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: 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, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by John Lee, 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 slam into a locker.
Reubens dreamed up Pee-wee in 1977 when he was performing with the Los Angeles–based improv troupe the Groundlings. A 1981 HBO special brought Pee-wee to a wider audience, leading to Big Adventure and a second film, Big Top Pee-wee, as well as a weekly television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which aired from 1986 to 1990. The character went dormant in the 1990s after Reubens’ 1991 arrest for exposing himself in an adult theater, but Reubens gradually began to make appearances as Pee-wee in the early aughts and in 2010 staged a 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. 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. 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, as the case may be. It’s Pee-wee’s world. We’re just the weirdos along for the holiday.
This appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of TIME.
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