On its surface, the new Netflix movie featuring vintage-geek icon Pee-wee Herman, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, is not unlike Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the cult classic that Paul Reubens starred in and co-wrote in 1985. Like its forebear, it features—in Reubens’ words—”almost no plot,” and its playful protagonist looks much as he did then, save for an extra lick of makeup. Viewers seeking differences will do better to search not on the screen but in the glow it casts on their own faces. After all, the fans who embraced Big Adventure have grown up, and many will take their children along on this wacky holiday when it debuts on March 18.
The new film is produced by Judd Apatow and directed by John Lee, both of whom have made their marks on more adult-oriented fare: Apatow is best known for movies like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, while Lee’s credits include Comedy Central’s Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. But Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, like Reubens’ previous work, targets fans of all ages. The simple storyline finds Pee-wee entranced by a mysterious stranger, the scene-stealing Joe Manganiello, who encourages the bow-tied sprite to take his first vacation. His encounters along the way inspire a new awakening for Pee-wee, who, when asked early on whether he’s ever wondered what life is like outside his hometown, answers with a resounding “Nope!”
Pee-wee’s charms are still linked to his full-throated giggle and beatific grin, the way he reacts to pinwheels and magic tricks with the delight of a toddler inhabiting the body of a man. Reubens, now 63, has never assigned an age to his alter ego, and if some viewers are too befuddled by this—is he a mannish child or a childish man?—to make sense of him, Reubens understands. “Pee-wee sticks out,” he says. “I don’t make any comments on [whether he] sticks out in a good way, bad way, is a freak, isn’t a freak. I’m just saying that you notice if Pee-wee Herman walks into a room.”
But for many, when Pee-wee walks into a room, something magical happens, beyond the whirring, pancake-griddling stunts of his Rube Goldberg machines. Paul Rust, who co-wrote Big Holiday with Reubens, explains the enchantment that had him obsessed as a child. “My favorite quality of Pee-wee is that he’s not a weirdo in his world—he’s accepted by everybody as normal,” Rust says. “For anybody growing up feeling out of place, it’s this utopia fantasy world where everybody’s weird, everybody gets along. That’s a bigger fantasy to me than Lord of the Rings.”
In that setting, it’s perfectly conceivable that hunky Manganiello—whose Brandoesque attitude and jukebox dexterity Pee-wee describes as “cool, double cool, triple cool!”—could waltz off the set of Magic Mike XXL and become best friends with a white-loafered nerd whom, were this a teenage sitcom, he might otherwise slam into a locker.
It’s this friendship, presented with utter sincerity, that serves as the movie’s emotional rudder. Though there’s humor in the unexpected pairing, the actors play it with the innocence of children who do not yet count the judging side-eye as part of their vocabularies. “I thought of it through the lens of a 10-year-old,” says Manganiello. “What’s a biker to a 10-year-old? What’s James Bond to a 10-year-old? What is friendship to a 10-year-old?”
In Pee-wee’s early days in the ’80s, people often conflated Reubens with his creation—a confusion he perpetuated by staying in character in real-world situations (or at least Hollywood’s version) like The Dating Game and late-night television. “My goal was to make people think it was real,” he says. “The only thing I felt funny about was that for me that was conceptual art, except it was so conceptual that I was the only person who knew it.” By now, it should come as little surprise that—save for the body they share—the man and his man-child are entirely distinct: Reubens is mild-mannered where Pee-wee is spastic, discerningly self-aware where his character is blissfully naive.
Reubens dreamed up Pee-wee in 1977 when he was performing with the Los Angeles-based improv troupe the Groundlings. The character drew inspiration from children’s TV personalities, like Pinky Lee and Captain Kangaroo, that had enraptured a young Reubens in the 1950s. A 1981 HBO special brought Pee-wee to a wider audience, leading to Big Adventure, which he co-wrote with Groundlings friend Phil Hartman and which a young Tim Burton directed, and a second film, Big Top Pee-wee. He then launched a weekly television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired from 1986 to 1990 and won 15 Emmys.
The character went dormant in the 1990s after Reubens’ 1991 arrest on charges of exposing himself in an adult theater; later that year, he pleaded no contest to a charge of indecent exposure and agreed to pay a fine of $50 and produce an anti-drug PSA to fulfill a community service requirement. But Reubens, who has always maintained his innocence, gradually began to make appearances as Pee-wee in the early aughts and in 2010 staged a warmly received theatrical show. Still, the hiatuses always outlasted stints in the public eye, so it would be fair to call Pee-wee’s Big Holiday something like a comeback.
But how do you best revive an icon? By leaving him be. Reubens may be some 40 years older than when he created Pee-wee, but the character isn’t. No matter how long the gray suit and red bow tie collect dust, Reubens says, returning to Pee-wee is “like [seeing] an old friend you don’t see for a long time.” If anything has evolved, it’s Reubens’ writing, which has benefited from the wisdom earned with age and loosened with his desire to expand the character’s horizons. “My rules for Pee-wee Herman evolved because I wanted to do more, and I realized that whatever was confining [me] was my own rules about it.” If the tenor of Pee-wee’s jokes sounds familiar, Reubens says, it’s because his humor “isn’t that contemporary. It has a corny, sweet edge that isn’t really hip, so I just take my chances.”
Pee-wee isn’t contemporary, nor is he timeless—not in the conventional sense, at least. He’s a product of the ’70s who came of age in the ’80s thanks to a sprinkling of references to ’50s children’s television. With that context all but absent from the minds of today’s viewers, it’s up to us to conform—or stand out. It’s Pee-wee’s world. We’re just the weirdos along for the holiday.