The art of Pee-wee

How Pee-wee Herman's world inspired generations of wacky, weird design


Inside the USC's Ray Stark Family Theatre, the hair colors in the audience resembled a Manic Panic sampler pack. Atomic Turquoise towards the front, After Midnight across the aisle, Cleo Rose a few seats away from Bad Boy Blue with Violet Night streaks, a fried bleach job dotting every few rows. And don't even get me started on the glasses frame action — let's just say that Matt Groening was sitting in the front row, and he was severely outshined.

Three generations of proud outcasts, weirdos, dweebs, punks, shy kids, cartoon fanatics, and serial fidgeters had gathered for "I Know You Are But What Am I?," a filled-to-capacity event put on as part of the school's Visions & Voices series. The featured artists were Wayne White, Gary Panter, and Ric Heitzman — €”the creative brain trust responsible for the look and feel of the transformative television show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, as well as the puppet characters that inhabited it. In his introduction, Professor Henry Jenkins announced that the word of the day was "avant-garde." Throughout the nearly two-hour event, the crowd screamed every time it was uttered.

"It was an art project that happened to get on TV."

White, Panter, and Heitzman explained how a group of underemployed illustrators and artists like them managed to get hired on a broadcast giant's Saturday morning kids' show, which starred one of the hottest comedians at the time. "I faked my way into the Playhouse by calling myself a puppet expert," said White, his dubious credentials earned while working on a children's program in his native Tennessee called Mrs. Cabobble's Caboose. White was the one who convinced Broadcast Arts, the New York-based production company known for their animated spots on MTV, to hire Gary Panter, an underground comic book artist out in Los Angeles. Panter already had a history working on Pee-wee Herman projects and would soon become the show's production designer and art director. Panter brought on Heitzman, a buddy of his from art school in North Texas who used to put on avant-garde [aaaaah!] puppet shows with him in basements. The three became known as "the stuck up boys," smoking weed on the corner in front of the show's SoHo sweatshop-turned-studio and pulling 20-hour workdays.

That night they rarely mentioned Herman, the character who shares a body with actor and actual human Paul Reubens. They acknowledged that Reubens created the show, that he fought for their creative freedom, and that in the end it was him who made the final call on every aspect of Pee-wee's Playhouse. But they seemed to take more joy in recounting his unrealized ideas, which now sound more like conceptual art pieces. They said he dreamed of starting a bank just for kids, as well as a housing development called Pee-wee Acres. Supposedly he wanted to adopt a baby and raise him to eventually take over as the new Pee-wee Herman.

White and Heitzman gave PowerPoint presentations about what they had been doing before they became part of the Playhouse gang and where their subsequent careers had taken them. They showed slides of old concept art and made jokes about the Hollywood suits they had wasted hours of their lives with in meetings for projects that never came to be. When it was Panter's turn, he delivered a monologue in front of a giant screen covered with the results from a Google image search of his name. He talked about his father, who had died a week and half earlier and who only painted pictures of cowboys and Indians. He remembered becoming obsessed with modern art as a ten-year-old and how he desperately wanted to be a hippie, drenching himself in benzene as he made elaborate batiks in his school's art room. He rambled about how he worked at a funeral home as teenager, and if you got in a car wreck in the middle night, he'd be one of the guys to scrape you off the pavement. "I have no idea where I'm going with this, but it's my story," he said.

During the Q&A session, when an earnest student asked the three why they thought Pee-wee's Playhouse became their big break, they said it was because they had been open to using their creativity in ways that they hadn't expected, and were probably unprepared for. "We were doing our jobs for the first time. Who would have hired us in Hollywood? Nobody," said White. "Paul was cool enough, he was an artist himself, and he hired all these unknowns. That was the power of the Playhouse — it was an art project that happened to get on TV."

• • •

Last week, Netflix released Pee-wee's Big Holiday, the first Pee-wee Herman movie in 28 years. It's also the first Pee-wee Herman project in the 25 years since Paul Reubens decided to end Pee-wee's Playhouse's five-season run and was later arrested for indecent exposure. It's been six years since Reubens launched a stage revival of the Pee-wee Herman Show in Los Angeles and New York, marking his real return to Herman's fantastical universe.

Reubens created the Pee-wee Herman character in the late in 1970s while a member of the Groundlings, the long-running Los Angeles comedy troupe that cultivated future stars like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Phil Hartman, and Melissa McCarthy. A graduate from California Institute of the Arts' theatre program, Reubens began incorporating members of the underground art scene to help him develop Pee-wee Herman's aesthetic in its earliest stages. When he put together the first, more winkingly adult Pee-wee Herman live show in 1981, he and producer Dawna Kaufman brought in Gary Panter to be the production designer and to illustrate the show's posters and programs. With Panter came his then-wife Nicole, the former manager of local wastoids the Germs. Nicole Panter would serve as the show's creative consultant and eventually become a performer in it. Gary Panter was also Reubens' co-writer on the original script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The two sold it to Paramount, where it would go unfilmed.

When a different version of Pee-wee's Big Adventure was made by Warner Bros. four years later, some of the key collaborators that Reubens chose were at the very nascent stages of their careers. It was the first feature of director Tim Burton, then a Disney animation exile whose short film Frankenweenie was considered too upsetting to be shown before a re-release of Pinocchio, as had been planned. Danny Elfman, the score's composer and now a four-time Oscar nominee, was still the leader of Oingo Boingo, a rock band with obscure pretensions that had already made the cult classic film Forbidden Zone.

Pee-wee Herman's journey from the fringe to fame was indicative of a broader transformation happening in the city's cultural scene. "The '70s in Los Angeles was a time where there wasn't much of an economy in the art world," says Gary Kornblau, founder of the now defunct Art Issues magazine. "It was completely underground — €”it was artists creating their own spaces and a lot of activities that weren't commercialized at all."

Then, as the decade flipped over, key changes in both the national and local economy happened. The United States emerged from a recession, and in 1983 the Museum of Contemporary Art opened in downtown Los Angeles. MOCA inspired a growing community of local collectors, and in turn, more galleries popped up. These galleries started scouting artists directly from the city's art schools, inspiring graduates to stick around rather than leave for places like New York to make their careers.

"In the '80s, artists, Pee-wee Herman among them, were no longer content to remain alternative," Kornblau explains. "The goal was to bring that sensibility, whether it was through humor, or this engagement with childhood, to a more mainstream culture, while retaining its so-called alternative interests."

The level of Pee-wee's Big Adventure's success in 1985 came as a surprise. The studio had considered shelving it, but instead dumped the film towards the end of the summer. It eventually grossed nearly $41 million dollars domestically while only costing an estimated $6 million to make. When Pee-wee's Playhouse debuted in the fall of 1986, it was the most anticipated event of Reubens's career. "Every step up until CBS decides to put it on the air for children, it's not been a children's thing," says Henry Jenkins, several weeks after the USC event. "It's been more for adults and more from a fringe aesthetic. It's a bit campy, it's a bit culty, it's definitely avant garde-y [aaaaah!] in the ways in which it's positioned itself. The shift is from doing something that's a parody of a children's show to doing a children's show."

In 1985, making television wasn't cool, and making children's television was even less cool. Most shows in the genre were animated tie-ins meant to sell toys or cash-in on a film property. The climate was much different than it is today, where producing bizarre, self-aware, and adult-friendly shows like Adventure Time and Phineas & Ferb is often the goal. It even predated savvy shows like Ren & Stimpy, The Powerpuff Girls, and Sponge Bob Square Pants by at least five years.

But by hiring a staff largely from outside the industry for Pee-wee's Playhouse, Reubens managed to make something both strange and broadly appealing. "We weren't from the closed-off professional world of set design and puppeteering. We were from this open world of art," says Wayne White, over the phone. "We felt complete freedom to borrow from any source we could. I was thinking a lot about German Expressionism and Little Golden Books from the '50s. We were all thinking about toys from the '50s and '60s, too. We were thinking about abstract painting. You name it, we would throw it in there."

Though four of Pee-wee's Playhouse's five seasons were made in Los Angeles, its first was done in New York. Its goals mirrored what fine artists like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Rodney Allen Greenblat were doing on those same downtown blocks. "They were all bringing pop art back in this new, exciting way," says White. "That's exactly what Pee-Wee's was also about. It was pop art using commercial art references, but spinning them into a new kind of expression."

Pee-wee's Playhouse incorporated outsider influences — kitsch aesthetics, drag culture, experimental animation — and managed to make them palatable to middle America. "When Paul made it innocent, he let everybody in on the joke," says John Lindauer, the show's animation director in its final two seasons. "Innocence is like the opposite of pretension, and that's the genius of Paul Reubens, and the genius of Pee-Wee."

Pee Wee's Big Holiday

(Glen Wilson / Netflix)

The new film, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, was produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by Reubens and Comedy Bang Bang's Paul Rust. It's a charming journey and sometimes manages the same fantastical moments of former Pee-Wee Herman projects. Though this time out, its creative team is filled with industry veterans, people whose long list of credits include everything from The Royal Tenenbaums, to Flight of the Conchords, to Skating with the Stars. The most subversive selection might be its director, John Lee.

Lee's best known for being a co-creator of Wonder Showzen, which debuted on MTV2 in 2005. Like Pee-wee's Playhouse, Wonder Showzen embraced the trappings of children's shows from another era, but instead took them to a far more unsettling place, with kids dancing to songs about slavery and puppets berating people on the streets of New York. The rap group Das Racist took its name from one of its jokes.

Watch Cartoon Network's Adult Swim (where many of Lee's newer shows have run) on any night of the week, and you can sense the lingering, slightly deformed effects of Pee-wee's Playhouse. The sensibility may be darker and the jokes more divisive, but they share a manic wonder. "He had a show that was in a box, and he made it nuts," says John Harvatine IV, the executive producer of the hyperactive stop motion animation show Robot Chicken.

The impact of Herman has also filtered back into the art world through a generation who watched him as kids and then kept him close with VHS and DVD collections. You could see it last year during Ben Jones' show at Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, where video projections of geometric shapes radiated from the walls and visitors played on glowing ping pong tables with bases built from cartoon dogs and dragons. "If you go to any art gallery in Los Angeles, you're going to find whimsy that just feels like that person loved Pee-wee's Playhouse," says John Lindauer.

• • •

In February, I pulled up to the storefront on the far edges of Echo Park that Seth Bogart and Peggy Noland share. The two were unloading a pair of giant Styrofoam arms from the back of a Toyota Sienna minivan. Bogart had just bought them for $70 from a guy downtown who had put them up on Craig's List. They didn't know what they were going to do with them yet.

Inside the small space, which houses both Noland's eponymous shop and Bogart's Wacky Wacko store, they sat sucking on cheap candy amidst the wreckage of an interior overhaul they were doing themselves. The two decided to move to Los Angeles together in 2011, her from Kansas City, where she'd gained a national reputation for designing outré clothing, and him from the Bay Area, where he fronted the trashy garage band Hunx & his Punx and ran a hair salon. At first they lived in a gnarly house in Lincoln Heights, plagued by rats and cockroaches and leaks. "It was a bad time, it was a really bad time," says Noland.

"Everyone assumes we're all obsessed with Pee-Wee."

In recent years, worn out from over a decade of touring, Bogart has gotten more into fashion and visual art. His sculptures feel obviously indebted to Pee-wee's Playhouse, though turned more campily grotesque — his creations include a vomiting version of the beloved Chairy. Bogart says that as kid he was immediately drawn to Herman. "I traded all my Star Wars toys for Pee-wee Herman toys," he says. "I wonder if I had a crush or him or something? The colors and the way that everything looked so cool or crazy just appealed to me as a young gay in Tucson."

The Seth Bogart Show

356 Mission

A few weeks later, when he held a release party for his self-titled album at the Echoplex, he did it under the name The Seth Bogart Show. An intro video that combined animation and lo res footage of Bogart cheekily laid out the rules for the night: take your clothes off and keep your shoes on, smoke weed, don't touch him unless you've paid $100 beforehand, and Instagram your pictures as soon you take them. His performance was filled with multiple costume changes and pre-taped commercials for products like pantyhose for men and virtual reality tanning machines. At one point, the buff security guards that flanked Bogart on stage revealed themselves to be strippers. They were pulled off stage by a pair of female police officers in tawdry outfits, who, of course, turned out to be strippers as well. It felt debaucherous, but never dangerous — €”the type of ridiculous thrills you might try to pull off before your parents came home.

Back at the storefront, Bogart and Noland explained that Herman's influence was so pervasive any place they went that it usually didn't even have to be named. What was once avant-garde [ahhhh!] is now just a part of the shared cultural language of a generation of weirdos. "You attract like-minded people who share inspiration and share a certain level of taste," says Noland. "Regardless of what city I'm in, everyone assumes we're all obsessed with Pee-Wee. And they'd be right."

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