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Pee-Wee's Big Return on Netflix

The manic man-child comes back in a Netflix movie at a time when we can all use a dose of intentional silliness

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Given the tenor of recent political debates, perhaps it won't be long before a presidential wannabe deploys the kindergarten equivalent of a mic drop: "I know you are, but what am I?"

    The ultimate schoolyard retort gained renewed currency more than three decades ago, thanks to Pee-wee Herman, a character who knows something about comebacks, on both the juvenile and adult levels.

    The 1980s manic merry maker returns Friday in a new Netflix movie, "Pee-wee’s Big Holiday," in a bid to prove he's man-child for our times, too.

    Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s adult alter ego, took his campy bow-tied character from the stage to the breakout 1985 movie, "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure," an episodic romp centered on the tittle character’s search for his missing vintage Schwinn bike.

    The next year brought Reubens' Saturday morning TV show, "Pee-wee’s Playhouse," a child’s fantasyland through adult goggles, complete with a talking chair and clock, and human visitors with a Mr. Rogers-meets-Warhol vibe. Pee-wee’s retro look, Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions and penchant for puns played to children as well as to adults who appreciated his sardonic-yet-loving take on 1950s and 1960s kiddie shows.

    But Reubens' 1991 big adventure in a pornographic movie theater, an escapade that seems tame by contemporary celebrity debauchery standards, knocked Pee-wee off his bike. Sporadic comeback attempts largely fell flat.

    Recent years have proved somewhat kinder to Reubens, whose Pee-wee stage shows drew fans in Los Angeles and New York in 2010. Now he's set to retest his appeal with a mass audience – or as close as he can get to one in the streaming age.

    Reubens, whose character is rooted in nostalgia, returns via Netflix, which has revived the likes of "Arrested Development" and "Full House," with a "Gilmore Girls" encore on the way.

    Yet Pee-wee Herman isn’t dated. He’s a character built for memes and gifs, thanks to his verbal and physical antics. He’s also built for escapism: We all could use a little "Tequila" these days, whether in the form of a wacky dance or a stiff drink.

    Check out a couple of previews of "Pee-wee’s Big Holiday" above, as Paul Reubens (and co-star Joe Manganiello) gets back to work at age 63 to find perhaps that the biggest shoes he has to fill may be his own. 

    Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.