Pee-wee Herman and the Differences Between My Parents


A tale of two reactions

I first saw Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the U.S. on summer vacation, with American cousins. I thought it looked and sounded stupid offhand, but my uncle Mike endorsed it. Once it began, that whole opening sequence made me laugh so hard I hurt. The rest of the movie couldn't possibly have measured up, but it had moments that came close, and I pretty quickly decided it was now my favorite movie. I said this even though there were plenty of jokes and gags, in hindsight, that I still didn't get -- for one, I had no idea what the Alamo was, or that Jan Hooks was doing a parody of a boring tour guide rather than just doing the real thing.

I made my dad watched it, and he enjoyed it. Not just that -- he saw me enjoying it. In years to come I would get a Pee-wee birthday cake, the talking Pee-wee doll, and all the Playhouse merchandise.

Movies did not open globally on the same timeframe. It took years for the movie to come to Ireland, with little fanfare and barely any reviews. I insisted that my mother should see it with me, because it was the funniest movie ever. She reluctantly agreed, having a similar initial reaction to the one I had had when I first heard the title. But I was sure the movie would win her over.

One thing I noticed but couldn't articulate at the time was the way the movie was framed differently for theaters. Those who saw it first on video, saw how the "infinite bike chain" gag worked and how the road signs worked, due to the VHS full-frame adding tops and bottoms rather than chopping off the sides of widescreeen. On the DVD commentary years later, Tim Burton would comment on the odd compliments he'd get for making the gags so obvious, even though he hadn't and it was a masking mistake.

Anyway, I reckoned without my mother's stubborn inability to adapt outside her comfort zone. She did not care for the movie, and blamed it, initially, on her tiredness. Later, though, if the movie came up in conversation, she'd say "It was horrible," and when I protested she said she'd been too tired to focus, she'd qualify with, "Well, I suppose I was just too tired to understand it." ["I just don't understand American culture" was her favorite go-to excuse when her prejudices were called out.]

One parent engaged with the thing I liked. Another provided a textbook example how not to.

Not to say that my father has a perfect track record on that score, but such memories are for another day. For now, he's the one that I miss, and Pee-wee was a big shared thing we had. It's like a chunk of that broke off and drifted away today.

Thanks, Paul.


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