There’s a particular scene in Big Top Pee-Wee that i always found extremely funny, arguably one of the most perfect scenes ever made. I’ve showed this video to many people over the years, and after partially explaining to a friend what makes it so funny, I decided to break it down even further, and post my analysis publicly. There’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye. A lot of things are perfect about this scene, and after watching it 40+ times those things start to make themselves evident. Sure, I go down the rabbit-hole on this a bit, but that’s how my brain works on these things; if you don’t like it, stop reading.
We start in a small town general store, two older women are looking at reams of fabric while an equally old cashier looks on, and Pee-Wee Herman ambles in the background, seemingly impatient and watching the women look at fabric. We immediately know that their purchase is affecting him, and he’s watching them like a hawk.
Here’s the scene in its entirety courtesy of Youtube and Movieclips.com, I suggest watching it at least once before reading the rest of this post to have a better frame of reference. It’s not long, less than two minutes including the preview stuff at the end. The scene is from Big Top Pee-Wee, and is titled “Pee-Wee gets his way”, which I think is a fair description.
Let’s examine the minutiae and start to see how so many aspects of this whole scene are just perfect. It’s not a child or a plumber that’s holding Pee-Wee up, because he could get impertinent with them and not feel too bad. It’s a lot harder however, to get snippy with a sweet little grandmother. It’s even harder when there’s two of them. One elderly granny would be easier to circumnavigate. Two are a lot tougher. They’re talking with each other, conferring, chatting, and when someone interrupts they can look at each other and confirm that yes, that young man is indeed very rude. When you add an elderly shopkeeper to the mix, Pee-Wee becomes the odd whippersnapper out. They’re all from the same generation, the same social frame of reference, and they’re going to have each other’s backs against some mannerless youngster with no respect for his elders.
“This would make a nice doily, don’t you think May?” As if she’s saying, “Come on, stop being so damn picky… it’s just a doily for pete’s sake” The way she looks at her out of the side of her eyes says it all; she’s trying to be accommodating and push her friend along to make a purchase, but without being too obvious. Like the parent trying to convince their child to try something they hope their kid will just go along with. She’s smiling but all the while hoping that her friend will stop being so damn indecisive and picky.
Doilies. I can’t think of a more pointless, frivolous item one could be shopping for. It’s not medicine, or an appliance that does something. It’s a decorative accessory that no one has ever needed to survive. If they were shopping for anything else one might forgive them for taking so long, but they’re looking at material to make doilies. Doilies are the zenith of unnecessary and superfluous. Whoever the writer was that lobbied for them to be shopping for doily material, I tip my hat to you. Perfect.
“For the china cabinet…” of course it’s for a china cabinet. What else could be a more perfect destination for a non-utilitarian item than a china cabinet? If they needed something nice to put under their late husband’s urn, we might cut them some slack for taking so long; but no… it’s for the china cabinet.
“Mmm… maybe…” Maybe? She’s not going to rush into anything. The first batch of material gets nothing more than a “hmm…” but the second gets a maybe. That’s progress for her. She’s perfect; slow to act, hard to convince, not sure how she feels about what she’s looking at. She’s the customer that we all loathe getting stuck behind. We want to be behind the foot-tapping, watch-checking, impatient go-getter that’s antsy to get on about his day because he’s got shit to do and where the fuck is the other barista goddamnit I need my coffee and need to get the hell on the road!!!! We want that guy in front of us in line. He’s in a rush. He’s going to get in, get out, and be gone in seconds flat. When we’re in a hurry, we want the person in front of us to be in a hurry too. This woman is the opposite of that guy. She’s dragging her feet, mulling things over, and taking her sweet time thinking it over while Pee-Wee climbs the walls with impatience.
When he finally cracks and starts yelling, “All I wanted was a measly sandwich!!! I very nicely explained that I was starving… I’m starving!!!… PLEASE!!”. Even when he blows his top, he’s still keeping his manners about him. When was the last time you went off on someone in public yet and used the word “please”? That’s right, never.
The old guy pounds his fist on the table in frustration, and stomps over to the sandwich area, vocally lodging his displeasure all the way. “…All you other shoppers will just have to play second fiddle to Pee-Wee…” What other shoppers? It’s just the ladies that weren’t going to buy anything anyway, and two old guys playing checkers. By addressing them as “shoppers” he’s painting the situation as something it’s not: customers waiting to purchase something who are being put on hold for Pee Wee Herman. He also exclaims it loudly as if to a large crowd of people, but there is no crowd. It reinforces the delusional nature of the shop keeper and his insistence on portraying Pee-Wee as the bane of the entire town’s existence.
Ironically, the two farmers are killing time with a board game in his place of business, and the ladies couldn’t pick a life-boat on the Titanic, yet Pee-Wee is the only one who actually wants to buy something.
“I guess that’s just the way things are around here!” Like they’re all living under the thumb of an evil warlord, and there’s nothing they can do about it until the A-team or United Nations gets there. We’ve all resigned ourselves to our poor, miserable fate… we don’t matter, and It’s just a tragic situation that we lowly peasants have to quietly endure. Victimization. Not only does he paint Pee-Wee as the monster, but everyone else as the hapless victims of Pee-Wee’s tyrannical reign. Magnificent.
Then comes the actual sandwich. Two slices of cheese on bread. That’s it. He slaps the bread down, then slaps the cheese onto the bread, in anger. Cheese, bread, chop. That’s not much of a sandwich. It’s not even toasted like Quizno’s or hot pressed like a Panera panini. Bread, cheese, chop. With an extra helping of anger.
When the giant meat cleaver comes down, Pee-Wee and the old women all jump. The noise is so powerful that it startles everyone, even though it was clear he was about to chop it. That’s how jarring it is; even though they saw it coming, it still made them jump.
Also note that he chops (not cuts) the “sandwich” in half, designating it as a completed sandwich, but he cuts it the wrong way. He angrily brings down the cleaver like an executioner, halving the sandwich lengthwise. Repeat: lengthwise. He cuts it in the wrong direction, most likely on purpose. Why do such a thing? Perhaps he was so overtaken with anger and frustration at his hopeless situation of existing to serve Pee-Wee that he was blinded at the moment of the cut. Or, more likely, he’s exercising the one bit of protest he can get away with in his lowly position of servant: do it poorly. I have to make your food, but I’m going to make it wrong. Like the janitor that sneezes on the CEO’s phone, or the disgruntled factory worker that makes every tube of toothpaste an ounce lighter than it’s supposed to be. The shopkeeper doesn’t put it on a plate, or bag it up to go, he just throws his arms up, steps back and says, “There’s your sandwich!”. He makes no effort beyond the chop. There’s your sandwich, right there on the block, pick it up and eat it, or don’t… I’m done working for you Pee-Wee.
Here’s where we get into some of the finer points that make this great. Pee-Wee fixes the sandwich before he takes it. He could’ve just waited for it to be handed to him, but he doesn’t. He fixes the sandwich! He actually reaches over the counter and plucks the disheveled sandwich from the cutting board, then rearranges it back into a semblance of a sandwich, oblivious to the seething rage directed at him.
He asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Pee-Wee?” while menacingly brandishing his meat cleaver. At this point we cross into absurdity. The way he makes himself look angry borders into “campy”, but I’m pretty sure it’s on purpose. Like when a great actor has to portray a bad actor, and goes over the top with the physical movements and overdoes everything because he lacks the surgeons delicate hand. The novice isn’t sure of he looks angry enough, so he gets heavy handed and becomes a caricature of “Angry Shopkeeper #2”.
“Well, I would like a pickle, if it’s not too much trouble…”. And we’re off to the races. You can clearly the reaction of “OH!…” from one of the women in the background as if to say, “The nerve of him! It’s not enough that he’s disrupting our way of life, he has the audacity to ask for a pickle, on top of everything else he’s subjected us to!” These little things are what really sets this scene apart. Watch this part again. It gets funnier each time.
“No!! No trouble at all! Pee-Wee!” He slams the cleaver down and we can actually hear him breathing through his nose, fuming with rage. He can barely contain himself. He storms over to the checker game as if burning off the anger he wishes he could unleash on Pee-Wee. He wants to break his foot off in his ass, but instead of punching a pencil-neck twerp, he walks as if he’s slugging Pee-Wee’s face with his feet.
“Sorry Otis, sorry Zeke, game’s over!..” and he flips the checkerboard off the top of the pickle barrel with no regard for the game being played. He doesn’t gingerly remove the board, or ask them to move it. No, he flips the board, checkers and all. He could’ve nicely moved the game, but he chose instead to destroy everything in his path; he’s being much more overdramatic and destructive than is necessary, for absolutely no reason. It’s not enough that Pee-Wee has disrupted his waiting for paint to dry, the shopkeeper must make it painfully clear to all that Pee-Wee Herman is the one responsible for the checker game being destroyed, not him. It is Pee-Wee Herman that caused the checkers to go flying, by politely asking for a pickle.
And now we finally come to the moment where it all comes together. The shopkeeper stands erect like a town crier announcing the arrival of royalty, holds the pickle aloft, and facing no one in particular, exclaims, “Pee-Wee Herman wants A pickle”.
Sheer brilliance. He might as well have prefaced it with, “Hear ye, hear ye…” before he informed all within earshot that an arrogant, selfish, narcissist ruined our lives by having the chutzpa to request something as unreasonable as a pickle. He doesn’t say it to the checker player, he announces it at the top of his lungs. He’s shouting it from the mountain-top, addressing the imaginary plaza filled with citizens, holding the pickle as one holds the smoking gun in a murder trial. The delusion in his eyes, and the narrative he’s created in this final scene, show how divergent his experience is from that of Pee-Wee Herman.
One could imagine other substitutes to illustrate the tone of the statement; “Sorry about all the genocide, but my girlfriend had a bad experience with one of your kind”. Pee Wee Herman wanting not just a sandwich, but a solitary pickle, is the reason for all this mess. He’s the one that caused this, all for a stupid damn pickle. The old guy even ends the scene by asking, “There’s your darn pickle… are you happy now?”. Are you happy? Was it worth all this hardship and misery? Never forget; Our lives were ruined, all because Pee Wee Herman wants a pickle.