Since first appearing in 1980’s Cheech & Chong's Next Movie, Pee-wee Herman has left an indelible mark on popular culture – and a big part of that is the character’s key catchphrases. From his famous laugh to “I know you are, but what am I?” audiences have been quoting Pee-wee for decades now. As you would expect, many of these lines will be coming back and featured in the upcoming Pee-wee’s Big Holiday - but what might surprise you is the way in which the context of the lines will be changed to make them fresh all over again.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Pee-wee’s Big Holiday director John Lee, and it was while discussing the upcoming feature and the icon at its center that the filmmaker revealed how he and his colleagues went about approaching some of Pee-wee’s most famous catchphrases. Essentially the idea boiled down to readings of the lines in ways that are completely different than ways they’ve been previously said, breathing new life into them and also making them funny for a whole new reason. Lee explained,
I think it’s just a choice of aesthetics and style between Paul [Reubens] and I both agreed on. There were a lot of his classic lines that I wanted him to deliver in ways that he’d never done them before. So there’s like one where he says, ‘Why don’t you marry it?’ which is such a classic Pee-wee line, but he says it he’s depressed because his band just broke up with him. So someone is like, ‘Oh I love your biscuits, Pee-wee,’ because he’s a chef - and he’s like [in low-key voice] ‘Why don’t you marry it?’ Just like ‘Get out of here.’ Here, here, have the joke and they laugh. So, there’s a lot of that in there, that I hope people will notice, but I still think it’s funny.
Given that it’s been nearly 30 years since 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee - the character’s last feature film – John Lee could have easily just had Paul Reubens deliver some of his classic lines in a way that would just hit the nostalgia button and make audiences smile, but he decided that he wanted to try something a bit more challenging. He had no interest in just having Pee-wee deliver material we’ve already heard, and wanted to give fans something that they aren’t expecting. Said Lee,
It’s not the same kind of funny, but there might be a little bit more of a comment – lowercase ‘c’ comment – just on who he is as a character and what you expect of him. That’s a subtly that people might make disappointed or not, I don’t know, but to me it was a more interesting choice than just doing a classic reboot kind of story. I get nothing out of that, as opposed to let’s try something a little new or let’s put him in a new emotional place, which doesn’t erase the character. It’s variety and something more interesting.
Considering how many comedy sequels manage to crap the bed simply by repeating every gag from previous installments, this is honestly refreshing. It’s admittedly a situation where John Lee, Paul Reubens and the others involved have a chance to have their cake and eat it too, but if it works, it could function as really fun meta commentary on the character.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday will be available to stream on Netflix starting on March 18th – and be sure to stay tuned for more from our interview with director John Lee!