This post contains spoilers for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
In the charming Netflix revival Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Joe Manganiello roars into Pee-wee’s hometown of Fairville on a motorcycle and sweeps Pee-wee off his feet. The pair quickly hit it off over their shared love of Root Beer Barrel candy and tree houses. When Manganiello, playing himself, finds out Pee-wee has never left his small town, he beseeches him to come to Manhattan to attend his birthday party. Pee-wee agrees, but on the way he has some of his trademark wacky adventures. He is kidnapped by a band of butch bank robbers; he tours a snake farm where he is kidnapped by a crazy farmer and nearly forced into marriage (to a woman!); and he gets a makeover by a gaggle of fabulous hairdressers led by Darryl Stephens, the onetime star of the gay-focused Logo network’s sadly departed series Noah’s Arc. And that’s all before he arrives in Manhattan, where he falls into a well when he’s supposed to be at the big birthday party. Luckily, the strapping Manganiello, despondent over Pee-wee’s absence, eventually arrives to rescue our hero.
This is all to say: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is clearly fan service—if you weren’t already enamored with the goofy, bowtied, breakfast-loving manchild, this won’t help; but if you were, the Netflix update is catnip. Indeed, given the sweetly flirtatious dynamic between Manganiello and Pee-wee, it’s tempting to argue in particular that the movie is a kind of wish fulfillment for fans who grew up with the character and his barely coded queer persona. All of that queerness is basically explicit this time around. But for many decades-long fans, this one included, Pee-wee never had a “gay subtext.” For everyone but the willfully ignorant, it was always just text.
Pee-wee Herman, the character, always trafficked in the language of a certain kind of queer comedy. His jokes often had the same style of innuendo made popular by the likes of Paul Lynde and Bruce Vilanch. As the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares in the 1970s, Lynde was once asked “You’re the world’s most popular fruit. What are you?” to which he answered: “Humble.” In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Manganiello is dumbfounded that Pee-wee has never heard of him and asks if he has seen Manganiello’s hit movie Magic Mike, to which Pee-wee responds: “You would think so, but no.” Then, as now, anyone paying attention needs no explanation.
But Pee-wee’s comedy is more than just sly gay suggestion. His persona actively celebrates camp, particularly the kind of camp that elevates the language and style of the 1950s, when gay love was addressed evasively, if at all. While Pee-wee might seem childlike and sexless, his affection for Manganiello can only be called a crush. Pee-wee dreams of jousting with Manganiello using rainbow colored lances, and they exchange friendship bands at the end of the movie while squeezed together in Manganiello’s treehouse. This is what love looks like in Pee-wee’s delicate, but deliberate, mode. And that’s what love looked like to many gay kids like me. We didn’t have any idea what sex was, but we clearly knew we wanted to share a treehouse with that hunky special someone.
Paul Reubens developed Pee-wee while a regular at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles in 1970s. The character debuted on The Dating Game in 1979 (he was chosen over two other bachelors), and Reubens soon started a popular midnight weekly show at the Groundlings called the “Pee-wee Herman show,” where he worked with Phil Hartman, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, Edi McClurg, and John Moody. That show was decidedly adult, even if Pee-wee’s character appeared to be guileless. Pee-wee regularly appeared on the early seasons of Late Night with David Letterman, where he’d bring a box of props containing toys he’d picked up at some flea market, and he’d vamp in front of public service videos from the 1950s.
Of course, Reuben’s biggest moment came in 1985 with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, directed by a then largely unknown Tim Burton. In Big Adventure, Pee-wee goes on a quest to find his stolen bicycle, a vintage 1950s-era DX Schwinn Straightbar. Fans still lovingly recreate the iconic scene where Pee-wee dances to the song “Tequila” at a biker bar.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse arrived in 1986 as a children’s show, but it was so packed with queer signifiers that it became appointment viewing for many gay men. There was Tito the lifeguard, who rarely if ever saw the need to wear a shirt. Lawrence Fishburne played Cowboy Curtis, Pee-wee’s best friend, who confessed to sleeping in the nude and having “big feet.” And there was the time Pee-wee married a fruit salad, about which very little needs to be said.
Then there was the spectacle that was Pee-wee’s 1988 Christmas special. Not only do gay icons k.d. lang, Little Richard, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cher, and Dinah Shore make cameos, but Grace Jones, sporting a metallic brassiere, pops out of a box to sing a funky rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” Oh, and crew of hunky workers construct an addition to the playhouse made out of fruitcake.
In other words, the only way a viewer could not see Pee-wee’s Playhouse as “gay” was to actively ignore the pink signifiers littering its set. Compared to Pee-wee’s full legacy, Manganiello’s tree house and the rainbow stick fighting are the least of it. And what’s more, the thin veil of coyness that did exist is essential to Reubens’ creation: It’s not that Pee-wee is in the closet, it’s that he’s riffing on time where stealth queer wit and suggestive glances were the ultimate subversion. The character is a living artifact, a very funny and slightly sad celebration of another era.
Pee-wee Herman, of course, suffered a swift and brutal fall in 1991, when Reubens was arrested outside an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., accused of indecent exposure. It was a crime for which he was almost certainly innocent. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that while Reubens pled no contest to the charges, his lawyers disclosed a security video to the prosecution showing “that Reubens was in the lobby when detective William Walters allegedly saw the actor masturbating in the theater.” But the damage was done. CBS canceled reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Disney and MGM yanked a film where Pee-wee explained how voiceovers are made, and Toys ‘R’ Us removed Pee-wee products from its stores. As a children’s icon, Pee-wee was dead.
Luckily for Pee-wee (and now Netflix), his original fans have grown up, and the affection for him remained. And if anything, his sideways glance has become more indelible. Particularly for gay men who were children in the ‘80s, having Reuben’s subversive queer character vamp on Saturday morning TV was a gift, even if we couldn’t have articulated exactly what we were watching at the time. I had no idea who Grace Jones was, but I loved every second she chewed the scenery. I thought every time that Pee-wee mentioned fruit or fruitcake was hilarious, not knowing that it was all an inside joke. We lost Pee-wee to the madness of the ‘90s cultural wars sex panic (let’s pause for a moment over the absurdity of arresting someone for masturbating inside an adult theater), and the resulting “creepy” taint for audiences less familiar with his original image has been persistent, if unfair. So Pee-wee’s streaming recuperation is well-deserved. Seeing him camp around in 2016 gave me a kind of closure, for Pee-wee finally, in his own way, grows up and meets the root beer barrel candy-loving man of his dreams.