"Eccentric manchild" is how IMDb describes Pee-wee Herman, the puer aeternus alter-ego created by comic Paul Reubens in the early 1980's. Pee-wee was originally written for adults. Reubens was a struggling comic and he found his calling with Pee-wee, even giving interviews as the character throughout his most popular years. The Hollywood Walk of Fame has a star for Pee-wee Herman, not Paul Reubens.
I love David Letterman's assessment of Pee-wee: "What makes me laugh ... is that it has the external structure of a bratty little precocious kid, but you know it's being controlled by the incubus – the manifestation of evil itself." The dark side of Pee-wee is important.
It's the force behind what makes the character so funny and it's why Tim Burton was such an inspired choice to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure in 1985. It was his first feature, but the director already had a genre-bending style, and he turned Pee-wee's search for his stolen bicycle into a darkly comedic revenge quest that allowed the character to revel in obsession.
It's ironic then that Big Adventure Pee-wee was supposed to be toned down to appeal to children (Pee-wee's Playhouse would debut the following year). But that it did, appealing to all family members and becoming one of the top 20 movies at the box office in 1985. Let's celebrate the 30 year anniversary of the movie with 20 things you never knew about about Pee-wee's Big Adventure:
1. Thanks to the success of HBO's The Pee-wee Herman Show, Reubens was asked to write a movie script for Warner Brothers featuring his man-child character. He originally thought of his favorite film, Pollyanna, and wanted to do a remake. But, while he was writing the script, he noticed everyone on the Warner lot riding bicycles. He got his own and quit the Pollyanna remake to start a new script
2. The screenplay is inspired by the 1948 Vittorio De Sica classic, Bicycle Thieves, which follows a man's search for his stolen bike, which is his livelihood.
4. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was written by Reubens, Michael Varhol, and Phil Hartman, Reubens' good friend and Groundlings castmate. Hartman is also credited with helping to create Pee-wee himself, when he and Reubens worked at the Los Angeles-based sketch comedy troupe. Hartman would find fame on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and NewsRadio, among many others, before his early death at the hands of his wife at age 49.
5. Reubens and the Big Adventure producers selected director Tim Burton based on his short films Vincent and Frankenweenie. And Burton was a Pee-wee Herman Show fan, and felt connected to the character's world.
6. Like Back to the Future the same year, Pee-wee's Big Adventure was an early influence on today's films, many of which knowingly reference pop culture. Pee-wee features cameos from Milton Berle and Twisted Sister. And it ends with a fantastic Hollywood remake of the events we've just seen. James Brolin is Pee-wee (PW, actually) and Morgan Fairchild plays Dottie.
7. Burton asked Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman to compose, but the musician was apprehensive thanks to little formal training. Thankfully, his bandmate, Steve Bartek, helped him orchestrate and Elfman caught on quick. He has since become one of the most sought-after and prolific composers in film and television, writing the themes for The Simpsons, Batman, Good Will Hunting, Spider-Man, Silver Linings Playbook, and dozens more.
9. Another Groundlings castmate, Jan Hooks, improvised the dialogue for her scenes as the Alamo tour guide. Hooks would go on to work at Saturday Night Live with Hartman and become one of the show's staples in the late '80s/early '90s.
10. Reubens has since admitted he was very sick from the flu during the scene when Pee-wee returns to the bike shop after his bike's been stolen. His white complexion is real.
12. The stop-motion effect to add the scare in the Large Marge scene was done by Stephen Chiodo. The look foreshadows the effects work done in Burton's next film, Beetlejuice.
13. Burton also inserts a couple homages to the stop-motion dinosaur and Kaiju movies he loved growing up. One is a Pee-wee dream sequence that shows his bike being chomped by a red Tyrannosaurus Rex. And, during the chase through the Warner backlot sequence, Pee-wee rides his bike through a Japanese set that looks like a Godzilla movie.
14. The ride through the Warner lot scene is a microcosm of the film itself. Pee-wee goes through many different sets and kinds of movies on his bike, and so do we during the film. Burton mixes many genres from scene to scene. It has moments of comedy, romance, slapstick, horror, sports, coming-of-age, and action. The Warner backlot was also used in Blazing Saddles, 11 years earlier.
15. Inside the magic shop by the front entrance is a picture of Elvira, played by Cassandra Peterson, who later plays Biker Mama in the film.
16. Also in the magic shop scene: Mario shows Pee-wee heads of different sizes. The giant one is British occultist, Aleister Crowley.
17. "I don't want some other crappy bike" is the first and only time Pee-wee Herman uses, what could be considered, a swear word.
18. When Pee-wee weighs in at the beginning of the movie, we see that he is in fact a 98 pound weakling.
19. The wheels spinning behind Pee-wee's head while he's looking for the bike is Burton's nod to Vertigo and director Alfred Hitchcock.
20. Batman connections: Pee-wee sliding down the pole in his house while simultaneously changing outfits is a homage to the Batman TV series. The Batmobile from the series appears in the Warner backlot. And Tim Burton would go on to direct Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) years later.