posted by Mel. on 2/27/01
The letter arrived shortly after my scabjob on the Wednesday Night Thunder Report for the DDT Digest--I don't garner a lot of e-mail in the channels of the Schwah correspondance underground and bare wires of reader feedback, so filling in for Bill is always a tawdry thrill. The response is often as quick and lethal as the closing of a mousetrap's jaws, criticisms piling up with flecks of rabies foam, accusations and aspirations instananeously dealt with poor grammar and weak thought process. However, in this particular batch was a missive from a fellow at Oxford University who had taken exception to my derogatory statements concerning one Scott Steiner. After a small dissertation and sketchy psychological profile, the letter ended on a curious note:
How, the author wondered, did you get so fucked up?
I usually disregard that particular query, to be honest. Having a wild hair up your ass and a mouthful of sharp teeth is not only acceptable in the wasteland of the early twenties, but almost certainly expected--my seemingly bottomless well of vitriol is just a bit better expressed through big words and abstract thinking, but it comes from the same source as some baseball-cap-wearing motherfucker getting his teeth knocked out in a Papa Roach moshpit. As long as my brain is willing to remember, I've had a lusty relationship with cynicism and social apathy as well as an affinity for wiping my ass with normalcy and all of its evils.
Painstakingly shaped by a long and delicious parade of repression and oppression, I simply became what everyone expected me to and then improved upon the design of the idea: a sullen lunatic with a faint glimmer of hope for humanity, a derelict geek who can carry a conversation with a girl while simultaneously buzzing the theme song from Voltron through his head and a writer who reads maybe once a week. If I had to do it, I wanted to do it with faggish flair, maybe spruce up those labels with a nice smatter of glitter and golden stitching.
But there was actually something more to it than devious evolution. For whatever reason, I found myself compelled to seriously consider the roots of my disgust. Where it was, exactly, where it truly went awry. When I stopped gnawing a hook of complacent majority bait and simply gave up on believing in the same smoke and mirrors as the other kids.
And it hit me.
In the dead middle of 1991's seamy California summer, Melancholy Hauser was ten years old. The eighties were being eroded by a brave new era, music had died and was starting to emit a foul rot-stench, and as I recall, the last few families in the neighborhood were vacating to more lucrative job opportunities down south. Fifth grade loomed, one step closer to the terrifying prospect of something called "junior high school". The kids who hadn't moved away were either fighting to cling to the comforts of childhood or selling it off in chunks and bits in an effort to grow up faster. They were wonderful, fantastic times.
I remember coming home that night, out of the long dusk and its oblong shadows, in from the lukewarm air and away from the local haunts. The family was sitting down to dinner around the static sound of the six o'clock news and its header--in this case of real personal import to Little Mohawk (Aptly named for a horrible condition of unruly hair at that juncture), a story on the underground whereabouts of Pee-wee Herman.
Growing up as a child of the eighties, there were absolutes. Saturday morning cartoons, vast collections of Atari 2600 games, Michael Jackson making scary or nasty videos that involved werewolves or kissing and robots. VCRs were still a luxury for families that bought into uncertain technology, and word-of-mouth was supreme when it came to what films achieved playground legend. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was as seminal a work as the Star Wars films, The Goonies, Gremlins, eminently quotable--if you knew the comebacks, you were in like a splinter, and if you didn't, you were doomed to a confused death when the conversation turned to our heroes.
Pee-wee's Playhouse was our first and only true variety show, an oddity among cartoons as a fundamental part of the CBS Saturday Morning lineup. We tuned in religiously to see what antics would explode from the set in weird Technicolor--many of the jokes had an unseen double edge that would come into play years later, but for the eyes of a kid overstimulated on sugar crack cereal, it was bliss. When the Playhouse aired during primetime and CBS invited the kids to bring their parents along for the ride, it was an event on par with Sullivan and the Beatles.
Pee-wee was there for us. His Playhouse had left behind a legacy of one-liners and insanity that were indelible: screaming real loud, riding a turbo-charged scooter off a ramp and into the sunset, and always slamming the door in the face of a salesman.. unless you happened to be having a rain-in party. It sounds like sheer and tragic idiocy when you say that a cartoon or personality can import moral responsibility, but to a mind as blank as a ripe slate, you find inspiration in the weirdest places.
The newscast began that night, and it all broke apart.
At ten years old, even smart for my age, I didn't know a lot of things. I didn't know what "masturbation" meant, nor did I know what an affadavit or "sting operation" entailed. At the top of the media telecast, I was still the misfit kid of the block, the one who had his toys from six or seven years earlier, the clumsy weirdo who would leave the house with mismatched socks and smile vacantly at insults hurled right between his eyes. By the time those credits rolled, I was forever changed. I had, for the first time, seen the enemy.
The media assault was surgical in its execution; as I'd see time and time again in the consequent years, the somber tone made a flimsy cover for a full-on celebrity crucifixion. Overpaid hyenas with plastic faces and false sympathy, clucking tongues and shaking their fucking heads like someone had killed all the firstborns in New York City--careful and loving splashes of a mug shot, the bleak concrete wall and shaggy visage of a man now outed as "Paul Reubens". The anchors read the grim details with perverse pleasure, fully realized that they were firing the first shot in what was sure to be a televised execution. And to their credit, that's exactly what it was.
By the next morning, everyone had turned.
I approached the small clusters of kids on the cool playground before we were ushered into class with a bitter dread on my palette', knowing full-well what I'd be hearing the moment I stepped within earshot. Instincts that blossomed into full aversions to stupid and common behavior later on, serving me in their neophyte stages: every friend I had was taking part in a homicidal tangent, chattering like rabid squirrels over a genuine scandal that would affect their young lives. Pee-wee was now "Wee-Wee", and the insults and jokes flowed like blood over the four-square pattern. That which had made us so happy through so many years and dark learning experiences was now bearing a joy of a different sort.. akin to baby spiders devouring their mother in desperate hunger as soon as their fangs had developed.
I didn't join in, which created a miniature maelstrom. Of course, going against the grain of that deemed "cool" was nothing new to plump little Mel, and before first break I was being referred to as "Fag-Butt Herman" for having choked some fourth-grade twit after he declared that Pee-wee was 'gay' in earshot. The day ground down my resolve, and by the time I limped back home to the fading taunts of those who had--in typical kid fashion--been my compatriots eight hours earlier. Disillusionment becomes common when you get your license to drive and your freedom to drink, but at ten years of age, it's the end of the goddamn world.
In the days that came too quickly afterward, knives were sharpened, lips were whetted and the murder of Pee-wee Herman became a national sensation. The jokes got nastier and more frequent, and the media dutifully served its supposedly plebian message with clockwork accuracy; on this hour, CBS officially pulled the switch on Pee-wee's Playhouse as a pre-emptive measure towards cancerous criticism that may have reached the station itself. Tonight, Hollywood has done the right thing in upholding its image as an organization of stringent virtue by ripping Pee-Wee Herman's star up from the Walk of Fame. And our leading story this evening is whether or not The Walt Disney Company will be yanking Rex the Robot's voice from Star Tours and replacing it with a sound-alike.
The campaign of the jerkwater journalism skank who had sacrificed Reuben's career to better her own in Sarasota succeeded by anyone's wildest expectations. Within a month, Pee-wee Herman was no longer a fixture of the innocent and weird side of precious childhood, but now tauted as a twisted maniac who represented the perverse scum who crawled around the testicular region of society, sucking blood where they could. Though charges were never officially filed and the allegations were never proven, there was never any doubt as to whether or not proof had to figure into the equation--before the body had hit the ground, we were trying to forget that we'd ever loved him.
Well, most of us.
I never blamed Reubens nor found the slightest bit of humor, ironic or otherwise, in the public smear campaign launched against every aspect of the character he played and the private life he respectfully kept a secret for so long. I never cracked a Wee-Wee joke. I spit on people who did. I cheered the loudest when Pee-wee made one final appearance at the MTV Movie Awards before a crowd of glamorous filth whose compounded sins would rival a day in the life of Marquis de Sade and make Reuben's own transgressions look like Sunday School. I also came to realize that in this corkscrew world and its tilt-a-whirl twists and turns, there are those who truly and without fail get exactly what they deserve.. and then there are those who don't.
Pee-wee Herman really didn't.
In all our grand wisdom, we forgot the story of a lonely man who, on a slow evening while visiting his parents, may or may not have engaged in activity befitting of the setting--he was not a lothario, he was not a pediphile, he was nothing less than a human being, and society had the unminigated fucking nerve to outcast him from their hearts and minds because of it. As if no one who'd ever lived before this towering psychopath had jerked off in a porn theater, they held up the children as their cause while secretly relishing every second of exploiting someone else's foibles.
And even in the aftermath, when they'd cremated his remains and Pee-wee's Big Adventure was being torn off of store shelves and placed in the hermetically-sealed containers of celebrity lepers, Paul Reubens was a class act. He dutifully paid his court fee, cut a thirty-second promo for local Florida television advising kids to stay away from drugs, and then simply vanished. He made those of us who wrote letters of reassurance and support proud by never sinking to the level of those standing in line to enthusiastically admonish him for nothing more than a stroke of piss-poor luck. When he returned to the big screen in 1992's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I had a grin on my face the size of a watermelon slice for a solid week. Because it take balls to be humbled, and Reubens was willing to start again from the bottom--it's a lesson I could have learned through less extreneous circumstances, but one I import from example to this day.
And as a society, ten years after the fact, we'll still forgive the president of the United States for a biblical sin and give Robert Downey Jr. a lead role on a popular shitcom and the cover of People magazine despite basically showcasing the power of celebrity as a crutch to overcome any amount of strikes. The oddest people keep floating back up to the top of the bowl on the strength of spin doctors and a perpetual pity act from popular media. The cultural ritual of witch hunting, pointing and laughing never goes out of style. And our little brothers and sisters get older.
As for Pee-wee Herman?
Paul Reubens, the actor, is finding semi-consistent roles in an ecclectic toybox of movies. He bounces from cinema for the children he served and educated for so long to indie fare, maintaining a low profile beneath the surface of the spotlight that was once his. Paul pops up in magazines from time to time to check in with those who are still faithful. He's always congenial. He's always gracious. He's awesome.
Pee-wee Herman, the myth, has started to trickle back into the public eye. Small doses are necessary for the process--almost as if a step taken too boldly will break down the delicate rebuilding that's thankfully taking place. Off the blacklist, a complete collection of Playhouse tapes is advertised at the bleakest hours of morning via infomercial. Shirts pop up from time to time. Pee-wee Herman's star inexplicably reappeared on the Walk of Fame in front of a poster and movie-memoribilia tourist craptrap. A remake of the banned and much-maligned "Talking Pee-wee" doll has shown up on shelves at Hot Topic and Spencer's weirdo outlets nationwide. Building patiently on the shoulders of teenagers too young to readily recall his exile, the institution of Pee-wee Herman is finally coming back to a full circle.
And Melancholy Hauser, the stubborn believer, is growing up slowly. Knowing full well that the world needs Pee-wee Herman in any capacity. Waiting for the third and final cinematic outing of his orignal anti-hero to go into production, smiling sarcastically at the prospect of huge lines of sudden fans who have forgotten, and by default, forgiven. I remember it all and take it with me through every fucking trend that stirs our bloated humanity, never anything less than a child who will always believe in the right of a person to teach kids that there's no disgrace in being different, regardless of who they might be when those cameras aren't rolling.
But most importantly, hopeful. Hopeful that this time, we might just get it right.