Rule of Three: Ghostbusters (1984)

It’s interesting to note that just a couple of years ago, “I like Ghostbusters” would be about as benign (and common) a statement as one could possibly imagine. Now it’s fraught with inference, with baggage, and with controversy.

That’s because, until very recently, the word “Ghostbusters” meant a movie. Or maybe that movie and its sequel. Or maybe some toys. Or maybe a spinoff cartoon. With the release of a gender-swapped third film, however, the conversation shifted embarrassingly. This is to say nothing about that third film’s quality, or merits, or actual issues. It’s just to say that prior to that film’s release (or, I suppose, announcement), a conversation about Ghostbusters went one way. Now it inevitably goes another.

We’ll waddle into that whole minefield later, but I bring it up here because, at some point, the new film’s fallout seemed to taint the original’s reputation. Not in any substantial or successful way, but once the rebooted Ghostbusters started receiving mixed reviews and less-than-stellar box office returns, a number of its defenders deflected.

“It’s not like the original was all that great anyway,” they suggested. One film critic that I otherwise respect (and who I’m choosing not to link to, lest this be seen as a kind of bullying) even resorted to cheap snark to say that people were looking back far too fondly on a glorified toy commercial in which Dan Aykroyd gets fellated by a ghost. (In the frantic rush to be within the first fifty thousand people to make that observation, I guess, he managed to get every detail in it wrong.)

This was odd to me. Of course, I’m somebody who refuses to believe that a subpar sequel, remake, or adaptation dispels the magic of the original. Arrested Development season four was awful, but it doesn’t change the amount of respect I have for seasons one through three. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a thoroughly worthless re-adaptation of a classic, but the version starring Gene Wilder is no less available for its existence. And I have an entire series dedicated to celebrating both halves of the novel-into-film equation, however successful or not the process was.

I’m used to keeping my opinion of one thing separate from another, however closely those two things might be related. In fact, I don’t even find it that difficult. The prequels didn’t ruin the original trilogy; they just crammed a bunch of unwelcome shit into the lore. Big deal.

In this case, though, folks were actively trying to tarnish the original, and I don’t get it. Likely there was some element of bitterness there, and I can understand that, to some degree. When you enjoy something so many others vocally do not, it’s easy to feel alone. But to then try to tear down something that they enjoy…well, that’s not an especially admirable response.

Especially when it’s outright false. I watched Ghostbusters repeatedly as a child, and have seen it many times as an adult as well. I rewatched it this very afternoon so that I could write this article, and I can say that it’s an excellent movie. It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s profoundly well-acted. It was deservedly popular and massively influential. For my money, there hasn’t been another sci-fi comedy that holds a candle to this one. (Though Back to the Future is almost certainly the closest.)

Trying to sully the reputation of Ghostbusters is something that, quite simply, isn’t worth the effort. You’ll have no chance of succeeding, and you’ll only look foolish by trying to point at and mock something that’s actually damned good. Every one of us grew up loving something that by no means stands up to the scrutiny of adult eyes. Ghostbusters, though, isn’t one of those things.

It’s probably difficult to imagine just how big this movie was if you weren’t there to experience it. I was three when it was released, but Ghostbusters (or “Ghost Busters,” as it’s oddly spelled on the title screen and seemingly nowhere else) remained a huge presence throughout my entire childhood.

We played with the toys, watched the cartoon, drank the Hi-C. We played the terrible video games. We rewatched this movie and its sequel endlessly. We pretended we were the Ghostbusters on the school yard. I don’t remember what ghosts we thought we were busting, but I do remember that I was always Egon. If our friend Jen was around, she had to be Janine. We never had a Winston.

The fact that a film released in 1984 would retain its relevance and staying power through a good portion of the 90s isn’t unprecedented, but it is exceedingly rare. Ghostbusters took everybody by surprise, though. The movie about some goobers from Saturday Night Live saving the world from a Sumerian god was actually…good. Critics enjoyed it. The public loved it. It pulled in around ten times its $30 million budget.

Nobody knew what to expect of Ghostbusters, but once it caught on, there was no doubting its impact. As Peter Venkman put it, “The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.”

In fact, much of the film seems to reflect its own history and reputation. Coincidentally, I’m sure, but Ghostbusters for long stretches works almost as an allegory for its own creation.

In the film, Ray Stantz puts a third mortgage on his house to get the Ghostbusters off the ground. Throughout the movie, money is an issue, with a take-out Chinese meal representing “the last of the petty cash.” But the team keeps plugging away at their dream, believing in themselves when literally nobody else will. By the end of the film, crowds of fans are chanting their names, crying out for their attention, and hawking bootleg Ghostbusters t-shirts. The seemingly foolish investment up front pays for itself (at least) ten times over.

Then there’s the team itself, which seems to come together out of happenstance. Peter, Ray, and Egon are academic colleagues who all find themselves suddenly without funding and unemployed. They don’t start the Ghostbusters because they want to, but because they have nothing else to do and might as well. They find a secretary, Janine, because she’s the only one who can put with them. They hire Winston Zeddemore because he needs a paycheck at exactly the same time they need another set of hands.

The way the team grows and expands out of necessity mirrors, just about, the way roles were originally written for other actors. John Belushi, John Candy, Paul Reubens, and, according to some sources, Eddie Murphy. Even the way they build themselves up as a brand –- with a firehouse headquarters that, according to Egon, “should be condemned” and a secondhand ambulance that barely runs –- reflects the way the Ghostbusters script was rewritten: a legend was born of budgetary constraints.

Aykroyd, who would go on to play Ray, wrote the original script on his own. At some point, Harold Ramis, who would go on to play Egon, made it clear that the script as written was far too ambitious and expensive for any studio to actually film. (Which makes Ramis seem, amusingly, like the same kind of cold logistician Egon is.) Together, Aykroyd and Ramis rewrote it. Aykroyd is an enormously talented and very funny man, but I think it’s safe to say that we only know and remember Ghostbusters today because Ramis got involved.

I don’t know if Aykroyd’s original script has ever surfaced, but it evidently involved the Ghostbusters traveling through time and around the world to battle some kind of massive paranormal force. Maybe it would have been great, but Ramis reined him in, restricting the entire plot to the city of New York, relegating the elaborate, centuries-spanning supernatural context to a few bits of spoken backstory, and spending time, instead, on the far-less-expensive interaction between characters.

Logistics are often a great curator. If you can’t actually film your original idea, you have to ask yourself what you can do instead, and what might actually work better. You’re essentially forced to come up with a stronger concept. Aykroyd and Ramis certainly did, and the final film balances the fantastic and the practical beautifully.

It also balances a humorous approach with a human one. There are jokes in the movies — and great ones — but not reality-breaking sight gags or slapstick. The jokes work in tandem with the narrative of the film, and the characterization, rather than serving as intermissions from it. Both aspects work together. It’s a comedy, and it’s a sci-fi film. It works either way, but neither half would work anywhere near as well without the other.

This succeeds, to be blunt about it, because the comedy stays where it belongs. The humor almost never comes from the otherworldly danger unfolding in the city. That is to say, the plot isn’t funny; the characters are. Ghostbusters knows better than to cross the streams.

That’s a wise move, because it means audiences can stay invested even while they’re laughing. It also means that the relatively long stretches between jokes don’t feel dull or out of place. They’re part of the movie. Ghostbusters is one of those rare comedies that’s so rightly confident in itself, it can afford to take its time between punchlines. (Which, I’d argue, makes the punchlines we eventually get feel even funnier.)

We can see this illustrated by the film’s very first scene, in which a librarian encounters a ghost in the stacks. Abnormally for a comedy, there are no jokes at all in the scene that introduces Ghostbusters to the world. Most comedies, understandably, would work hard to open with a strong or memorable comic setpiece. After all, shouldn’t audiences be laughing?

Ghostbusters replies, “Not necessarily.” Aykroyd and Ramis knew that if there were anything funny about our initial experience with the film’s central threat, it would become that much less threatening, and throw off the tonal balance. If the library ghost is a humorous figure, that makes it far harder to believe that Dana Barrett is in any danger when she’s seized and possessed by demons later in the film. Going for a cheap and easy laugh here must have been tempting, but it would have hamstrung many pivotal moments later on.

Instead, we watch the librarian as she goes about her work. Some books hover from one shelf to another. Cards are spewn from the drawers of a catalogue. Then, in a panic, she turns a corner and finds herself face to face with something so horrifying, she screams and collapses.

What a hilarious movie!

Of course, what this scene is really doing is setting up the comedy to come. The librarian’s encounter with the ghost isn’t played for laughs, because that’s being saved for when our heroes encounter the ghost. Again, it’s not the situation that’s funny; it’s the characters.

We see things first from a normal citizen’s perspective. We get a sense of why people would panic and call somebody like the Ghostbusters. (Technically they aren’t Ghostbusters yet, but you get the idea.) We understand why someone would be desperate to get this dealt with as quickly as possible, by whomever could possibly handle it. If this scene were played for laughs, we wouldn’t be able to identify with that feeling. When we return to the library with our heroes in tow, however, the comedy naturally opens up…at the same time we get to learn about the characters.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis feel immediately like associates who have known each other for a long time. They have an established dynamic. That’s why Peter can tease Ray or drop a book on the table to interfere with Egon’s readings. They know who he is, and they know that this is how he behaves.

By continuing to work with him they are making it clear that they’re okay with his behavior, which is why at no point in the film does anyone shout at him to back off. If his behavior were unwelcome, as it certainly is to other characters and in other contexts, it wouldn’t be as funny. Instead, this is a group of friends. They like him. We learn a lot about them from their interactions.

And, indeed, he plays an important role in the group, though it’s not one that’s immediately obvious. For the audience at home, Peter Venkman gets the lion’s share of the laughs, and that’s reason enough to keep him around. But what does he bring to the actual Ghostbusters?

Egon is quite clearly the brains of the operation. He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable, resourceful, and insightful. It’s easy to conclude that he’s the one who creates (or at least develops) their equipment, and while he lacks basic human social skill, he’s the most innately valuable member of the team.

Ray brings the enthusiasm…and the money. He’s the excitable boy who purchases the firehouse so he can slide down the pole, and who is so thrilled by his new job that when Peter is slimed by a ghost, he first expresses joy…and then asks, “Can you move?” Late in the film, Peter explicitly refers to Ray as “the heart of the Ghostbusters.”

What Peter brings is less obvious, but no less important. If Egon is the brain and Ray is the heart, Peter is the swagger. Dana becomes quickly aware of this, telling him as they investigate her apartment, “You don’t act like a scientist. You’re more like a gameshow host.”

But they need that as well. Peter’s the one who giddily convinces Ray toward the beginning of the film to go into business for themselves. He’s the one who gives interviews to the press and works the crowd. He’s the one, surely, who gets them to produce a television commercial. It’s probably not correct to say that he craves attention, but he’s certainly the only one who knows what to do with it.

The characterization is wall-to-wall one of Ghostbusters’ strongest aspects. I’d argue that it’s stronger here than in almost any other comedy, and than most other films in general.

Every character, the moment he or she is introduced, is established firmly. This applies most obviously to the Ghostbusters themselves. Ray’s introduction is all oblivious giddiness. Egon’s reveals both his deep intelligence and his propensity to get lost in the experiment. (On the time he tried to drill a hole in his own head: “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”) Winston’s sets him up as a hired gun; a day laborer who will do whatever needs doing without any strong feelings about it one way or the other.

Peter’s introduction is the most elaborate of them, and rightly so, as he’s the only one of the main four with a true character arc. The others essentially end where they start in terms of who they are, but Peter goes from repeatedly administering electric shocks to a volunteer just to flirt with another (if you haven’t seen the film, well…just watch it) to taking his work so seriously that he is willing to sacrifice his life to save others. (He’s the one who decides that they will cross the streams to defeat Gozer…something that reliable Egon promises will have “a very slim chance” of survival.)

But the characterization goes further than that. It extends to every other character as well, no matter how minor. There’s the beleaguered and stressed-out mayor of New York City, who is clearly in an unwinnable situation but genuinely wants to do well by his constituents. There’s Walter Peck, who steels himself behind his own presumed authority and immediately finds himself locked in eternal posturing with Peter.

There’s the stuffy hotel manager who is desperate to have our heroes clear out an infestation, but simultaneously desperate to keep his guests from knowing what’s going on. Hell, there’s the guy waiting for an elevator in that same hotel who doesn’t quite believe the Ghostbusters’ limp cover story that they’re exterminators. And there’s the maid who nearly becomes the first test subject for their proton packs, and who we can see in the background putting out the resulting fire with her squirt bottle.

Everybody feels real. Not one of these characters, however minor, however silly their scene, feels like a caricature. And because of that, they all feel as though they matter. Absolutely nothing in the film feels like padding, however tangential to the plot something is, or appears to be.

I honestly think my favorite moment in the entire film is when an unnamed coachman witnesses the early stages of Louis’ possession and sums it up with a simple, “What an asshole.”

It’s funny, but it’s not a punchline. It’s a very human response to a very extraordinary event, and that’s where Ghostbusters truly succeeds. It successfully funnels a vast supernatural catastrophe into a real-world setting, and shows us how real people would react to it…whether it’s those who fight back, those who dismiss the danger, or those who just watch it unfold.

The human focus isn’t accidental. (In fact, it could be a deliberate creative response to the time-hopping excess of the original script.) One of the biggest surprises rewatching the film as an adult is how little we see of the busting of ghosts. True to the title, the movie is actually about the Ghostbusters…not ghost busting.

There’s the library scene at the beginning, of course, but the only things that get busted are their egos. Later there’s the long hotel sequence during which they capture the ghost we’ll eventually know as Slimer. There’s a montage that includes some busting interspersed with press appearances. And finally they battle Gozer.

That’s not much, and it means that nearly everything else is human interaction. People being people. Colleagues being colleagues. Antagonists antagonizing. There’s actually very little in the way of plot, but a hell of a lot in the way of defining and exploring character.

Okay, well, it’s not entirely fair to say there’s little in the way of plot. There’s honestly quite a lot of it. It never feels that way, however, because of the way it’s parceled out.

Peter shares some of his notes with Dana outside Carnegie Hall. Egon gets a possessed Louis to open up about Gozer’s intentions. Ray pores over architectural blueprints in jail and explains his findings. Winston takes a quiet moment, driving at night, to connect what he’s seen and heard lately to a passage in Revelation.

These moments and a number of others occur throughout the film. Never once is a character tasked with delivering a long-winded monologue explaining what’s happening to the other characters or to the audience. Instead, the data points are scattered like breadcrumbs. If you care enough to follow them, you’ll come to a greater understanding of the specifics behind what, exactly, the Ghostbusters are beating back. (And, I’d wager, what we would have seen in Aykroyd’s original script.)

If you don’t, however, the film doesn’t feel any emptier. In fact, I’ve seen Ghostbusters several dozen times throughout the course of my life and I still couldn’t explain to you the supernatural backstory. What’s more, I don’t care. That’s not what the movie is to me.

I see a comedy about four misfits ultimately taking down a great and rising evil. Does it matter to me who Gozer specifically is? Or the role of Ivo Shandor, a completely unseen character, in bringing Gozer back? Or why lesser ghosts are able to terrorize New York City before Gozer is able to break through? Or why Dana and Louis are specifically chosen to host Zuul and Vinz Clortho, Gozer’s Gatekeeper and Keymaster? Or how, exactly, the two of them fucking brings Gozer back?

None of this matters to me. If it does to you, that’s great; you’ll have plenty to dig into and enjoy and think about after the film ends. But it all happens in the background. As in Her, or Shaun of the Dead, we see a potential collapse of civilization occur from an artfully, deliberately limited perspective. Bigger things are happening, but we can only see what our characters see. The rest is inference and assumption.

That limitation seems to have been Ramis’ most significant tweak, and it’s the reason those who care about the lore and those who don’t can enjoy the film equally. To paraphrase Winston, If I’m laughing I’ll believe anything you say.

So, okay, clearly I enjoy the acting, the dialogue, the way the characters interact. But I’d be lying if I said a big part of the appeal — both then and now, for myself and for audiences in general — weren’t the spectacle.

I don’t know that I was ever afraid of the ghosts, to any degree, as a kid. Which surprises me to think about now, as I was definitely a wimp when it came to scary things. The earliest nightmares I remember were brought on by Little Shop of Horrors and a commercial for Aliens. (Coincidentally starring the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, respectively.) I think it’s safe to say I scared easily. But nothing in Ghostbusters actually registered as frightening at all.

Looking at the film now, though, there are a number of pretty chilling moments. Certainly the most effective is when Dana is grabbed from within a chair and dragged screaming into her bedroom, a sequence which plays as straight horror and is only indirectly undercut by comedy, when Louis is pursued by the same kind of creature in an expressly humorous way. Then there’s the undead taxi driver, who actually does look pretty scary…but he’s only on the screen for a few seconds and doesn’t do anything especially horrific.

Regardless, if I wasn’t afraid of anything in the film, it certainly wasn’t due to unconvincing effects. In fact, by and large they hold up pretty well today. That’s impressive for a silly comedy filled with sketch comedy stars.

Nearly all of it still looks fantastic. The proton streams maybe didn’t age that well, and certain things like the devil dog (as we called them then) crushing Louis’ table don’t seem to be properly integrated, but the stumbles are absolutely the exceptions. The ghosts still look great, with Slimer leaving ectoplasmic residue on the wall he flies through being a notable highlight. The librarian ghost at the beginning looks and behaves in an impressively frightening way.

And to this day, I don’t know they pulled off the effect of the eggs popping and cooking on Dana’s countertop. I’m sure it was a heated surface, but how did they get the eggs to explode the way they did so that their contents would land in the right place to be cooked? There are other objects on the countertop that aren’t being warped from the heat, so it must have been a fairly precise target.

It’s also interesting to me that the Ghostbusters really do just bust ghosts. They fight them, they capture them, they lock them away in what is essentially a prison cell. No thought is given at any point to why these ghosts are haunting these particular locations (though in at least a few cases, environmental details can help us piece together a story).

The boys give no thought to what the ghosts want, or to the fact that helping them resolve their earthly business might allow them to move on to peaceful rest. If memory serves, I do think the cartoon spinoff got into this a number of times, but here, I find it amusing that these guys find evidence of the paranormal and immediately set about beating the shit out of it. (It’s not for nothing that Peter’s triumphant gloating after catching Slimer is, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” They didn’t outwit it; they ganged up on it.)

I could go on for another few thousand words about what makes Ghostbusters work as well as it does. I haven’t even really dug into the three major supporting characters yet.

There’s Dana, played by Sigourney Weaver (who we’ve seen here before). She’s given relatively little to do aside from play the straight man to Peter, and that’s a bit of a shame, but she does it well. (And, if memory serves, she’s given quite a bit more to do in the sequel. We’ll find out next week.) She also functions as an audience surrogate for a brief period, seeing the Ghostbusters’ commercial and being passively amused by what is clearly a scam, before having to rely on them when something inconceivable happens to her. (Their slogan — “We’re ready to believe you!” — turns out to be an accidental bit of marketing genius.)

I also very much enjoy the perfectly acted moment after she shares her story with Egon. His announcement — “She’s telling the truth. At least she thinks she is.” — understandably upsets her; she’s been through a traumatic situation. And yet it’s clearly the correct thing for Egon to assess first.

The fact that the gadgets she’s hooked up to are revealed to be little more than a homemade polygraph upsets her, and that’s a very human response. But Egon is not thinking of her feelings, or of the human element at all. He’s determining whether or not there’s anything to investigate in the first place.

The fact that he then turns to Peter and shines his headlamp into his colleague’s eyes, ignorant of Peter’s reaction, further illustrates how detached Egon really is. It’s a sight gag, but it’s also characterization.

Weaver is also incredible — and worrying — as the physical manifestation of Zuul…equal parts seductive and terrifying in her performance, pivoting in a moment from one to the other.

Then there’s Louis, played by the consistently delightful Rick Moranis. Louis is the humorous counterweight to the serious Dana. Everything she goes through, he experiences the comic version of.

She’s seized by demonic claws and dragged screaming into the clutches of gods-know-what; he gets chased through the streets of the city and eventually, in a panic, offers the creature a Milk-Bone. The moment of her possession is played strictly for horror, while his is played as physical comedy, with Louis sliding helplessly down the glass wall of a restaurant while witnesses refuse his cries of anguish and return to their meals. (That, by the way, is still one of the most perfectly, effortlessly cruel bits of dark comedy I’ve ever seen…and it’s perfectly in keeping with the thematic danger New York City finds itself in for the sequel.)

Even their possessed states are handled differently. Dana’s is actually scary and upsetting; Louis’ is jokey. He tries talking to a horse. He asks strangers if they’re the Gatekeeper. He imitates Egon’s words and gestures during testing not to be a pest, but because he’s like a child seeing these things for the first time.

We’re worried for Dana, but we’re laughing at Louis. That sounds wrong, but both sides of that coin are handled exactly right for what they are.

Then there’s Annie Potts, who may actually be the film’s secret MVP. As a kid I didn’t think much of her character, but as an adult she’s deeply relatable. Like Winston, she’s there because she needs a paycheck. But for her, it really is just a job…and she hates it as she would any job. She’s underpaid. She’s alternately underutilized and overworked. She doesn’t even especially seem to find the fact that her bosses are fighting actual ghosts interesting.

And that’s intrinsically funny!

Not as obviously funny as the gang wrecking up a grand ballroom, or a gigantic marshmallow stomping through the city, or Peter investigating Dana’s apartment. (Asked if he’s using his tools correctly, he hesitatingly replies, “I think so.”) And so her role in the comedy went right over my head as a boy. But now that I’ve worked a number of soul-destroying jobs, as well as jobs I should have liked but which sucked the life out of me because they’re still jobs…yeah. I get Janine.

Also, I love that she acts and dresses like she’s about 60 when Potts was only in her early 30s.

Mainly, though, I love that every single one of her lines plays like a perfectly delivered joke. Some of these are obvious, but others I’m not sure I picked up on before now. When a policeman arrives at the firehouse for instance, she asks, “Dropping off or picking up?” As a kid I just assumed Louis’ case wasn’t isolated; other possessed folks must have changed hands back and forth between the Ghostbusters and the police. Now, though, I see that she was asking if the Ghostbusters were being arrested, and making it clear that this would neither surprise nor disappoint her.

It’s subtle, it’s funny, and it’s perfect.

Honestly, I’m not sure how easy it would be to identify things in Ghostbusters that don’t work. I guess there’s the ghost blowjob bit, but that’s brief. What’s more, it’s a dream sequence, so all the folks who think Ray got fellated by a spirit need to learn to pay attention for more than a few frames of film. Otherwise, nothing really falls flat for me, and any joke that doesn’t get a laugh is either surrounded by good enough acting or followed quickly by something that does.

The ending, I’ll admit, feels abrupt to the point that it seems to come from another movie. Gozer is defeated and…that’s it. I adore Winston’s euphoric “I love this town!” but that’s really the end of the movie?

The film we watched, as we discussed, wasn’t actually about Gozer. It wasn’t about ghosts. It wasn’t about the end of the world. It was about people. It was about how these people relate to each other, and how they deal with an impossible fight against unknowable adversaries. It was about how people interact, how they see the world, and how the Ghostbusters find a place for themselves.

But the ending seems to suggest that the movie was about Gozer, and it thinks that once Gozer is stopped, there’s no story left to tell.

We confirm that all of the major characters are okay, Dana and Peter kiss, and the Ghostbusters drive off. I don’t know what kind of resolution I would have expected, but “Hey, that supernatural thing we never fully explained is gone forever now” wasn’t it.

It’s a small complaint, and it does absolutely nothing to interfere with how enjoyable the ride is, but it feels like it should be the ending to Aykroyd’s original script as opposed to Ramis’ rewrite.

I suppose we can read a bit of narrative closure into that ending. The Ghostbusters start the film losing their funding because nobody takes them seriously, and end it being celebrated by cheering strangers who recognize them as saviors. That’s fine. But the team’s journey toward acceptance wasn’t the focus of the film; it was one of many things that unfolded largely in the background. For the movie to end there, it feels…misjudged.

Again, though, that also feels like a reflection of Ghostbusters’ own creation and legacy. An idea that was doomed to go nowhere gradually finds acceptance. Gets a shot at a wide audience. Finds fans that tell their friends. Eventually sees itself heralded as important, as brilliant, as a part of the world that we can’t imagine going without.

Ghostbusters might be the clearest example of lightning in a bottle that I can point to in the film world. Everything comes together to work perfectly. The writing, the acting, the casting. The directing. The special effects, the soundtrack. The cinematography. The pacing, the editing, the set construction, the props…everything is exactly right. It may not be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen, but I’d unquestionably put it on my list of the best ones. No part of the film turned out as it was initially envisioned, but all of it was exactly as it should be.

In just over an hour and a half, Ghostbusters introduced so much instantly identifiable iconography to our cultural landscape. It wasn’t just a movie people liked, or which made money…it was a movie that mattered.

It gave us the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It gave us Slimer. The Ecto-1. The firehouse. The theme song. The logo. The uniforms, the proton packs, the ghost traps, the containment unit.

Ghostbusters gave us a world that intersected with our own and enriched it. It left us knowing who these characters were, what they wanted, and how they’d each go about getting it. It spun a tale too complex for most of its fans to understand, and yet made sure that that didn’t even matter.

It gave us a touchpoint. Something we’d all relate to. The reason we played Ghostbusters in the schoolyard wasn’t just because we liked the film, but because we knew everybody would understand it. It became instantly as recognizable as cowboys and Indians. And our parents were just as likely to find the film funny and entertaining as we were, even if we enjoyed different parts of it.

A sequel was more or less inevitable. In fact, it was practically obligatory. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon debuted in 1986, two years after this movie, and was immediately popular. It found a fanbase of its own and funneled those fans back to the original film. The cartoon was supported by an equally popular toyline. Tie-ins came in all media. The world wanted more Ghostbusters, and was willing to throw money at anything bearing the name.

In 1989, we finally got our second Ghostbusters film. I remember being overcome with excitement, and it was one of the first films I saw I theaters.

Next week, we’ll find out if it was worth waiting for. But even if it wasn’t, whatever dips and dives the franchise might take from here, the only important to thing to remember is that the original Ghostbusters still exists.

And it’s still fantastic.

That will never change.

Rule of Three returns April 1 with Ghostbusters

Well hello! I’ve been working for the past couple of weeks on the big, annual April feature, Rule of Three. That’s my series in which I take a look at three related comedy films, beginning on April Fool’s Day. The second and third entries will post on April 8 and April 15, giving each of them a solid week to breathe and be discussed.

This time around, I’ll be focusing on the three Ghostbusters films. I’ve even added the schedule to the Trilogy of Terror page. (I guess I really should give Rule of Three its own page soon, huh?) While there, you can check out the previous features on Muppet films and Pee-wee films. They’re great articles. I should know, because I wrote them.

We’ll get into Ghostbusters pretty extensively over the next few weeks, so I won’t say much now except that the first two films are quite important to me, and revisiting them through a critical lens was damned interesting. I’m glad I took the opportunity to do so.

The third film, obviously, is a minefield. I don’t know quite what to expect in terms of reaction to my article, but we’ll find out together, I guess. (When a friend of mine learned I was covering the Ghostbusters films, he just said, “Good luck.”) I do get the sense the controversy around that movie has died down to the point that adults are now allowed to discuss it, and I hope that’s the case, because it’s worth discussing. Just not for any of the reasons the film makers — or the film’s detractors — seem to think.

I do have a question regarding this type of feature, though: Do you like knowing ahead of time what I will cover?

In the past, I’ve kept those cards close to my chest. I work on these features in secret, and then blast them out without any prior indication of what they’ll be.

I’ve done this for a few reasons. For instance, I might think I want to cover something, and then realize I don’t have much to say and need to switch topics. Or posting about a topic in advance might stir up some conversation that will then affect the things I do or don’t write about, feeling the need to address what folks have already brought up as opposed to what I’d personally like to say.

Then again, letting readers know ahead of time what to expect means they can seek out the movies to watch for themselves, turning this into more of a communal event. And it gives them a chance to get their thoughts together ahead of time, so that they can leave comments and participate in the discussion without relying on hazy memory.

So, hey, you’ve got a week. Dig out your copy of Ghostbusters. It’s worth it.

This time around, I revealed the Rule of Three topic (or rather posted a very obvious hint) to the Noiseless Chatter Facebook page. Now I’m announcing it here, just shy of a week in advance. The world kept spinning, so I’m considering doing that for future features.

What do you think? Do you prefer the surprise of showing up on April 1 to find a new post on an unknown topic? Would you rather know in advance? Or do you literally have no opinion one way or the other? (UNTHINKABLE)

Let me know. I’m curious. This is one of those situations in which I don’t think I can come to the “best” answer on my own. I need to hear what you guys and gals prefer, and I can easily make my own arrangements from there.

Anyway, enjoy your week. I’m getting these three features edited and formatted, and I’ll see you here on Sunday, April 1, for the extensive writeup on 1984’s Ghostbusters.

It will be the only film in the series we’ll all agree on.

See you then.

Rule of Three: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

Well, we had to talk about it sooner or later…

In July 1991, Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure. For a children’s entertainer, that’s understandably a death knell. But it was also — let’s be frank — kind of bullshit.

Reubens, as we all now know, was evidently pleasuring himself in an adult theater. Police raided the theater and made arrests as they saw fit. By Reubens’ account — which I find pretty believable — once they realized they had caught a celebrity, the police were not as interested in the rest of the culprits. They had Pee-wee Herman. Who else mattered?

Reubens — also by his account — volunteered to do charity work for children, in character, in exchange for keeping the arrest quiet. However seriously it might have been considered, that ultimately didn’t come to pass. Reubens’ mugshot was all over the news, and he became the butt of jokes for talk show hosts, standup comedians, and sketch comedy shows overnight.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse had already completed its run, which I didn’t realize as a kid. Reubens’ arrest made for exceptionally poor timing, because it was easy to conclude that CBS cancelled his show in response. In reality, they just stopped airing reruns. The net effect was the same, however; Pee-wee Herman was dead, and Reubens no longer had a career.

I’m making sure to talk about this, because it was one of the formative moments of my childhood.

When this happened, I was 10. I didn’t understand it, mainly because I had no concept of adult theaters or masturbation, let alone what that kind of social fallout would mean for a celebrity.

All I understood was that one week I could watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and the next week I couldn’t. It was over. Pee-wee wasn’t moving to a new show or a new movie or anything else. Pee-wee was gone. A character I loved — who gave me countless hours of joy and entertainment — was never coming back.

I wasn’t alone. Pee-wee meant a lot to many children at the time. Looking back, to be totally honest, I believe I owe a huge amount of my creativity — and my understanding of its importance, and my desire to nurture it in myself and others — to the shows I watched growing up that embraced and actively glorified the power of imagination.

I had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a whole Land of Make Believe. I had Muppet Babies, in which the toddlers had exciting adventures in exotic locales without ever leaving the nursery. I had Pee-wee’s Playhouse, in which even the most mundane things — a globe, a clock, a chair — were enthusiastic friends and companions.

Imagination mattered. Hell, according to those shows and so many others with which I was surrounded, imagination was everything. Take it away and…what are you really left with? A rich inner life was as important as — or more important than — anything we could desire externally. Imagination mattered. To me, possibly because I had it reinforced so deeply, so firmly, so repeatedly in my early years, it still does.

Reubens’ scandal came as a severe blow for that reason. Pee-wee’s Playhouse wasn’t just a show I liked to watch; it was part of who I was. The scandal represented a sharply, cruelly revoked promise. It was a reminder that we couldn’t be kids forever; that reality was going to intrude. And when it did, we wouldn’t like it. We would lose things that were important to us. There would be no going back.

I believe Reubens’ arrest marked the day a lot of children lost their innocence. It was a turning point. Something that had brought us so much joy was suddenly a source of embarrassment.

And yet, especially now, I can’t look back and make any more sense of it than I could then.

Sure, I understand that openly pleasuring one’s self in an adult theater would be considered public indecency. That in itself doesn’t bother me; I’ve never attended a pornographic film and I can’t imagine I ever will.

But, accepting that it is illegal, I don’t know why adult theaters are allowed to operate. Why else would somebody go? It doesn’t seem to me as though they serve any purpose other than providing a context for people to pleasure themselves or others…either case being illegal.

The police made an easy bust that day. Perhaps they had some quota to meet. Perhaps they just felt like being dicks. Certainly once they had Pee-wee Herman in handcuffs they felt like being dicks, focusing their attentions on him and actively deciding at some point that they’d prefer to ruin his career than keep it quiet. Instead of accepting an offer to make some needy kids happy, they turned the arrest into a spectacle that robbed kids across the country of happiness that was rightly theirs.

Reubens’ treatment may have been just, but it certainly wasn’t fair. Those who knew him — including his previous costars, such as Valeria Golino who played Gina in Big Top Pee-wee — spoke out against his treatment. Viewers and parents wrote tens of thousands of letters of support to one show (A Current Affair) that covered the scandal.

But it didn’t help. He was unnecessarily demonized, and his legacy was tarnished forever.

And that was it. For years, Reubens didn’t work.

He eventually started popping up here and there in small roles. I distinctly remember him showing up on Murphy Brown as one of Murphy’s secretaries. A running joke in the show was that the title character couldn’t keep a secretary, either due to their outlandish quirks or something she herself said or did, and each week we’d see a new one. Except for Reubens, whose particular secretary character stuck around.

I suspected that was Candice Bergen choosing to sacrifice one of her own show’s most famous jokes for the sake of giving her friend some steady work. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it’s something I choose to believe.

Reubens himself was probably doing okay. I never heard about him going broke or being homeless or anything like that; it’s just that his future roles (and any royalties he expected from reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse) dried up overnight.

Maybe one day Reubens would be back, but Pee-wee surely wouldn’t.

And then…times changed.

People grew up.

Those making decisions about television shows and films were no longer the ones who turned their backs on Reubens. Rather, they were increasingly those who grew up watching Reubens, who felt that his treatment was uncalled for.

What’s more, the public perception of sexual indiscretion had changed. When a huge cache of hacked, private celebrity photos was released a few years back, how many of the victims faced any kind of fallout for the sudden publicity of their sex lives? There’s even a route to stardom seemingly available to those who knowingly leak their own sex tapes.

It’s not the career killer it once was. And 28 years after Big Top Pee-wee, we saw an official appearance by the character again. Not as a special guest, not as a cameo…but as the headlining star of his third film.

I have to admit, I never saw that coming.

Here’s what I saw coming even less: it was worth waiting for.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is, against all odds, a delight. An incredible late-game reemergence from a character that, by all rights, probably shouldn’t work as well as he still does. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s thoroughly charming. And I honestly couldn’t be happier with it.

Bringing characters and shows back from the dead is often a fool’s errand. It may well make money, but it very rarely pleases anyone who loved the original incarnations. Here you just have to look at my reviews of Project: ALF, Red Dwarf, or Arrested Development. Elsewhere you’ll hear endless (though probably well-deserved) griping about the Gilmore Girls revival, or the Sex and the City films. The various revivals of Futurama all have their detractors, and while I’m probably more forgiving of the show than most, I can see their point.

Something gets lost in the revival. Actors age. Or die, or are no longer available, or are not interested in returning. Writers very rarely return for various reasons, and are too often considered expendable, as nobody would visually notice they’re missing. Networks have new expectations that a revived production may not know how to meet while maintaining its earlier level of quality.

And, perhaps most frustrating of all, we change.

We get older. Our tastes evolve, and hopefully refine. Something that we once enjoyed a show for doing no longer interests us. If the revived show tries to do it again, we feel bored. If the revived show does something new, we complain that it doesn’t feel the same as what we remember.

We can reunite The Beatles, but we can’t make them write another “Hey Jude.” It’s a no-win situation.

Except, of course, for those glorious few that do manage a win.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is one of them. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

The film walks a line so fine it’s often difficult to believe it exists: a perfect balance between appealing to nostalgia and providing something new. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of revivals that manage it better than this film does.

Let’s not go nuts, of course; Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t a great film. It is, however, a surprisingly good one, which merits celebration in its own right. And it does so much so well that it deserves to be studied as a kind of template for those looking to revive properties of their own.

For longtime fans, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday offers some cute little nods (Pee-wee’s hatred of snakes, a character referring to him as “rebel”), but they’re not barricades to the enjoyment of new audiences. It borrows the feel of previous Pee-wee outings — mainly Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — but doesn’t actually repeat jokes or setpieces.

When I say it mainly borrows from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I mean it. It’s another road movie. It’s about Pee-wee heading from some indeterminate location to a fixed destination (Texas there, New York here). Along the way he mixes it up with colorful characters and gets into and out of scrapes. The stakes are comically low (a missing bike there, a birthday party here).

I can’t blame Reubens for taking the character back to a formula that he knows worked. At the same time, though, it’s a worrying impulse, as it invites immediate and likely unflattering comparison. “So, he made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure again? Only worse?”

What rescues it is the fact that the material within that framework is entirely unique. Pee-wee doesn’t run afoul of a motorcycle gang, or get mistaken for making out with a woman in a big dinosaur, or sing folk songs with a boxcar hobo, nor does he experience direct equivalents of any of those things. America is a big place, and Pee-wee (via Reubens) takes the opportunity to see and have very different experiences on his second outing.

Of course, it’s not the second outing for this Pee-wee. Once again the character is an entirely new incarnation. This time, he’s a friendly chef at a diner in a small town he’s never left. In fact, we learn that the one time he tried to leave, he was involved in an accident that resulted in him needing a metal plate in his head. Since then, he’s never attempted to venture further than Fairville’s limits again.

Early in the film we get our equivalent of the breakfast machine from the first film, only this time spanning the town. Pee-wee wakes up, is launched from his bed, skiis down the roof, plops into a tiny car, and so forth.

And here it has its own kind of thematic resonance. In the first film it was a joyous, playful sequence that showed us just how many toys (of all kinds) Pee-wee had, and how much he relished just having them. This sequence, however, shows us how well Pee-wee knows his town. Where everything is, where everybody will be, how everyone and everything will react to him…so perfectly does he know this that he can turn his little corner of the world into its own Rube Goldberg machine. It’s one thing to be able to set one up in your living room, and another to know your surroundings so well that you can use them instead.

Pee-wee’s happy in Fairville. He’s comfortable. He’s secure. But he’s also, on some level, bored.

We don’t see it — at least not overtly — but it’s there. It’s even what drives the opening dream sequence, which is also probably the funniest moment of the film: we see Pee-wee bidding farewell to an alien friend. The alien invites him to come, but Pee-wee can’t. “I want to go,” he repeats almost tearfully, over and over, “but I can’t leave home.”

It’s a funny sequence if only because of how silly it is, and it’s also a pretty great opening feint. It makes sense as a dream sequence, but do we immediately assume it is one? We haven’t seen Pee-wee in almost thirty years, after all; why couldn’t he have made an alien friend in that time? One who departs just as we tune back in to see what’s going on?

At work that day, he meets another new friend. Human, this time, but one who just as overtly suggests a world of adventure beyond the horizon. It’s Joe Manganiello, playing himself, and who immediately establishes himself in Pee-wee’s eyes as “triple cool.”

That much is believable. I mean, look at the guy. He’s pretty effortlessly awesome. He’s handsome. He’s famous. I think it would be pretty difficult to make a milkshake for that guy and not envy him.

But it’s not envy that we see here. What we see instead — surprising both of these guys as much as it surprises us — is camaraderie.

The two turn out to have a lot in common, which is a pretty hilarious conceit just from looking at a screengrab.

They both like stupid jokes and wordplay. They have a mutual favorite treat in rootbeer barrels. (Which they each drink with tiny straws.) They each just…get each other. And as comically unexpected as that is, it also turns out to be pretty believable.

I’d actually never seen Joe Manganiello in anything before this. Within the film he credits himself as having been in True Blood and Magic Mike, which…good for him, I guess. But I don’t think you need to recognize him in order to get the joke…the fact that this gorgeous, famous, swarthy hunk finds his soulmate in Pee-wee Herman.

The two of them bond — sincerely bond! — over Pee-wee’s detailed model of Fairville, and Manganiello feels bad that Pee-wee’s never left town. Never had an adventure. Never gotten a chance to grow up. In an offer that’s both narratively efficient and unexpectedly touching, Manganiello invites him to his upcoming birthday party in New York.

On one condition, of course: that he makes the trip by road, and not by air. “A few days on the open road is worth a lifetime in Fairville,” he says. “The way I see it, Pee-wee Herman, you’ve got a choice to make. Stick around here, or live a little.”

And we’re off. The film is officially in full swing, and it’s impossible to ignore how easily, how perfectly, how magically Reubens slips right back into the Pee-wee persona.

He looks and sounds incredible, as though 10 years at most have passed. I’m sure it’s some fancy makeup work, but seeing Reubens look so much like the Pee-wee we remember is almost like being rocketed backward in time. It’s like finding a Pee-wee movie from the height of his popularity that is only now being released. It’s like sliding back into childhood, and finding things exactly as you remember them.

Aging happens. I sure wish it didn’t, but every time I find a gray hair in my beard (or more hair in my drain) I’m reminded that it does. And there’d be no shame in Paul Reubens looking like an old man. But, at the same time, it’s kind of a relief that he doesn’t. There’s always something sad about someone looking 30 years older while trying to inhabit, without alteration, a character they played 30 years ago. Nobody wants to see an elderly Pee-wee shuffling slowly down the sidewalk; yes, actors age, but by that point we’d just rather not see him at all.

But this isn’t elderly Pee-wee; it’s just Pee-wee. We see it in every interaction. We hear it in every line. And we’re treated to it in the way he bounces off of every new character he meets along the way. And, thankfully, those characters feel more like they belong in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure than they do in Big Top Pee-wee. They feel lived-in. They feel unique. They feel, largely, welcome.

The first companions he picks up are a trio of bank-robbers, among them the great Alia Shawkat, but all three of these actresses are fantastic. They play the crooks as the kind of hard-nosed young criminals you’d find in 1950s scare propaganda, warning parents about the dangers of letting their kids mingle with the wrong crowd. All of which is to say that they’re treated as menacing while coming off to viewers as quaintly adorable. (As is Pee-wee’s question after he picks them up. “Why are the cops after us? Are you guys witches?”)

From there Pee-wee drifts gradually eastward, not entirely convinced he’ll make it in time for Manganiello’s party. Like the quest for the bike, however, and completely in line with Manganiello’s advice in this film, the journey is the destination. And it’s a lot of fun.

Highlights are plentiful throughout. I especially loved Pee-wee’s visit to a Snake Farm…which is actually just a South of the Border-style tourist trap that sells tchotchkes and creates visual gags as opposed to housing actual snakes. A box of baby rattlers is really, for example, a box of baby rattles.

It’s an amusing subversion of expectations, made all the better by Pee-wee’s stubborn refusal to engage in any of the fun, despite the fact that dumb visual gags and wordplay are right up his alley. He’s simply unwilling to play along due to his repulsion to snakes, which is so strong he’s repulsed even by the idea of joking about snakes. It works on a few levels, and it’s very funny to see Pee-wee being the stick in the mud.

There’s even a great scene in which Pee-wee reenacts the classic scenario of the farmer’s daughter…only there are nine of them, and they literally descend on his room from all angles with — it has to be said — impeccable comic timing. After Big Top Pee-wee‘s idiotic romantic dalliances I expected this sequence to be far more problematic and infinitely less funny than it actually was.

Other scenes see him hitching a ride in one of the only flying cars in the world, piloted by Diane Salinger, who played Simone in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Then there’s the scene in Amish Country, in which Pee-wee slowly deflates a noisy balloon, which is easily one of the most successful examples of endurance humor I’ve ever seen.

It’s far funnier than it has any right to be, and its button (in which the Amish children are all excitedly deflating balloons of their own) is kind of wonderful. It’s nice that Pee-wee doesn’t annoy these peaceful, gentle people; the easy joke would be to have them turn and chase him out of town. Instead, they embrace him. Just as everyone else does.

I think that was one of my complaints about Big Top Pee-wee. Outside of the circus, everyone hated him. Wherever he went, people were condescending and rude. They treated him like an outcast…which sort of defeats the entire joke of the character. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure he was never treated that way, in spite of how incongruous he was in every situation. They just treated him like a person. Big Top Pee-wee‘s cast wanted him drawn and quartered, and that just wasn’t as much fun to watch. It was made even less fun by the fact that it was never resolved; they didn’t come around to loving him…they just ate magic weenies and shrunk.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday sees people falling in love with Pee-wee wherever he goes. From the Amish to doorbell heiresses to Joe Manganiello. People like him, and that makes the movie more fun to spend time with. In fact, rewatching it for this review, I was struck by just how comforting the entire thing was. Nobody’s at each other’s throats; everybody’s just plugging along, hoping for the best, having fun whenever and wherever they can find it.

One of the characters Pee-wee hitches a ride with sells little joke items, such as a fake grocery bag to stick to the roof of your car. In reality, traveling around from business to business trying to sell junk like that would be a miserable existence. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the guy is having a blast, loving life, not at all struggling for dollars the way we’d expect.

It’s a film in which there’s really nothing to worry about, but so much to enjoy. It’s a film in which the only tension is whether or not Pee-wee will see his new friend again…but we know that, even if he doesn’t, he’s making dozens of new ones along the way. It’s a film in which we’re never asked to invest in the journey, but always welcome to take pleasure in it.

And, you know what? I kind of love it.

If I made a list of the films that are the most important to me, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday obviously wouldn’t come anywhere near it. But if I made a list of the films I most enjoyed spending time with…well…

The soundtrack isn’t composed by Danny Elfman this time around, but rather by Mark Mothersbaugh, who really was the next best choice. He also has a perfect ear for Pee-wee’s antics, so while his work here isn’t nearly as memorable or iconic as Elfman’s was for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it’s perfectly fitting and often brilliant. This is especially true toward the end of the film with a song that apes “New York, New York” from On the Town, sung by Pee-wee and Manganiello, their characters seeming to be just barely familiar with the source material.

It’s quite funny and a fittingly entertaining build to the climax, giving Pee-wee a chance to experience the Big Apple without having to spend too much time there (and thus upsetting the journey/destination ratio of the film). Pee-wee gets to visit Grand Central Station, shop for souvenirs, eat his first slice of pizza, and even see the Statue of Liberty!

Well, a Statue of Liberty.

It all builds to Pee-wee making it to Joe Manganiello’s building just in time for the party…except he falls through an open manhole and misses the whole thing.

That’s fine, of course. Pee-wee stuck in a sewer isn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of a film in which he trots from state to state with eccentric characters (GO FIGURE), but it provides an important reveal: as time ticks by and Pee-wee fails to show up, Manganiello starts to worry. He really did like the guy. So much so that not having Pee-wee at his party is heartbreaking to him.

As much as Pee-wee (rightly) saw in Manganiello, Manganiello saw even more in Pee-wee. He cared about him, and now he worries about him and his safety. He tried to send Pee-wee on a big adventure, but what if the guy got hurt? What if he just decided not to come? What if Manganiello didn’t mean as much to Pee-wee as Pee-wee meant to him?

It’s funny and effective. And, of course, Manganiello finds out about Pee-wee’s plight and fires a grappling cannon right to scene of the tragedy to pull Pee-wee out himself.

And, really, that’s the heart of the film, and it’s also why this film stands distinct from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In that movie, Pee-wee himself learned very little. He was selfish and he wanted his bike back. So…he got his bike back. Sure, at the end it’s suggested that he’s a little more open to Dottie, and that’s nice, but it’s still only a suggestion, and it’s not a defining aspect of his journey.

Here, though, the journey is one of friendship. It’s one of honest and genuine connection between two men. It’s the most romantic platonic story I think I’ve ever seen, which is probably why it’s also so funny. The connection between Pee-wee and Manganiello is one of legitimate beauty…two simple people who find just what they need in each other, each of whom worries that it was only a fleeting fancy.

But, in the end, they reunite. And it’s not Pee-wee getting a bike back…it’s two lonely people finding someone, at last, who understands. For adults, that’s a nice, unchallenging bit of comedy. For kids, it’s an important lesson.

No matter who you are, what you look like, how you act, how isolated you may feel…you’re not alone. It may take you some time, but you can meet that person. Whoever it is. And when you do, you’ll do whatever you can to keep them.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a film that absolutely warranted a return of the character. It’s also, however, a sad reminder of what we’ve missed.

Reubens’ conviction wasn’t just the end of a career…it was the effective and untimely death of a beloved character. One who appealed to children and to adults in fairly equal measure. One who had so many more adventures to go on…so much more of the world to see…so many more people to entertain.

Big Top Pee-wee made a fairly convincing argument that there wasn’t much left to see, but Pee-wee’s Big Holiday establishes that film as the fluke. This is what we could have had. Here and there, bit by bit, Pee-wee could have been doing his thing. Making us laugh. Handing down passive life lessons. Reminding us that we are all, in our own ways, outcasts, and that it’s up to us to surround ourselves with people who won’t make us feel that way.

I don’t know if Reubens will make another Pee-wee film. If he does, I’ll watch it. And if he doesn’t…at least I know that Pee-wee never really goes away.

He’s just existing in some other incarnation. One we might not be able to see…but wherever he is…whatever he’s up to…we know he’s still worth watching.

Rule of Three: Big Top Pee-wee (1988)

Prior to this review, I had seen Big Top Pee-wee exactly once in my life. After this review, I can assure you I’ll never watch it again.

As we discussed last week, I loved Pee-wee. I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And yet when Big Top Pee-wee came out, I had no desire to see it at all.

You’d think, maybe, that I had tired of the character or his antics, at least to some degree. But I know for a fact I hadn’t. Big Top Pee-wee came out in 1988, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse was still on the air until 1991. I watched that show until the very end, and was surprised and disappointed when it didn’t come back for another season, so I’m sure I didn’t suffer from Pee-wee fatigue.

And I know that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was still in our regular movie rotation. Many of my friends had copies, and we’d still pop it in and watch it. I remember this because one of my friends — only one — also had a copy of Big Top Pee-wee. And we never wanted to watch that.

I don’t remember much about the advertising for the film, but I have to assume something turned me off immediately. Sure, I was seven years old and couldn’t get to a theater on my own, but my parents took us to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Bambi, which were both in theaters at about the same time as this film, so I have to conclude that I simply didn’t want to watch it.

I should have wanted to see Big Top Pee-wee, but I didn’t. And when finally I did see it with my friend…man, we hated it.

Hated it.

Exactly as much as we loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, we hated Big Top Pee-wee.

As I grew up and shared memories with friends in high school and college, I learned that they all had the same reaction. Pee-wee was great, but Big Top Pee-wee was unquestionably awful.

But here’s the thing: nobody brought up any specific complaints.

We could all bond over our favorite bits of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but nobody ever mentioned any particular reason that Big Top Pee-wee was bad. No quotes, no scenes, no sequences. And it wasn’t just my friends; Big Top Pee-wee was a film that nobody talked about. Ever. It was never mentioned as anyone’s favorite film growing up and never even mentioned as disappointing, outside of conversations that were already about Pee-wee.

It existed. We all saw it. But, like war, it was an experience we’d prefer not to discuss.

The closest thing to actual criticism I remember anyone having is that Big Top Pee-wee was a love story. And, yeah, sure. I’d buy that that was a problem. I was a stupid kid. I didn’t want to see Pee-wee fall in love; I wanted to see him talking to puppets and riding an awesome bike over a Godzilla set. If Big Top Pee-wee was about…ew…relationships, yeah, I could see myself tuning out. In fact, the one distinct memory of the film I had was Pee-wee strutting around in the dark, playing a love song on an accordion while a woman threw glass at him. The story checked out.

And, in a way, that was pretty good news. While I wouldn’t have had the patience for some sappy, boring love story at age seven, I sure as hell have the patience now. Revisiting a film that disappointed you as a kid only to find some real merit and heart in it as an adult is one of the great joys of growing up. About maturing. About understanding so much more of the world that you’re able to see beauty where you saw nothing at all before.

So I sat down to review Big Top Pee-wee. Not as a kid with a thirst for excitement and silliness and bright colors and corny jokes…but as a man. As a critic. As a grownup who understands that the most rewarding art takes its time and makes you work for it.

And fuck almighty does Big Top Pee-wee suck an egg.

Watching this movie through patient, receptive, adult eyes offers no insight whatsoever into what Paul Reubens — or director Randal Kleiser, of Grease and The Blue Lagoon fame — was trying to accomplish. It’s a trainwreck from beginning to end…the kind of film that starts off pretty bad and gets significantly worse almost every minute that follows. In fact, I’m writing the first draft of this review only a few minutes after watching it, and I wouldn’t be able to identify a plot arc to save my life.

Honestly, the most difficult part is figuring out where to begin. With Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I had to actively look for things to bring up as problems. (And here’s another one I forgot: the studio chase goes on way too long. But it’s pretty cool and Twisted Sister sings “Burn in Hell” so…yeah, still can’t think of much.) Big Top Pee-wee is the opposite; I’m afraid that once I start discussing its flaws, I’ll keep going until I’m dead.

Alright, I think I can say something nice, and I can do it by describing the basic conceit of the film. So, that’s good, and probably a fair place to start.

Big Top Pee-wee introduces us to a version of the character that runs his own farm. To go into any more depth about that would be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is, so I’ll just skip ahead to the fact that a storm comes through, depositing a circus on Pee-wee’s land. To go into any more depth about that would also be to immediately start rambling about how terrible this movie is.

So, here’s what I like: each of the three Pee-wee films (and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) features a different incarnation of the character. They live in different places, they associate with different people, and while they’re largely the same in terms of how they think and behave, there are at least small differences in what they specifically want and what they specifically find important.

And I like that. I think it was a good impulse to not make this a sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure so much as a successor. We don’t have to worry about where Pee-wee and Dottie end up as a couple, or what scheme Francis is cooking up to steal the bike again, or whether or not Amazing Larry will share his comments with the rest of us.

It’s wise to set a precedent for each Pee-wee production being a self-contained little world. They each get to succeed or fail on their own merits. We don’t go into them with any particular expectations, and we’ll have less of a temptation to measure them against each other. It also allows Reubens and company to take the character in unexpected directions without any necessary connective tissue. If Pee-wee is a private eye in one movie and an astronaut in the next, we never need to learn how he went from one to the other, because he didn’t. Pee-wee was always a private eye, and Pee-wee was always an astronaut.

So far, so good.

Where Farmer Pee-wee falls down is that son of a bitch does this movie stink.

Farmer Pee-wee just isn’t as…interesting. The Pee-wee we know from big adventures and playhouses was less a character than he was a presence. He didn’t grow or learn or change…he was just Pee-wee. He just existed. That was thrilling and liberating in its own way, but it also meant he could show us anything. Part of the fun of watching him was wondering where he’d end up next, and what he’d do when he got there.

Farmer Pee-wee, by contrast, wakes up and does chores. Sure, he’s still in his grey suit and red bowtie, but now he’s tilling land and tending animals and shopping for groceries. There’s a reason he didn’t do any of that stuff in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure or Pee-wee’s Playhouse: it isn’t any fun.

I get the feeling that Big Top Pee-wee is, in fact, supposed to be fun. Which is disappointing in its own way, because if the entire concept were that Pee-wee lived some boring life before the storm came through (see Dorothy Gale for the obvious template) and the circus taught him how to have fun, that would be a neat idea.

Instead, though, Pee-wee does seem to be already having fun. It’s just that the audience, to a man, is not.

Even the music — again by Danny Elfman — can’t seem to find any joy in the proceedings. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure it was positively bursting with creativity, incorporating and bleeding into sound effects and cues that came directly from the action on screen. That film’s soundtrack is catchy, memorable, and instantly made Elfman’s career as a composer. Here…well, there’s still music. But I sure don’t remember any of it.

I can’t blame Elfman for that, really. The previous film’s opening had Pee-wee’s incredible (and incredibly convoluted) breakfast machine as its centerpiece, giving Elfman a fun, silly, mechanical device upon which to hang all of his musical hooks. Wheels turned, robots swiveled, slices of toast were launched…Elfman had plenty to work with, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he started his original score duties with that scene and wrote the rest of the compositions from there.

Big Top Pee-wee, in stark contrast, opens with Pee-wee slowly harvesting vegetables by hand. And that’s just not as…inspiring. Especially to someone like Elfman, who thrives on outsized, bombastic quirk.

It’s a bit odd seeing Pee-wee so overwhelmingly happy in this film, at least somewhat due to the fact that there’s no clear reason for him to be. In the previous film, his house was packed with toys and games and candy and gadgets and magic tricks and everything else a little kid could want. Pee-wee, a little kid in an adult’s body, was understandably enamored with this life.

Here, he’s just in a house. A pretty boring house. On some pretty boring land. There’s animals everywhere, I guess, and that’s kind of cool…but Pee-wee waking up excited to get down on sustainable agriculture is not the same as Pee-wee waking up excited to crash a firetruck into Mr. Potato Head. It’s just not…interesting.

I said in my review of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that the film created a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit. Big Top Pee-wee does the opposite, creating a universe in which Pee-wee’s eccentricities no longer fit the character itself. They’re just…there.

Pee-wee looks and sounds like Pee-wee, and often acts like Pee-wee, but he doesn’t seem to have any reason for being here. In fact, you could swap him out for any other vaguely dimwitted character of your choice, and the film would play out almost exactly as it already does. That’s something you absolutely, positively could not say about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Also, Big Top Pee-wee has a talking pig and fucking fuck the fuck on.


Like, I honestly don’t even understand it. Why does this movie have a talking pig? I have genuinely no clue what they were going for.

Maybe that’s the quirk the movie thought it needed, but it feels entirely misplaced and unsuitably cartoony. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was a thousand times more cartoony than Big Top Pee-wee is, and a talking pig would have been out of place even there.

In fact, we can compare and contrast a bit. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, there’s a scene in which our hero calls Dottie from a payphone. She holds the phone out for Pee-wee’s dog, Speck, who grumbles and barks at his owner through the receiver.

Speck doesn’t hold the phone himself, Speck doesn’t talk, Speck doesn’t climb through the phone and lick Pee-wee’s face or any kind of crap like that. The dog just acts like a dog. Pee-wee jokes around with Speck, pretending they’re having an actual conversation and eventually asking him to put Dottie back on the line, but the joke is that they aren’t really having a conversation. That sort of goes out the window the moment the animal talks back, wouldn’t you say?

And as long as we’re making direct comparisons, let’s compare Pee-wee’s flames.

In a word, Gina in this film is no Dottie. In a few hundred more words, I’ll explain fully.

See, as with the talking pig, Big Top Pee-wee misses what was funny about the first film. It corrects for a problem it never had, cheapening the experience as a result. Here, it’s the spark of romance. And as with talking animals, the first film was funnier for not having one.

Dottie adored Pee-wee. That was clear. It was also the joke. Pee-wee…well, he’s Pee-wee. He dresses and acts like an idiot. He’s often selfish and always self-absorbed. He sees very little beyond himself or his most immediate need. He’s completely and totally disinterested in romance, to the point that his response to Dottie’s overtures is less a rebuff than it is a vacuum. Dottie gonna dote, and that’s funny because Pee-wee is both oblivious to and undeserving of the doting.

There’s also a classic moment in that movie in which a large man chases Pee-wee around huge, artificial dinosaurs, intending to bust his head open…because he thinks Pee-wee’s been smooching with his girl, Simone. The joke, of course, is that there was nothing romantic between Pee-wee and Simone. Simone may have had a little bit of a crush on him, but it’s only made funny by the fact that Pee-wee appears to be utterly sexless. Not only did nothing happen; nothing could have happened. He’s Pee-wee. He might as well be a Ken doll.

Big Top Pee-wee loses all of the comedy of these non-romances and introduces a profound new layer of discomfort by letting Pee-wee…erm…reciprocate? I don’t know; I’m trying to think of a better way to put it than “letting Pee-wee fuck.” But rest assured, this is the movie nobody asked for in which Pee-wee fucks.

And it’s not just the fucking. It’s the fact that Pee-wee is constantly horny. Long before he and Gina get Pee-wee Hammerin’ he’s drooling all over her, flirting heavily with her, making out with her by a waterfall. You know. All the stuff Pee-wee should never, under any circumstances, do. And earlier in the film he literally can’t control his urges, hopping on and dry humping his fiancee Winnie. It happens multiple times, and it’s really pretty gross.

That’s right; fiancee. It’s certainly bad enough that this incarnation of Pee-wee actively seeks to insert his penis into things, but it’s also problematic in his treatment of Winnie. Yes, he shrugged off Dottie in the first film, but the joke was pretty clearly two-fold: he was clueless, and she should have known better. Here he strings his fiancee along until he tires of her (because she won’t let him fuck her in front of a group of children…I shit you not), and then makes out with sexy trapeze artist Gina behind her back.

He doesn’t leave Winnie or put the breaks on with Gina; he just pursues both of them for no reason with very little consequence. (Winnie leaves him but they remain super awesome totally great friends, as you do after you’re exposed for actively cheating on your significant other.) He’s just kind of…awful.

Pee-wee is always kind of a dick. I know that. That’s actually part of what makes him funny, and oddly endearing. But here he’s just a sex-obsessed idiot, which is neither funny nor endearing…especially in a children’s film. And after Gina (rightly) dumps his ass for two-timing, he wins her back not with a grand gesture, not by saving the circus, not by doing anything in the least bit selfless, but by bothering her relentlessly, night and day, against her clearly communicated wishes, until she spreads her legs just to shut him up.

And they lived happily ever after.

Fuck this movie.

Well, I say movie. It’s certainly long enough to be one, but it doesn’t behave like one. For starters, there’s no plot. Sure, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure had a decidedly inconsequential plot, but there’s a big difference between “decidedly inconsequential” and “completely lacking of.”

Here, I’ll illustrate. We can easily identify the primary plot points of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and see that it’s a clear and natural sequence of events: Pee-wee loves his bike, Pee-wee’s bike is stolen, Pee-wee seeks his bike, Pee-wee finds his bike.

Now, Big Top Pee-wee: Pee-wee works on a farm, a storm puts a circus in Pee-wee’s yard, Pee-wee woos an acrobat, some old people shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.

Bet you think I made up that last one, huh?

I didn’t, and that’s the way the movie ends.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was relentlessly silly, but every sequence followed from the previous and led into the next. Part of the reason it’s such a watchable film is that it flows so naturally from beginning to end that it’s easy to get swept away by it, even at its most ridiculous.

Big Top Pee-wee just does something, then another thing, then something else, then it ends. It feels careless, as though it were assembled from outtakes from a whole slew of different Pee-wee movies, all of which were terrible.

Narrative arc, of course, is one thing, but character arc can and often does make up the difference. For instance, The Royal Tenenbaums lacks a strong narrative arc, but it makes up for it (and then some) with important, incredible, artfully explored, deeply intertwined character arcs. Try to tell the story of The Royal Tenenbaums and you won’t have much to say, but try to explain what the characters go through and you can spend hours without scratching the surface.

Not that I’m suggesting Big Top Pee-wee needs to have anything in common with that film or its approach, but it’s a useful example to keep in mind as we look at what this movie does, or fails to do. It has no discernible plot arc, and it doesn’t rely on inventive setpieces and wacky comedy like its predecessor…so does it go the character route instead?

It does not. Pee-wee makes no progress as a human being, aside from the rite of passage of losing his presumed virginity. Not that that actually registers as much of an event. It just…happens, and we move on. Gina likes him again, though, charmed forever by the Pee-wee Hardon. Pee-wee at the end of the film does do a brief tightrope walk, which fulfills his goal of participating in the circus, but it’s a goal that was mentioned exactly once earlier and which he could only have had for a few days at most.

So what about Gina? Does she grow or change or learn anything? Of course not. She’s there to be made out with and plowed. She fulfills both purposes and accomplishes (and wants) nothing else.

Winnie — an underused but reasonably game Penelope Ann Miller — likes Pee-wee and then leaves him to marry four different men at once. I don’t know what that is, but it’s certainly not a character arc. Maybe it’s a joke about how she wouldn’t give it up to him but is perfectly happy getting gang-banged. It’s unclear. I’m glad for that much.

Also she joins the circus because why the fuck not.

Then there’s ringmaster Mace Montana, played by an only partially drunk Kris Kristofferson. He gets a lot of screentime, but to no real end. He sets up his circus on Pee-wee’s land and kind of…walks around a lot, I guess? I don’t know.

He’s in a lot of scenes but I’d have a hard time telling you much of anything he said. At the end of the movie he puts on his circus for everyone, which isn’t much of a character arc as that’s, y’know, his job.

The minor characters are similarly wasted. For the most part they’re just standard circus freaks (a bearded lady, a two-inch-tall woman, a human cannonball, a…hermaphrodite…), but we get a few that seem to be more important and go just as nowhere.

Michu Meszaros — yes, the little fellow in the ALF suit — plays Andy, who has a good amount of lines but doesn’t seem to have been given a personality. It’s a little disheartening to see him in this film, because Reubens seems to think it’s enough that he’s small. Meszaros doesn’t get any jokes, say anything important, or do anything of significance. He just keeps getting trotted out like a freak, which is odd, because the film also suggests that circus folk deserve to be treated like actual people. (Spoiler: in the end, they still aren’t. The old people who hated them just shrink because they eat magic cocktail wieners.)

The dog-faced boy is played by Benicio del Toro in his first major role, and I assure you it’s no longer on his resume. He’s another character who gets a lot of lines but has no more significance than anyone else. At one point he makes dog noises, which I’m reasonably certain is meant to qualify as a joke.

Then there’s a mermaid and the acrobats who fuck Pee-wee’s ex and a clown named Snowball who Kristofferson calls Showball in what I’m certain was a blooper nobody was paying enough attention to reshoot.

I don’t care about any of these people. Ever. For any reason. None of them mean anything to me, whereas Pee-wee’s Big Adventure gave me a huge smile just by showing me Jan Hooks. Or by having Mickey the criminal praise Pee-wee’s film from a prison bus. Or by surrounding Pee-wee with Satan’s Helpers and letting him get out of his pickle in a uniquely Pee-wee way.

What I mean to say is that everything in that movie was a delight. It went from great scene to great scene, with so much to enjoy at literally every point. In Big Top Pee-wee I didn’t care once. It’s more than a step backward; it’s a fundamental disinterest in providing an experience of any kind. It’s just…there.

While researching a few basic facts about this film, I saw that, at some point while promoting it, Reubens said that the cast spent a year and a half going through circus training. Imagine if they spent a year and a half writing jokes instead.

In the end, I don’t care how well Pee-wee or his fuckbuddy perform stunts. If I want to see circus acts, I’ll go to the circus. There’s also the sad fact that while it might be impressive that Paul Reubens can briefly walk a tightrope after 18 months of practice, it’s not anywhere near as satisfying or interesting to watch as someone who has spent his life honing more impressive feats. Even as circus spectacle, it fails.

No, I didn’t want to see this circus crap. I wanted to see Pee-wee. I wanted to see comedy. I wanted to see inventiveness and creativity and giddy, silly fun.

But instead I got…nothing.

Nothing at all.

Just something that ate another hour and a half of my life, and didn’t seem to have any idea what it wanted to do with it.

And then Big Top Pee-wee just…stops, no wiser than I am about whatever it was trying to say, or accomplish, or make me feel.

I think that says something. Maybe it says everything.

In a nice bit of series continuity, we’re introduced to each film’s incarnation of Pee-wee in a dream. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, he dreams of winning the Tour de France on his beloved bicycle, tying neatly into the film we’re about to see. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, he dreams of saying goodbye to an alien buddy, setting up the main themes of the film: Pee-wee’s desire for close friendship and his reluctance to leave home. Great.

Big Top Pee-wee also opens with a dream, in which Pee-wee croons “The Girl on the Flying Trapeze” to an audience of fawning women. It’s very un-Pee-wee, and also doesn’t tie into the film at all. Sure, he eventually does fall for Gina, who suits the description, but his fantasy is about being a famous singer…not a guy who shuffles along a tightrope for a few minutes at the end of a shitty movie.

Like the film itself, it’s just…there.

There’s also a running joke about Pee-wee’s pig getting repeatedly violated by a sexually aggressive hippopotamus.

I could have left that out of the review pretty easily so…you’re welcome.

My dislike of the film is obviously not unique. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure made around six times its budget at the box office, turning it into a surprise hit. Big Top Pee-wee, by contrast, lost five million dollars…which was almost the entire budget of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, to put it in perspective.

It’s possible that we might have gotten another Pee-wee movie had Paul Reubens not run into legal trouble in 1991, but I think it’s fair to say that after Big Top Pee-wee, nobody was clamoring for another film. Possibly not even Reubens, who can’t have been ignorant of its commercial failure and toxic reputation.

But time passes. Nearly 30 years in this case. And we eventually did get a third Pee-wee film.

At this point, the record was split. One film timeless and thoroughly enjoyable, the other a joyless flop.

Which way would Pee-wee’s Big Holiday tip the scale?

We’ll find out next week.

Rule of Three: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Welcome back to Rule of Three, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related comedy films, weekly, beginning on April Fool’s Day. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. It’s a spinoff of the Trilogy of Terror series, but with less disemboweling.

I started this series looking at three Jim Henson-era Muppet films, which was an easy choice for me, because the Muppets were and remain an important creative presence in my life. This year, I’m going to look at another of them: Pee-wee Herman.

I’m pretty sure that when I was a kid, VHS cassettes were still quite expensive. I have no idea how much my parents paid for our copy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but I can assure you they got their money’s worth.

I loved Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. I don’t mean that I watched it a lot or enjoyed it or never really got sick of it. Those things are all true, but those things aren’t love.

And I loved this movie.

This was one I turned to again and again. One I’d watch with my brother. With friends when they came over. By myself if I was bored. And if I was at somebody’s house and they had a copy…well, we’d watch that copy, because a lot of people owned it and we all sure loved it.

Which is kind of funny, looking back, because the central joke of the entire film — the incongruous and absurd nature of Pee-wee himself — isn’t something I ever picked up on as a kid. Paul Reubens — who created and played the character — made Pee-wee seem so effortlessly fun to spend time with that we never questioned anything about his nature. About who he was. About how strange he was. To us…well…he just seemed like an exceptionally relatable adult.

And we loved him for it.

I distinctly remember catching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on television at some point when I was in college. It was probably on Comedy Central, or something, and I tuned in at about the time Pee-wee hitches a ride from escaped convict Mickey. I sat and watched it, expecting to be embarrassed. Amused, maybe, but overall a bit ashamed at whatever silly nonsense used to appeal to me so.

I was a literature major at the time, and a philosophy minor. I was older. I spent my time reading great novels and writing worse ones. I still stayed up with friends late into the night, but instead of watching cartoons and playing video games we were studying and creating and having discussions. I had grown up. I had outgrown so much. Surely, clearly, I had outgrown this.

I didn’t. And I was shocked at just how funny Pee-wee’s Big Adventure still was to me. In fact, it was a better film than I ever remembered it being.

If you haven’t seen the movie since you were a kid, you’re probably questioning my sanity about now. So watch it again; I promise you, it’s worth revisiting through adult eyes. It will remind you of what it was like to be a kid, but it will also give you a chance to see just how infectiously charming a production it actually is.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985. I had always thought it came after (or during) Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but that show didn’t debut until 1986. Pee-wee Herman as a character originated in the late 70s, but audiences didn’t get to see him in any major venue until 1981, when Reubens created a stage show for him. The show was moderately more adult-oriented than the later Pee-wee outings, but the character himself was more or less in place already.

So, what was the character?

It’s…hard to say, really. Pee-wee Herman himself is, at the very least, anachronistic. He’s like a 1950s toddler trapped in an adult’s body, though only rarely does anybody treat him that way. He seems to have a child’s mind and sense of humor, and certainly has a child’s concept of what is and is not important.

He’s a bit of a brat, a bit selfish, and comically oblivious. He also has a tremendous amount of energy, which is humorously at odds with his button-down appearance. He’s a circus clown perennially dressed for a job interview.

And that’s something I never actually noticed as a child. I don’t think I was old or perceptive enough to pick up on the fact that adults didn’t actually dress that way. To my uneducated eyes, Pee-wee checked out. Why wouldn’t grown-ups walk around in a grey suit and red bowtie?

Pee-wee never seemed ridiculous to me. How could he? He was living the life every child hoped to lead when he or she grew up. No job, plenty of friends, all the toys he could ever want…whether in his Big Adventure home or the Playhouse, Pee-wee seemed to have it all. Isn’t that exactly what we hoped getting older would entail? Sure, we’d have to go to school and get a job…but if it was all in service of us getting our own space to fill with any toy, game, or curio we wanted, wasn’t that worth it?

But then, you grow up. We all do. That’s every child’s tragedy.

Falling down and scraping your knee is replaced with losing your job. The squabbles you have on the schoolyard are replaced with betrayals that permanently end relationships. The hope that you get the popular new toy for Christmas is replaced by the worry that you won’t be able to pay the rent this month.

Your priorities change. Your focus changes. Your outlook changes. Your life changes, and, once it does — and it always does — you can never go back.

When I saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in college, I figured I might enjoy it, but I knew I wouldn’t love it. I couldn’t. It represented another, earlier version of me. One I literally no longer was. After all, if you traveled back in time and met yourself at age 10, how much would the two of you actually have in common?

A rhetorical question, obviously, but one which probably does have an answer: entertainment.

Not all entertainment, mind you, but the best films and television shows suitable for children also appeal to adults. That’s because nobody likes being treated like an idiot. Children are a bit more tolerant of it than adults are, but they prefer to be treated with respect. They prefer to be engaged with. They prefer to feel like they belong. And a film or television show that does that for a child will likely do it for an adult, too.

Pee-wee Herman headlined both a film and television show that did exactly that. They appealed to children without pandering, and was able to hold an adult’s attention as well. Children could laugh with Pee-wee, and adults could laugh at him. Parents and children were both enjoying the same jokes in different ways. Like the character, the comedy itself was a child dressed like a grownup. Suited to both audiences.

I could talk for ages about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but I did that already. Instead, I’m going to focus on the film, and why that, specifically, holds up and succeeds.

Here’s why it, specifically, holds up and succeeds: the tremendous amount of talent that went into it.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been nothing. A rambunctious, silly outing about some bizarre eccentric losing his bicycle and chasing it all over creation. I mean, reading that sentence, how could it not have been nothing? What I’m trying to say is that the film so easily could have lacked creative, artistic, and comic merit entirely, and we wouldn’t have a right to complain. When Beverly Hills Chihuahua got bad reviews, did anyone even care? What did people expect? Of course it’s bad; just look at it!

But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure knows better. It knows that no matter how frivolous, absurd, or uncomplicated your plot is, it — like your audience — deserves respect. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure could have been a longform experiment in anti-comedy, and nobody could possibly begrudge it for taking that approach. Instead, the creative minds behind the film took their decidedly idiotic setup and tried to figure out a way to make it good.

I don’t need to make a list of films that took the easiest way out, hoping to coast on a gimmick or a star or a license; you can already think of dozens. Many of them even had talent behind them. The problem was that the talent wasn’t used. It wasn’t deemed necessary. They decided that the film would be good enough without trying, so why try?

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure tries, and it answers that question: because the fruits of success will be so much greater.

Sure, it probably could have coasted on its quirk or the recognition of its title character. But by putting so much talent to use, the minds behind the film gave it life.

Enough dancing around it. Who is this talent?

There’s Paul Reubens, obviously. Reubens was — and remains — a talented comic actor, and by the time of this film he’d been performing as Pee-wee Herman live on stage for around four years. That gave him plenty of time to hone the character, to learn firsthand what did and did not work, and to get a deep sense of what audiences wanted from the Pee-wee experience.

Part of the reason I was so surprised to learn that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came before Pee-wee’s Playhouse is that the character here feels so…complete. It feels like something that had been developed and lived in and built from the inside out week after week for years. Sure enough, it was…just not anywhere I was looking.

Reubens faces a difficult balancing act with Pee-wee. The character has to register as annoying, but he shouldn’t annoy the audience. We need to be on his side, but he’s nothing like us or anybody we know. He needs to be somebody we’re interested in watching on screen, while he has neither any heroic nor villainous traits to speak of. The fact that Pee-wee was so popular for so long is entirely down to Ruebens understanding how delicately to work the controls. Push hard over here, ease up over there, let this moment ride for exactly this long…

And, unquestionably, Reubens derserves much of the credit for making Pee-wee’s Big Adventure work. But it’s also down to the material, which Reubens wrote with Michael Varhol and Phil Hartman.

Phil fucking Hartman.

I somehow never realized before writing this review that Hartman worked on the script. I knew he and Reubens were friends; Hartman played gruff seaman Captain Carl in both the live Pee-wee shows and Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and he appears in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure briefly as a reporter. But the fact that the late, immensely talented, much-missed, brilliantly funny Phil Hartman sat down at a typewriter and helped Reubens write the film goes a long way toward explaining why it works as well as it does. He knew how Reubens worked best, how the character worked best, and had a profound understanding of the nature and rhythm of comedy.

There was no better possible cowriter.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is remembered as a sequence of big moments and setpieces, but the most surprising thing when re-watching the film is just how memorable all of the moments and setpieces are. There’s no single showstopper and no real filler material; every scene is clearly, obviously crafted to be as successful in isolation as any other. Honestly, during this rewatch, I realized that I could have told you literally everything that happens in the film, despite having not seen it for years. I probably wouldn’t have gotten the order of the scenes correct, but I sure as hell remembered every damn thing Pee-wee did on his cross-country journey to retrieve his bike.

That’s the mark of strong writing; Reubens and Hartman made everything that happened memorable. Pee-wee being chased around the big dinosaurs at the truck stop. Pee-wee wrestling Francis in the massive bathtub. Pee-wee crossdressing to elude the law. Pee-wee singing with a hobo. Pee-wee hitching a ride with Large Marge. Pee-wee rescuing animals from a burning petshop.

In a film so impressively, defiantly committed to a plot that doesn’t matter, everything feels like it matters.

And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention the rightly revered “Tequila” scene, in which Pee-wee angers a bar full of bikers and wins them over with an impromptu dance to the classic Champs song. (The bikers are part of a gang called Satan’s Helpers, which I didn’t remember and which made me laugh quite hard this time through.)

It’s such a famous scene that if you Google “Pee-wee shoes” you’ll find the platform footwear specifically from this scene — despite the fact that he only wears it for a few minutes and it isn’t even his. I’d even wager that this film is the only reason many people my age know “Tequila.” (It’s certainly the reason we know there’s no basement at the Alamo.)

I actually remember the first time I heard “Tequila” on the radio, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was in the car with my parents and my mind was absolutely blown. It was a real song? To this day I can’t hear it without thinking of Pee-wee’s desperate, silly dance, and while my tastes have matured this is still one of my favorite musical moments in film ever.

So we have the leading man and the script…but that’s not all that makes Pee-wee’s Big Adventure great. There’s also the direction, which is bottomlessly inventive, colorful, and confident…playing the silliness straight without losing an opportunity to lean into a great visual gag.

Who directed it? Tim fucking Burton.

Of course, at the time Tim Burton was a fresh-faced nobody. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was his first serious gig. If he was going to go anywhere, this was likely his one chance to make an impression, and he sure as hell did.

Everybody who’s seen the film remembers his touches. They remember the way he shot Pee-wee’s elaborate breakfast machine, despite the fact that it appears only in the film’s opening. They remember the terrifying closeup on the mechanical clown after the bike is stolen. They remember the stylized lighting and angles of Pee-wee’s recurring nightmares.

Reubens brought the character and Hartman brought the comedy but Burton brought the entire, unforgettable visual approach that makes the film what it is. I’d even say that the visual inventiveness is what made so many kids love the film in the first place. Before you ever get a handle on what’s happening, or the jokes, or the innate excitement of a roadtrip, you’re already drawn in by what you see. By the vivid and striking colors. By the artfully cluttered set design. By the hypnotic movements of spinning wheels and drinking birds and endlessly flipped flapjacks. Burton created not just a film, but a universe in which Pee-wee’s outlandish eccentricities fit.

It’s a beautiful film, impressively shot for what could have been a throwaway comedy vehicle. To cite just one perfect, tiny example, there’s the understated reveal that Pee-wee’s bathroom window is actually an aquarium…a sight gag so natural that all it takes is a goldfish swimming into view to make it work.

Burton’s one-two punch of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beatlejuice established him very deservedly as one of the most inventive and creative directors working at the time. Studios were so impressed with his work that for his third major film he was handed the reins to Batman.

When you see people disparaging Burton’s latter-day output, this is why. He began his career by excitably tearing into the film industry and making each moment so distinct, so personal, so unique…and seems to be intent on ending it with predictability and hollow quirk. The man who upended patterns has settled into one of his own, and that’s disappointing. But go back to his early career, and you’ll see true genius at work.

Then — oh yes — there’s probably the single best thing about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure: the score by Danny Elfman.

Danny. Fucking. Elfman.

See? I was not kidding about the talent involved with this movie. As with Burton, this film was Elfman’s first big opportunity as a composer. Prior to this he was best known for his band Oingo Boingo. After this he’d be a strongly sought-after musical talent that composed immortal themes and other tracks for The Simpsons, Batman, Beetlejuice, Tales from the Crypt, Chicago, and much, much more.

Be honest: you can hear the score to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in your head right now, can’t you?

It really is brilliant. So unnecessarily loud and bombastic…a serious orchestra playing carnival melodies…silly compositions played with incredible drama and import. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the outsized importance of Pee-wee’s quest for his stolen bicycle, and Elfman didn’t just write some great pieces and move on to his next project; he actually tailored bits of his compositions to precise moments in the film. He ends one song on a note that falls exactly as Pee-wee licks butter from an oversized novelty knife. Much later he integrates the sound of the spurs from Pee-wee’s cowboy costume into the rhythm of another song.

Twice he actually builds pieces around sounds that are happening on screen. The first is when Pee-wee is singing an improvised tune on his bicycle in the park, and the second is when he’s pounding on his rival Francis’ door. In print that doesn’t sound like much, but knowing Pee-wee you can imagine how irregular these things might be. Pee-wee himself isn’t musical, and when he knocks he doesn’t do so with a clear or predictable pattern. Nevertheless, Elfman composes around these moments, and it helps to establish the soundtrack as being the genuine musical accompaniment Pee-wee hears in his head every day of his life.

There’s little negative that I can say about the film at all, to be honest. Perhaps the one criticism I have is the least important one: as much as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure feels like…well…a big adventure, the scope of the film may actually be quite small. Before he leaves home, Pee-wee gets a fraudulent tip that his bike is in the basement of the Alamo, so he heads right to Texas. Then he finds out that a child actor in Hollywood has it, so he goes there instead. And…that’s about it.

What’s more, we don’t know where Pee-wee starts his adventure. Sure, it could be Maine or something, which would imply a true cross-country trip even if we don’t see most of it. But since Pee-wee visits the Cabazon Dinosaurs in California before he gets to Texas, it’s possible that he started in California anyway, meaning he didn’t do much other than go to Texas and return.

But, come on, even I know that’s not a criticism, and Pee-wee Goes to Texas wouldn’t have been nearly as gripping a title. The fact is that the film feels larger than it really is, and that’s precisely the achievement that any work of art reaches for.

However much or little ground Pee-wee’s trip actually covers, it’s the experience that matters, and the experience is enhanced immeasurably by the bit characters he meets along the way. Reubens may have had all the time he needed to hone Pee-wee himself, but even the minor characters in this film feel complete and lived in. I can’t watch the scene in which Pee-wee visits Mario the magic shop owner without believing whole-heartedly that the two have known each other for years, and have amused each other with props and tricks longer than we’ll ever know. That one scene implies an entire, believable friendship.

Then there’s Mickey, fleeing the cops after cutting a tag off of a mattress. (“I got a real bad temper,” he explains.) He’s played by a guy with the excellent name Judd Omen, who’s had roles in just about everything. Mickey is the first new face Pee-wee meets on his journey, and the interplay between the hardened criminal and unapologetic manchild is some of the funniest stuff in the movie. Funnier, of course, is the fact that Mickey doesn’t tire of Pee-wee, even after the latter drives his car off a cliff. Rather, Mickey likes Pee-wee so much that he needs to leave him behind. “Look kid, I like you. I like you a lot. That’s why I can’t drag you into this,” he apologizes.

The best of the supporting characters is the Alamo tourguide, played by the also-dearly-missed Jan Hooks. It’s what should have been a thankless part, but Hooks finds a way to bring it to life. In fact, the tourguide really only needs to annoy Pee-wee by taking too long to bring the group down to the basement. She just needs to drone on and be boring, and that would sell the joke.

But Hooks, wisely, doesn’t take the character there at all. That would have been the easy way out, and Hooks goes for something far more rewarding. Her tourguide eats up plenty of time, of course, and gets right under Pee-wee’s skin as she must, but she’s actually never boring.

Hooks taps instead into a kind of relentless sunniness. The tourguide smiles widely and incessantly, chews gum, launches enthusiastically into long discussions about things that aren’t interesting at all. Her delivery of, “Yes, there are thousands and thousands of uses for corn, all of which I will tell you about right now,” belongs in a dry comedy hall of fame.

All she had to do was stand in Pee-wee’s way, but instead Hooks crafted a complete character. Someone who loves her job a little too much, and finds pride and pleasure in the mundanity that so many others overlook. (The fact that she works for San Antonio Parks and Recreation makes it very easy to see her as an accidental precursor to Leslie Knope.)

A lesser actor would have taken a Ben Stein approach, leaning into the obvious monotony. Jan Hooks, by contrast, chews gum and lights up the scene with her big, smiling eyes…which only needles Pee-wee more, and makes the sequence far funnier as well.

Then there’s Elizabeth Daily, who plays Dottie.

And, man, I love Dottie. I always have. She’s just so…wonderful. So understated and adorable. And while I never paid much attention to it as a kid, the running joke of Pee-wee utterly ignoring her romantic overtures is deeply funny to watch.

It’s only this time around that I noticed that after Pee-wee ignores her hug to fawn over his bike, Dottie turns her abortive gesture into a kind of awkward stretch. It’s so perfect and well-played.

Dottie is just a delight. While writing up this piece I wondered if she’d done much after this film and, sure enough, she has, mainly as a voice actor. She played Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, which is something else I watched endlessly as a kid and somehow never once realized. She also played the title pig in the sequel to Babe and continues to voice characters regularly in cartoons and video games. The oddest thing I learned is that she appeared on Saturday Night Live the year after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out…as a musical guest.

Dottie is also important for understanding how Pee-wee functions in this movie.

She cares about him, and not just romantically. She treats him with respect. She, like all of the other characters, either doesn’t notice his eccentricities or finds them passively endearing. Pee-wee is a force of juvenile energy and mischief, but she treats him the way she treats everybody else: fondly. The characters in this film, Dottie chief among them, are not only accepting of Pee-wee’s lifestyle, but are supportive of it.

However he lives, for whatever reason, he’s happy. And don’t we all deserve happiness, whatever it might represent for each of us?

The great untold joke of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is that you’d think the ultimate lesson is that Pee-wee is too naive. That his personal, sheltered view doesn’t align with the world at large. That, once he leaves his small comfort zone, he’ll learn the hard way that life isn’t what he thinks it is.

…but that doesn’t happen. People like Pee-wee. People reach out to help him. He wins over his initial detractors, ends the film with new friends from all walks of life, and even impresses Warner Bros. so much with his heartwarming tale of bicycle theft that they make a movie out of it.

Pee-wee is just Pee-wee. No, he’s not like anyone else. But, so what?

We’re all different, in our own way. Pee-wee just happens to have no interest in hiding it.

So, no. The lesson isn’t that we all have to grow up sometime. The lesson is the opposite. The lesson is to grow up when you want to grow up, or not at all. It’s your life. And you should enjoy it. You can play by your own rules. Be a loner. A rebel.

Pee-wee’s path through life is emphatically unlike anyone else’s — within the movie or without. And that’s okay. Because he is who he is. This is his life. And people treat him the way he should be treated. Not like a pariah or a weirdo or a dope…but like a human being.

So, yes, I watched Pee-wee’s Big Adventure endlessly as a kid. Looking back on it now, through adult eyes with adult expectations, I can conclude that, in this instance at least, my younger self had pretty good taste.

Of course, three years later we’d get a sequel, and I watched that one, too.


Tune in next week, when I’ll finally bring myself to watch it a second time.

…the things I do for you people.

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