Pee-Wee’s Daddy

Curator's Note

While rich fathers play a role in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (dir. Tim Burton, 1985), Pee-Wee’s own parents are rarely mentioned in either that film or the television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In fact, Ian Balfour supposes that “[f]or all we know, Pee-wee may have generated spontaneously into the adolescent age he is stuck in.” To support this self-birthed appearance, Balfour, Lynne Joyrich, and Constance Penley point out a variety of Oedipal references in Pee-wee’s Playhouse: his cyclopean bicycle helmet, the Sphinx on his Playhouse, the threatening scissors hanging on the wall, and disembodied Jambi.

I know of only one brief scene in the show where Pee-wee does make explicit reference to his father, in the “Rainy Day” episode (CBS, 27 Sept. 1986).

The most salient detail of this short gag is Pee-wee’s comment on the visual action “just like daddy.” On the one hand, what he says identifies the play behind his otherwise goofy action and hints at the unseen source of his fantasy. On the other hand, this is a great example of how Pee-wee calls attention to his imitation of childhood as a performance. In literary terms, we see the distinction between metaphor and simile; both make a comparison between unlike things, but similes, which generally use “like” or “as,” also call attention to the fact that a comparison is being made.

In Pee-wee’s case, not only is he comparing his playtime activities to the dissimilar adult activities of Daddy, but he is making this comparison explicit, and thereby drawing attention to the fact that scraping whipped cream off his face with a spoon is rather unlike real shaving, a point underscored when he next licks the spoon. Here, Pee-wee intricately “ventriloquies” childhood by parodying adulthood.

Or another turn, more horrifying: that Pee-wee really is shaving just like his daddy, and we have neither metaphor nor simile but a kind of frozen ontogeny: Pee-wee miming adulthood that is itself a mime taught by his father before him.


Hi Kevin, Thank you for providing a great opportunity to think about Pee-Wee in a sphere I've always been fascinated with: the domestic. In both the TV series and Burton's film, I've always been curious about Pee-Wee's elaborate and fantastical domestic space. The entire house--unlike what I know anyone has ever experienced in reality--is designed exclusively and fantastically for life as a child. In a scene I discuss later this week, the opening of PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, breakfast is prepared mechanically, completely negating the need for parental labor or supervision. I'm curious how the domestic space of Pee-Wee's world ultimately negates the need or question of the parental simply by performing the necessary labor of life?

Thanks for your comment Adam; I'm looking forward to reading your post this week. The idea of Pee-Wee's playhouse as self-contained domestic space is interesting. I'd guess that some of it comes out of a camp version of 1950s jet-age futurism (à la the Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate")? The fantastic auto-breakfast-machine you mention also calls to mind the similar opening scene of Back to the Future (released the same year as Big Adventure), where Doc's Rube Goldberg-esque morning routine has gone haywire in his absence: burnt toast, coffee pouring on the ground, overflowing dog food bowl ( In Back to the Future, viewers understand Doc is a bit of a crackpot, but are we supposed to understand Pee-Wee as the inventor behind his successful fantastic devices? Or is he more a consumer: taking advantage of a technologically-mediated environment that can replace parents?

The aesthetic of the playhouse is quite fascinating--there's a recent trend to recover mid-century Modernist style, and I can see quite a lot of that in the playhouse too (decades ahead of and behind the times, simultaneously). There's something slightly off about a lot of what's in the playhouse, like the fish with both eyes on one side and the put-togetherness of Conky. It's imaginative and somehow maintains a kid-made sensibility. In the same way that Pee-wee looks both forward and back, could he be creator and consumer, tinkering with sophisticated technologies to make them his own?

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