Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#2 Philip Hayward 1 Jan 1987

Pee Wee Hermeneutics

It has only taken a children's TV series and one feature film to make an American comic called PEE WEE HERMAN one of the most talked about cultural phenomena of the mid Eighties. No mean feat for anyone, let alone someone working in the forgotten corner of children's programming. Initially heralded in America in all manner of publications from mass circulation magazines to up-market journals like Art Forum, HERMAN is now the toast of Britain's Popular Culture scene too, earning a front cover on The Face and appreciative features in everything else that matters.

So why all the (trans-Atlantic) fuss? There have of course been American comics who've risen to intellectual cult status before JERRY LEWIS for example, rising out of low-budget Hollywood to become a celebrated darling of the French cineaste scene, but HERMAN is different. He's not just the feted discovery of a foreign culture that has proclaimed him as a prophet without honor in his own land, he is a truly international phenomenon.

The key fact underlying HERMA 's critical success is that he is simply too good to be true, He is seemingly too bright, radical, complex and deeply funny to have been thrown up by the production line aesthetic of the American Media industry. But he is there and we - the supposedly dynamic counter-culture - didn't create him. The American Empire strikes back ... with a smile.

HERMAN's fame, fortune and film contract have arisen from his crossover success in an American Saturday morning children's show called PEE WEE's Playhouse. In Playhouse HERMAN ambles deliriously round a house which in other circumstances would be called nightmarish; a residence frequented by odd visitors and inanimate objects which take on personality attributes while staying resolutely on the wrong side of anthropomorphism.

HERMAN's outstanding appeal results from his vertiginous slippage between the hysterically sublime blankness of pastiche and a whole range of parodies, puns and straightforward slapstick. He's at his best at perverse extremes - positively gurning his face to indicate an unreachably intense expression of overblown childish angst or conceit at one moment and cooly accepting the most improbable occurrence at another. He is also as adept an orchestrator of audience participation as any other TV performer before.

HERMAN's most celebrated (and parentally feared) Playhouse trick involves a weekly secret word. The routine is simple but deadly effective. At the start of each show HERMAN announces a special word for his audience to listen out for and reminds them of what to do when they hear it. After this, each time the word crops up in the dialogue an eager audience participate in a Playhouse ritual by getting hold of household utensils such as pots and pans and banging them together as loudly as possible ... The collaboration intrudes into the adult world, bypassing the sensible behavioral cues of Sesame Street and the like, and sneaking infantile anarchy back into the home via the same TV sets and programming intended to pacify it.

The show's script, Art design, visual effects and direction all play a part in the originality of Playhouse but its HERMAN's unique presence which binds them together, his hyper-real personna that breaks through the free-slide of TV's chattering imagery.

What PEE WEE's Playhouse and Big Adventure (the movie) do is confirm Postmodernism not just as an endlessly debated and increasingly tired cliche of intellectual debate but as a truly popular phenomenon capable of inventive moves seemingly beyond the grasp of traditional Modernism.

In terms of Video Art performance PEE WEE HERMAN blazes a trail and even sets an agenda which has only been hinted at in the drama-performance work of tapes like CECILIA CONDIT's Possibly in Michigan, JOAN JONAS's Double Lunar Dogs or GEORGE BARBER's Taxi Driver Two: Recline of the West; and shows how drama-performance can both break conventions, push invention to new limits, combine the popular with the post-surreal and still engage audiences instead of alienating them.

The fact of an American TV setting an agenda for anything, let alone Video Art may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it is one that it is better to swallow than neglect if Video drama-performance isn't to continue languishing in the grips of outmoded traditions of anti naturalist drama or glacially obscure performance Art.

If you'd like to quote something: Hayward,Philip. "Pee Wee Hermeneutics." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 2 # 2 (1987).