Today is the birthday of Paul Rubenfeld a.k.a Paul Reubens a.k.a Pee-wee Herman (b. 1952).
I’m real surprised I didn’t think of this when I was writing Chain of Fools but I’m now remembering that I was fairly over the moon when Pee Wee’s Big Adventure came out in 1985. At the time (and pretty much still) it was my ideal when I think of what a modern comedy film can and should be. In fact, I got rather carried away at the time, and thought some sort of new day was dawning, that American comedy was about to make a whole new change. I was delving seriously into silent comedies for the first time during the same period — it’s when I originally got the vision of what I would like to experiment with in that realm. The visual sensibility in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (a sort of merging of director Tim Burton’s and Reubens’), was so ALIVE, an explosion of color and kitsch, and ideas and quotations. I’m remembering pictures and scenes from the movie now, and I haven’t seen it since the 1980s.
I had some online fisticuffs recently with some people when I dismissed a couple of famous comedy directors as “hacks.” I’ll even tell you who I was writing about: Carl Reiner and Harold Ramis. Sorry! People were chagrined, like it was some kind of a heresy. But not only do I stand by it, I’ll say it again: hacks! In a film by a real comedy director, everything — every single detail — contributes to the whole in some defensible way. Every line, every action, every shot, every angle, every edit, every prop, every costume, every hairstyle, every location is carefully and correctly chosen to have something to do with the director’s vision. There is a governing aesthetic, a stamp. Who are some great comedy directors? I am glad you asked. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Leo McCarey, Jules White, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen (some of the time), Mel Brooks (some of the time), Quentin Tarantino, and maybe a handful of others. Bogdanovich, for example, on a couple of occasions.
Who are hacks, then? Almost everybody else. Everybody for whom every line, every action, every shot, every angle, every edit, every prop, every costume, every hairstyle, every location has NOT been carefully and correctly chosen to have something to do with the director’s vision, because he hasn’t given terribly much thought or energy to the creation of one. Such directors just kind of take a sort of half-assed script with a half a dozen funny lines in it, shoot it with fairly indifferent camera placement and direction of actors, and release it with about 97% inert content. Like a cheap hot dog, it’s all filler. Sometimes the results turn out alright — but when it does it usually feels like an accident. It’s hit or miss. Go to your local theatre right now. There’s eight movies playing there that answer this description.
In a good comedy, not a moment goes by that doesn’t just about blow the audience’s mind. Harold Lloyd and Bob Hope employed entire committees of gag writers to FILL their movies. This isn’t the moon shot, okay? This isn’t some unachievable, pie in the sky goal. People used to put this much effort into comedies ALL THE TIME. That’s what it takes: effort.
Perhaps you think I make exaggerated claims for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That may be — I haven’t seen it in many years. But that was how it struck me when I first saw it in 1985, and I went back to the theatre to see it many times. But, nah — I just watched this clip. This is indeed how I want all movies to be:
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.