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an interview with ‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ director John Lee (of ‘Wonder Showzen’)

Pee-wee and John Lee
Pee-wee and John Lee

Pee-wee Herman returns to the movie world today with Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, his first since Big Top Pee-wee in 1988, which you can watch on Netflix right now. The film is a return to the road trip format of Big Adventure, with P.W. meeting Joe Manganiello (the wolfman in True Blood) that leads him cross country with all sorts of crazy detours, including a run-in with a girl gang straight out of a Russ Meyer film, a doorbell heiress that Big Adventure fans may recognize, an simple farmer and his gaggle of daughters, and more. Paul Reubens creation remains an out-of-time, manic comedic presence, the movie is a lot of fun, and it’s a welcome return for Pee-wee.

One of the biggest detours could be the film’s director, John Lee, who over the last 15 years has been responsible for some of the most genuinely messed-up television ever aired, as part of the P.F.F.R. creative collective, in the form of Wonder Showzen, Xavier: Renegade Angel to The Heart She Holler. (He has also directed episodes of Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, and has played in bands like Muckafurgason and P.F.F.R. as well.) Beyond his resume, Lee is in fact a perfect fit for the job. (He’s also, full disclosure, an old friend of mine.) We talked this week, ahead of the film’s premiere at SXSW, about his connection to Pee-wee, adapting his particular style to that world, getting to work with composer Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and more. There are spoilers below, so maybe watch Big Holiday for diving into this.

John, I’ve known you for a long time, and I remember the first time I went to your apartment, it was for a party, and somehow it came up that I had the Pee-wee ventriloquist doll, and you took me to to your Pee-wee shrine, which was like a corner of this big closet.

[Laughs] Oh yeah! I have never told Paul, but I still have my Pee-wee Herman Fan Club card and the autographed picture you used to get when you became a member. I still know my secret club name.

Do you want to share it?

I can’t! It’s secret!

You had a Billy Baloney doll right?

I still have it, my kids play with it.

You don’t mind them playing with your valuable Pee-wee memorabilia?

I place no value on stuff like that, except that it should be played with and destroyed like all kids toys. They hate Billy Baloney, they beat him up. I’m anarchic at heart, I embrace violence towards inanimate things.

So when I heard that you were going to direct this movie, my first thought was your Pee-wee shrine, and how crazy it is to think about what “1998 you” would’ve thought about  you’d be making the first Pee-Wee movie since Big Top.

For sure. When i interviewed for this job, I thought it went well. My first foray into non-destructive comedy. So I thought the interview went well, and then my agent told me, basically, I could get the job. I called my wife, Alison, and said “I think I can get this job” But it’s very strange, because it’s with this weird group of people, it’s like a big movie and I’d been wanting to make larger things, but I wasn’t sure. Basically she she said, “You can’t say no. Your whole life has been aimed towards making a Pee-wee Herman movie. Everything about you is exactly right for this.” It took that little push, and it was “of course.” It was very exciting, because I was such a fan of his crazy, early stuff, just how rude and and adult and aggressive it was, in the most Reagan-esque “oh it’s Little Mr. Perfect” but he actually likes to destroy things and he hate the world that’s around him and makes fun of people who are boring. I was very internally gleeful, and very externally nervous. Because I didn’t want to fuck it up. He’s a large father figure for a lot creative people. I was like “oh shit” because I knew how important he is to me, so I hoped to service that in some way.

So did they contact you or you heard about it and enquired?

Are you asking me what the crew asked — “how did you get this job?” (Laughs) Well I was supposed to do this show Neon Joe Werewolf Hunter with Jon Glazer but that got pushed because of Turner complications, so it was the first time in my life where I suddenly had nine months open. PFFR is not doing anything, Neon Joe‘s getting pushed, so I called my agent and he immediately said “read this script tonight, read it right away.” I didn’t know what it was, he sent it to me and it said “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.” I was so confused! Because I’d never talked about Pee-wee to my agent ever, or anyone, because why would you? At least in the business world. I’ve talked about Pee-wee to friends, about creative influences. But I’ve never said to my agent, “If ever there’s a Pee-wee movie, call me!” Because no one says that. The script was good. I happened to be going to L.A. so I set up a meeting. I got hired on my birthday, which was just a couple days after I met with them. I was what Judd and Paul were looking for. And one year later, a day before my following birthday, I moved back to New York City.

How did you find LA?

Los Angeles is a terrible town. It’s the kind of place where everyone says “Los Angeles, is great because the weather is great!” But the weather doesn’t define culture, that’s Florida. So it’s the slightly better Florida? That is nothing to be proud of.

And you have to drive everywhere.

Well I rode my bike a lot. And when you’re in the big time, you get a driver. The hire people to drive you around because they don’t want you do get in an accident and then cost them money. It’s very strange and I’m such not that person, but it’s true — I had a driver during the movie.

So you weren’t riding the bike just to make yourself look more Pee-wee-esque?

Maybe secretly. I’ve always ridden a bike. Mine was green, I probably should’ve bought a red bike.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday John Lee
John Lee on the set (photo by Glen Wilson)

So the movie that people can now watch on Netflix, was that pretty much what you read in the script? It was always a return to the Big Adventure format?

I say this movie is close cousins with Big Adventure. There are a lot of parallels and similarities. The thinnest amount of plot is the best amount of plot for a Pee-wee movie, and I think this one has even less plot than Big Adventure. I think Judd really wanted a road movie for Paul, who had some other ideas but then really liked this one. I would say 80% of what you see in Big Holiday was there in the script when I first got it. The 20% were larger themes that changed, and some scenes changed.

There are some familiar faces in this one too. Diane Salinger, who played Simone, is here as the Katherine Hepburn type adventuress Pee-wee meets.

If Katherine Hepburn played Amelia Earhart. Penny King, the heiress to a doorbell fortune. “Every time I hear you ring, I hear ‘ka-ching.'”

Lynne-Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on Playhouse, she’s in this…

Though most people probably won’t recognize her. Miss Yvonne was such a giant look, with the hair and the bosoms, this is a totally different role. Paul just tends to like, and I do too, as much as you can put your friends in the movie, do it. As a) a historical document and b) it’s just more fun to work with people you know and like. He’s really into that. A lot of those people, even the background people in the diner scenes, are friends of his. The guy who’s the pharmacist is his old landlord. I’d say in every shot there’s at least three friends of Paul’s. It’s really endearing, because he’s not a person to push it or make it happen, but we’d audition them and they’d just be right for the part. He’s just attracted to these real life kooky characters who just have a thing about them. That’s what’s great about Pee-wee, is that you don’t need to stunt cast — you really don’t want to stunt cast — you just want to fill the world with these oddball characters. Something about their face, or voice or energy. He surrounds himself with those people, and it worked out perfectly.

That being said, the main plot point — the MacGuffin of Big Holiday — is a giant piece of stunt casting.

Exactly! There’s just one giant stunt-cast. But it also backs up my argument because Joe Manganiello is just playing himself. But one is enough.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

So was Joe already in place when you came to this?

No. In the script there was someone written in, but we ended up with Joe and I’m so glad, because Joe was just so perfect. He’s a huge Pee-wee Herman fan — it’s insane how big a fan he is, actually — and he’s so much the opposite of Paul. He’s giant, and handsome…he’s one of those people that when you’re around him you just feel inferior in every way. You’re like “wow, people can be that tall?” But he’s also just so nice. he does a really great job in the movie. There’s a scene where he’s in his bedroom and he just shruggs his shoulders, it’s just so perfectly boyish. I don’t think any other “star” that we were looking for would’ve handled that in the way that he did; Without any of those things being laughs, then the movie fails. He had perfect timing, and it was the perfect casting.

So your previous work..

(laughs) Can you call it “work”? I call it trash.

It’s work! But everything you’ve done up to this point — apart from the episodes of Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer you’ve directed — you’re responsible for some deeply weird comedy over the last 15 years or so. Were you encourage to bring your sensibility to Pee-wee’s world or were you there just to “realize Paul’s vision”?

Paul had known Wonder Showzen, clearly, and he’d seen The Heart She Holler and I think he just thought “this guy knows how to create weird worlds” and not just for weirdness’ sake. Also the set design, that kind of thing. I think he’s always looking for someone who has a similar eye and similar taste. Taste, it’s something that’s so hard. You either agree with someone or you don’t. Judd knew my work from Delocated, so it was a good combination. They basically asked me, “How flexible are you in your weirdness?” I said that I’m always going to push things , but they can say “no I don’t like that, and that’s fine.” It’s not that personal to me. I always viewed it as I’m here to make Paul’s movie, and to make it better. That was my job. So there’s a ton of oddness that I put into the movie, but none of it is as aggressive as what is behind me. I see the connection to it all. There’s not a real through-line to everything I’ve made except for an uncomfortable tone. This is not that at all, but I think people who know me can tell. There has always been, in our destruction and uncomfortableness, an underlying emotional…I wouldn’t say “sweetness” but some awkward emotions that we wan’t to resonate. Though that is secondary to jokes for PFFR.

I felt like the opening scene with the alien, maybe you had something to do with.

Well, my only involvement was vetoing other opening scenes until they came up with this one. But that was all Paul Reubens and (co-screenwriter) Paul Rust. I love the idea of starting a movie with the end of another movie. Every one of his movies, Pau has said he wanted to have “Big” in the title and that he wanted to start with a dream sequence.  So if you turn this movie on, it starts with “See you later buddy!” You’re like “did I miss something?” That joke alone is amusing enough to do it.

I also meant the character design of the E.T. That seemed like you.

Oh for sure. I designed about 80 or 90 percent of that E.T. We had these puppet designers who couldn’t wait to work on this — because they wanted to work on a Pee-wee Herman movie — and I just kept saying that I wanted it to be like a baby grandpa or a baby grandma. I had all these reference pictures of a Tibetan woman who was 104, and also these cute little dog. I wanted a cross between the two. He has the eyes of my old dog Mr. Little Jeans, the kind of big eyes, weird little face, he used to have. But the E.T. is like a big baby grandma. So yes, that was basically all me.

Also the way he gets teleported back to his ship…

That was a joke that I insisted on that no one thought was going to work. When he shifts from going straight-up to leaning back, the first screening it got a laugh, they were like “you’re right.” It’s so dumb. Wonder Showzen is based on shitty puppeteering. Not necessarily by choice but by our own skills, but also just embracing the homemade. Which I think is also one of the things people love about Pee-wee. The innocent approach to something is often more interesting than the professional. He can get away with the cheesiest jokes in the world, because it’s a little bit gleeful. He doesn’t take it seriously, as opposed to people who try to mimic that as real comedy, or people who are trying to actually achieve something and failing. He’s into that mistake-ism, and people’s natural failures. That’s more intersting and more great. It’s hard to capture that in spirit — I hate movies that try to be bad on purpose — but this is you try doing the best at doing the worst joke possible.

A prime example of that is in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. The “balloon” gag, which is something I remember him doing on Pee-wee’s Playhouse and thinking “This is going on forever. This is on CBS?” I know he did it in his Broadway show too, but it really works great here. The kind of thing where it goes past the point of being funny and becomes funnier because of it.

I shot “coverage” of that so you could cut away, but our editor Jeff Buchanan was like “I’m going to show you something and it’s just one take.” I was like “One take, I dunno” but he showed it to me and within ten seconds I was “sold, you don’t need to show me the rest.” It had to be one take. When do you ever get to see a performance like that in movies anymore? You don’t.  Who is the last person who would’ve gotten away with that, Jerry Lewis? You go from “oh this is funny” to exhausted, to gleeful, to hating it, to joy, to anger…and it’s several minutes long. It’s like 10% of movie. (Laughs) Just this one shot of him blowing up a balloon and then letting the air out in the slowest way. I think it’s the most successful moment in the movie.

Back to the film using old friends…Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo did the music. 

Oh man. I was thrilled. Devo was a huge influence on me and with my band PFFR. He was great to work with and such an amazing, weird, quirky dude. You can go into his office and it’s just loaded with instruments everywhere, artwork everywhere. He’s doing paintings while he’s composing…he lives in the fantasy world that he created. And he really did a great job with the score. His music is such a part of Pee-wee’s world. He did the music for Pee-wee’s Playhouse.  They are so close and so tight, it was fun to just hear them ramble on about their past…while I’m looking at the clock watching the thousands of dollars per second tick off. (Laughs) “That’s great, I’d love to hear about your art school days but I would also like to finish this movie.” But it was so great. Any other composer we would hire would’ve just been copying Mark of Danny Elfman, so why not get the source? They recorded with a full orchestra at Abbey Road studios. I didn’t get to got, unfortunately.

Was it weird to you to have to give notes to someone like Mark Mothersbaugh?

I felt a little nervous at first but, you know, I was in several bands. I don’t think composers expect me to know anything technical about music. But the first day, he played me something and I think he and some of the other people on the production were surprised how specific I was with notes on the score. I’m not the kind of person to overthink how to communicate with people. I just went in and gave my notes. We could sit there and talk about feelings for a couple hours, or we could just give notes and get to work.  You really have to do that and in the end people just want clarity.

So you’re going to Austin for the big premiere at SXSW [which happened last night, see picture above].

I’m taking the whole family. This is the first thing I’ve ever been able to show my family. (Laughs) Every other time, my kids are like “oh what are those little puppets?” We have paintings of Chauncey and Clarence, or maybe it’s a t-shirt. Or The Heart She Holler. They’ve visited the set, but they can never see most of it because it would be Amy Sedaris giving birth to a wormlike aomeba or something, and she’s making out with it. I can’t show them that. Or Xavier, I can’t show that to anybody. (Laughs). And Wonder Showzen, well you know what that is. So this is the first time I can say “You get to see what I do!” You can watch Broad City when you’re in college.

What’s next?

I’m working with John Glazer on this quasi-reality show about his very-real love of gear. It’s a really fun, strange and weird experiment based on Glazer’s love of coats and boots other stuff you buy at REI and Patagonia. I think it will be oddly entertaining. Oh, and I’m making the Morrissey bio movie.

You wish.

(Laughs). I do wish. I keep saying that to people, even though it’s not true, but he’s one of my other heroes. I’m trying to will it into existence. I keep saying it because I want people to print that, and maybe he’ll read it and go “If this person is dumb enough to say it, let’s give him the job.”

—-

If you wanna see it on the big screen at NYC’s 92-Y on Tuesday (3/22) with a post-screening Q&A with Pee-wee’s alter ego Paul Reubens, tickets are still available.

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