Monday, January 25, 2010

My adventure with Pee Wee

I'm ever-so-slightly afraid that this post, coming hot on the heels as it does of Flight of the Navigator, will change the tenor of this blog somewhat, reducing it to a series of pithy commentaries on pop culture ephemera from the 80s. Which, I suppose, could be an interesting topic for a blog (certainly already being done, I'm sure), but a blog that I'm ill-qualified to write for1.

Having not grown up in the US (you may have heard?) but having lived here for the past 10 years, I find myself in the odd position of being nostalgic for 80s childhood pop culture that I have no connection to at all. So far as television went, TV time in Barker household meant putting in one of our 10 well-worn VHS tapes of PBS kids' shows, watching reruns of Sesame Street (or -- my favorite -- 321 Contact). My parents' Varese Sarabande Classical Music Collection provided me with most of my musical education until I discovered Garbage my senior year of high school (also: Weird Al, for whatever that counts). Your favorite TV show when you were growing up? I've probably never seen it. (To those who didn't grow up in the US: don't worry, I probably haven't see yours, either.)

For Christ's sake: I watched the live-action Transformers movie for the nostalgia, despite never having seen a single episode of it as a kid.

I've done a whole bunch of catching up in my years in the US, to be sure. There've definitely been some pleasant surprises on the way (The Muppet Show and Nirvana: still quite good!) and some disappointments (I still don't see what you get in Ferris Beuhler's Day Off). And as uninformed as I may really be, I can fake it pretty damn well. Which is really all that counts.

And which is why I recently found myself standing at a smallish theater downtown, watching a man in a too-small suit conversing with an armchair.

I saw exactly one episode of Pee Wee's Playhouse when I was a kid, and I remember almost nothing of it. Pee Wee had a weird voice, wore a tight suit, and had a friend who was an armchair named Chairy. That was it. So I'm not exactly sure why I decided to say yes when my good friend J asked if I wanted to see Paul Reuben's new live show, a revamp of his original 1980s Pee Wee stage performance. Novelty, I guess?

The show was remarkably kid-friendly, I was surprised to realize. I guess I was expecting Pee Wee's playhouse, but with more adult-friendly humor (you know: like how Bob Sagat apparently now does really raunchy humor now that he's been freed from the PG-level humor of Full House). But no: it's a straight-up adaptation of the TV show to the stage2. There was a tiny amount of suggestive humor and the death of a sentient cleaning device, but that was really it3. You probably would have been comfortable taking your 8-year-old child to see it (except for maybe the audience: they might have bothered you a bit).

Which was: awesome? Yes, I think so. Awesome. The recurring sketches from the show all came back to me: Jambi, the genie in a box who channels spirits; the secret word of the day, at whose uttering all must scream real loud! (today's secret word: Fun!); Conky the Robot who bounces around like a steam-powered epileptic fit; "I know you are, but what am I?"; "If you love it so much, why don't you marry it?"4. All this, a potent deluge of nostalgia, evoked from the memory of a single 20-minute video watched when I was 8. Crazy!

Through a surprisingly serendipitous confluence of events, I was able to get a Meet And Greet ticket to stay after the show and watch Paul Reubens (note: not Pee Wee Herman) talk with the audience. I somehow managed to finagle my way to the front row and watch him stand five feet in front of me for the whole 45-minute session. My closest brush with fame yet!

He turned out to be quite the charming and pleasant conversationalist which, I suppose, you have to be to become a reasonably successful entertainer. He had a whole bunch of cute stories (in particular, one in which Michael Jackson emphatically reiterated how mean Prince had been to him once) and was delightfully charismatic as a host. Plus, it was super cute to see the giddy super-fans in the front as they gave him a gift of two shoes for his Pee Wee doll and answered back to all of his rhetorical audience questions. Also, some big promoter sitting right behind me offered to take his play to Broadway right while I was sitting there, which was kinda neat.

It's totally unfair that I have to get my nostalgia fix from pop-culture references to your childhood, oh reader, but, nevertheless, I had a good time. I felt like the luckiest boy in the world.

1 Yeah, that's a preposition ending my sentence. What're you going to do about it, style Nazi?

2 The obsessive part of me feels the need to tell you that the show was originally performed on stage, only later to turn into a movie and kid's show.

3 I suppose some might consider the political humor about chastity rings and gay marriage inappropriate for a younger child, but I also suspect that those people are not reading my blog.

4 Site of the gay-marriage-themed humor referenced in the preceding footnote.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Flight Of The Navigator


You remember this movie. You know you do. I was living in Egypt when this movie came out and I remember this movie. If you were a nerdy little sci-fi-loving kid like me (and if you weren't, how are we friends?), this movie was a highlight of a fleetingly brief period of your childhood. It had aliens! Time travel! And a really, really awesome looking spaceship.

I loved that spaceship.

Of course, as these things go, the details of the movie faded from the light in the dark, twisting passages of my memory. Oh, sure, I spent countless hours as a child (excuse me: young adult) fantasizing about it, running around the playground in my enormous, invisible spaceship (invariably by myself: I was a pretty solitary little kid, and besides, there was only enough room in the ship for one). How cool would it be to have your own personal spaceship? It would be rad. Tubular, perhaps.

My youthful enthusiasm, sadly, wasn't able to sustain itself through adolescence. All that remained of a treasured childhood memory were vague images of an enormous, silver football and an alien with an eyeball in its mouth (which freaked my shit out! -- how biologically implausible is that?!).

So, of course, when L and I decided to maybe re-watch the Childhood Classic, I squealed with joy. Sure, I'd already tried a similar experiment once, to disastrous results (childhood self: I'm very sorry, but Thundercats kinda sucked. As did the Transformers.), but c'mon: AWESOME GIANT SILVER SPACESHIP!!!

And, by god, it didn't disappoint. Don't get me wrong: Flight Of The Navigator is a Bad Movie. The acting is ham-fisted and cringe-inducing. The dialog would try even the most talented thespian (sample: "I'm afraid I can't talk about it. It's a matter of national security. You understand."). The plot is utterly implausible (and that's ignoring the time-traveling, Pee-Wee-Herman-voiced spaceship).

But so what? The movie is pure adolescent wish fulfillment and egads, does it do a fine job. A kid from a perfectly average, boring, typical American family gets thrust in to the middle of a stellar zoo-curating expedition and gets to fly HIS OWN SPACESHIP (which is still AWESOME, even to a somewhat less impressionable 28-year-old). Who wouldn't love having their own sentient buddy to fly them to Mars and back?

I guess there was a cute little sidekick alien, too, but that clearly didn't register with me.

I can't believe how many details of the movie I was able to dredge up from the dark recesses of my memory. The kid gets abducted when he's going to pick up his brother from a friends' house. He has a pet dog who sucks at catching frisbees. He makes Max the Spaceship let him out so he can take a pee-break next to some cows. The spaceship becomes sentient when he read's the kids brain and starts talking with the voice of Pee-Wee Herman (Pee Wee Herman! Speaking of which, how cool is it that he's starting to be popular again?!).

Although I didn't remember Sarah Jessica Parker being in it. You'd think that would have registered.

It's probably for the best that I don't get that caught up in movies any more. Lord knows my life is busy enough without re-imagining every damn movie I see with myself as the star. Especially with my current taste in movies (Donnie Darko: good movie, bad wish-fulfillment fantasy).

So I think I'll leave Navigator as a happy, nostalgia-filled excursion in to my childhood. You were good to me, Max, and you no doubt played a formative role in my blossoming in to an AI researcher as an adult. But I'll keep you nestled comfortably in the back of my mind, a happy memory that re-emerges every so often to bring a faint smile to my face.

And damn do I want that spaceship.