Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton (1985)

Revealed: a kiddie flick’s role in the conspiracy to denigrate cycling

Audio boo of this piece.

Decades ago the US car industry created a shadowy Agency charged with deploying the dark arts to discredit bicycles and those who ride them. Lance Armstrong, of course, is that body’s most recent and potent creation. The chemically-enhanced superman’s first guise was as an all-American success story who took cycling to new heights of popularity. His denouement is the long-planned pay-off, heaping such disgrace upon competitive cycling that its very survival is now in question.

Oil prices, environmentalism and congestion were not quite so toxic for the big-car economy during the 1980s, but the Agency still had to earn its keep. The result was Pee Wee Herman, a repugnant, clucking, man-boy whose passion for his balloon-tyred Schwinn cruiser is patently a cipher for more unsavoury yearnings. Played by a thirty-something actor, and dressed like a bell-hop, the simpering character is child-like in appearance, but embodies the selfishness and malevolence of one whose innocence is long lost.

Pee Wee’s bicycle is the love of his life, so much so that throughout the plot he resists the enthusiastic attention of Dottie, the bike-shop cutie. Needless to say, when his bike is stolen, the waddling, bow-tied title character sets off across the country on an ill-starred quest to regain his wheels. Along the way, he has ample opportunity to demonstrate just how loathsome he is, schmoozing money from Dottie on a false promise, persuading another charecter to leave her hard-working boy friend and wreaking such havoc at Warner Bros studios that is little wonder that shortly afterwards the parent company sought merger with publishers Time inc.

Casting the bicycle as a creep’s vehicle of choice was a cheap shot. But for the Agency, Pee Wee was the gift that carried on giving. Just as the franchise spread its tentacles with a second film, a tv show and guest appearances on major US chat shows, Paul Reubens, the actor who had created, and seemed almost to believe that he had become, Pee Wee, was arrested for masturbating in a darkened adult cinema. The resulting media fire storm, whether you think if justified or not, brought the Herman empire crashing down. Shows were cancelled, Pee Wee dolls removed from toy stores and Reuben’s career destroyed.

The nocturnal conspirators whose work promotes internal combustion will have plenty more mileage from the Lance saga, of course. Making the healthiest known means of transport a byword for life-threatening drug abuse is a masterstroke to make even Machiavelli gasp. But the Agency knows that keeping the pedalling tide at bay requires long-term planning.

As I write, there is talk of a Pee Wee comeback film, possibly showcasing the characters ‘dark side’.

TD Nov 12

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