Would you have ever expected that a completely eccentric, beautifully talented artist, and sometime puppeteer was behind the some of the puppets and set design on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? Actually you might, because those were some of the strangest puppets ever to hit television. But there’s an equally strange personality behind them. Wayne White, a Tennessee-born surreal pop art artist and puppeteer, is the subject of the incredibly impressive Beauty is Embarrassing documentary that was one of the most entertaining films I saw during SXSW this year.
The film, which documents White’s beginnings as an artist (paying a lot of attention to the time he spent working on Pee-Wee up to the present day) opens with White and his one-man art retrospective show, which is presented more like a stand-up act than an art show: White plays the banjo, tells jokes, shows slides along with his artwork, and sings. It’s highly entertaining, and shows you that while he might look like a curmudgeonly man yelling at you to get off his lawn, he’s actually a lovable guy underneath.
Like most people, I was unaware that White was behind the work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and even though I had seen his surreal thrift store paintings where he places large, colorful words in perspective into landscapes hanging on the walls at Fred 62 in Los Angeles. He also provided the art direction and design for Peter Gabriel’s iconic “Big Time” music video, as well as the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Tonight, Tonight”, which was inspired by the films of Georges Méliès. You’ve probably seen his hand in many things without realizing it, like this Old Spice commercial starring Bruce Campbell.
After moving to California with the production of Pee-Wee after the first season, White also did set design and puppeteered Shining Time Station, the children’s show that starred Ringo Starr as tiny Mr. Conductor. But as charming as White is, and as fantastically amazing as his works of art are, mainstream fame has eluded him. He finally decided to abandon Hollywood and focus on painting. A collection of his work put together by Todd Oldham is ironically titled Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve. In the middle of the film, White says that he wishes he had the “fuck you” money, “Because I’d tell everyone ‘Fuck You,’ and go enjoy it.”
But, he’s not at that level. And you have to think that his artwork would suffer if he did. There’s an angry edge in his work that wouldn’t be there if he were Rich and Famous™, as well as a sense of artistic melancholy. In one scene in the film, he builds a full-body puppet head of Lyndon Baines Johnson with his son that he then wears around the hills about the Hollywood sign to the looks of bewildered passersby. In another, he stands behind his daughter while she paints, mouth open to critique while struggling to bite his tongue and remain silent. These are poignant moments that wouldn’t exist if White were walled up behind stacks of cash.
Beauty is Embarrassing is masterfully directed by Neil Berkeley, who peppers the film with behind the scenes footage from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, interviews with people like Matt Groening, Paul Reubens, and White’s wife Mimi Pond along with plenty of home movies and other archival source materials. But the real treats come when White is alone, reflecting back on his career and his art. There’s a beautiful moment in the movie where White is playing the banjo and singing a bluegrass song at one of his one-man shows with his parents in attendance, and his stoic, Southern father cries tears of emotion. He’s unable to connect with his son emotionally, as most Southern men from that era, but he’s obviously proud of his son. You will be too after watching this movie.
The Upside: White’s design work in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse can be seen in Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose, a locally-produced show in Tennessee. Gary Panter is often credited with the look and feel of Pee-Wee, but a glance at this show illustrate how White’s design was obvious in both programs.
The Downside: Although White worked on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, he also worked on The Weird Al Show, and Riders in the Sky, both of which were canceled early. However, he also provided the animation on Beakman’s World, which ran for four seasons.
On the Side: In 2009, White created a massive puppet head of George Jones entitled “Big Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep,” based on a lyric from Jones’ song “Ragged But Right”. It was on display at Rice University from September 10 to December 13th that year, and it’s a perfect example of White’s artwork and puppetry in one piece.