee-wee is a line of which you’re on a side. Comedians’ characters are purer than the rest of us, their intentions are clear, transparent, so that their entire consciousness becomes visible. That’s the sanctity of Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Curly, Fine and Pee-wee.

Pee-wee is a visionary who makes his visions totally visible. He is not a martyr, he’s a conqueror. But he conquers with love and fun. His lovability has a lot to do with his extreme innocence. He is even more innocent than the average child because he has chosen his childhood, elected his innocence, rejected the corrupt world of the adult that he fully understands but refuses to acknowledge lest he blow his cover.

In one Playhouse episode Pee-wee and Miss Yvonne, his voluptuous sometimes playmate, do a beauty makeover on Mrs. Steve, the very large and snoopy neighbor woman. When the makeup job leaves Mrs. Steve the same bloated eyesore she was before, Miss Yvonne comments, “Now she feels beautiful and when you feel beautiful you are beautiful.” And that’s what Pee-wee’s Playhouse is all about—the transformative power of feeling beautiful, feeling creative, feeling enthusiasm. Peewee’s is not a lust for life; it’s a crush on life.

Pee-wee does have his bad side, his bad self, but this is Pee-wee the Herman, the Warrior who battles for his right to be Pee-wee. Pee-wee is only bad to the bad—and then only as a last resort. There are two bad guys around the playhouse. The only character Pee-wee doesn’t like is the Door-to-Door Salesman. “Salesmen!” huffs Pee-wee after slamming the door in his face. There’s also the bad kid, Randy, a cynical redheaded marionette who looks like what Howdy Doody would look like if he turned out to be a bully. Randy’s job is to try to scare people around the playhouse, to try to convince Pee-wee to make crank telephone calls, and generally to behave with no manners. His badness gives Pee-wee lots of opportunities to teach the kids about good manners and optimism. Still, in Pee-wee’s world everyone, including Randy, is basically good and everyone can be redeemed, except maybe salesmen.

Why would someone hate Pee-wee? It’s hard to understand because he is so generous, so lighthearted. It may have something to do with him making their skin crawl.


In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Pee-wee sells his life story to Hollywood, which casts the ornately macho James Brolin in the role of “P. W. Herman.” The “real” Pee-wee is too much for Hollywood. Not just because he is nerdy and antimacho, but because he is all that and cool, triumphant, frantically serene and illuminatingly witty. His character is a little bit, shall we say, postsexual.

Pee-wee is not straight, but he isn’t gay either. He is a sexual anchorite. He is perhaps the rebel sex symbol of the future: total joyous sublimation. Pee-wee is the opposite pole of androgyny from Prince.

Pee-wee knows that with sex comes a certain responsibility. For one thing it creates children. And once you beget children you forfeit the privileges of childhood. Pee-wee seems to choose chastity in favor of fun.

Pee-wee’s sexuality is play sexuality. He’s an outrageous flirt but when flirtation ends the game is over. When Miss Yvonne asks Cowboy Curtis out on a date, Cowntess, the refined matronly cow, asks Pee-wee to pretend he’s Miss Yvonne so that Cowboy Curtis can practice being with a girl. “No way I’m going to be a girl,” protests Pee-wee. But to help his friend he gives in and goes along with it. Cowboy Curtis is very smooth, and he charms Pee-wee as he has Miss Yvonne, but then it comes time for the goodnight kiss. “Please,” coos Pee-wee, “we’ve had such a lovely time. Let’s not spoil it.” But Cowboy Curtis keeps leaning. “Okay, that’s it,” declares Pee-wee. “Game’s over.”

In his HBO special Pee-wee wears mirrors on his shoes so he can see up girls’ dresses and uses hypnotism to get a pretty girl to take off her dress, but then when she has it off Pee-wee is embarrassed and doesn’t know what to do.

In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure Pee-wee is pursued by several females, and, a bit obliquely, by an escaped male convict. Apparently he manages to elude them all, although we’re not quite sure what happened with the convict. Pee-wee is firmly resistant to seduction. When the girl who runs the bicycle shop keeps trying to get Pee-wee to take her to a drive-in movie, he uses different ruses to get out of it, including simulating heavy static on the telephone.

On Pee-wee’s Playhouse there are a number of “sexy” characters. There’s Miss Yvonne, the bee-hived and bodacious bombshell who alternately falls for Pee-wee, Captain Carl the salty sea captain, Cowboy Curtis the handsome cowboy, and Tito the muscular lifeguard of the playhouse pool. Pee-wee himself seems to fall for all of these characters alternately, but once things get to a level approaching innuendo he changes the subject.

“You know there’s a real twisted side to you Peewee.”

“Gee, thanks Captain Carl!”


Pee-wee has reinvented “the miracle of television.” He’s conjured up a different world—a crossroads world. Here everything is alive. Everything has meaning and personality. And he’s put this world right out there in the world for everyone to see. Pee-wee is the only man on TV who screams “I’m in your living room.” And like magic he is in your living room and you’re in his.


Glenn O’Brien writes a monthly column in Artforum, on advertising, and a monthly column in Interview, Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.”