Discover more from The Writing Shed with Tommy Tomlinson
Being weird is not a crime
What I learned from Pee-wee, plus my weekly shareables: country music, legal weed, and doing the shag, baby
I think I told a version of this story in THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, but I’ll retell it here. It meanders a little, but I promise there’s a point.
A group of five of us rented a house in Athens, Georgia, for our senior year in college. My friend David and I were the first ones to get there for the fall quarter. We arrived to discover the house didn’t have any water. A pipe underneath the front yard had burst. We called the landlords to get it fixed, but in the meantime, we needed showers. So we drove to our old freshman dorm—one of those with a big communal bathroom for each hall. There was a little space outside each shower stall to get undressed and stash your stuff. While we cleaned up, somebody went into David’s space and stole his wallet.
That weekend we went to Atlanta to hang out with a group of friends there. That very Saturday, somebody used David’s credit card to check into a Red Roof Inn elsewhere in Atlanta. They trashed the place. Naturally, the police at first thought David had done it. It didn’t help that he was in Atlanta at the time.
Those of us who hung out with David vouched for him, and the police asked us to fill out affidavits. We were glad to help. But it was a little embarrassing. Because we had to admit how we, a bunch of college guys in one of the great party cities in America, had spent our Saturday night.
We ate take-out barbecue and watched PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
These days, I would cop to this in a second. Barbecue and a movie is a fantastic Saturday night. But at the time, I felt a little weird. Because Pee-Wee was a little weird. OK, more than a little.
The movie and his TV show, PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, were a celebration of weirdness. It was never clear if Pee-wee was a child pretending to be a grown man or a grown man pretending to be child. Everything about him was strange and surreal, from his laugh to his suit to his house to the contraption that made him breakfast every morning:
The movie and the TV show were a mix of that surreal stuff with dumb jokes and double entendres and characters like Cowboy Curtis (played by Laurence Fishburne) and Chairry (played by a chair). It was always amusing and sometimes hilarious but mostly, I see now, tolerant. Pee-wee accepted all these odd characters into his life, and they accepted him into theirs. He showed it was OK to like what you liked, laugh at what you think is funny, choose your own friends.
Pee-wee was listed in the credits to BIG ADVENTURE as being played by himself, but of course he was played by Paul Reubens, who died from cancer on Sunday at 70. He was a gifted actor—interviewers often mentioned how Paul was so different than Pee-wee. Paul had his own issues. His arrest for indecent exposure (in a porn theater) nearly ended his career, and he was later arrested on child pornography charges, although that was reduced to a charge of possessing obscene material. Reubens said it involved his collection of vintage erotica.
Fans, by and large, forgave. Maybe it was because Paul, through Pee-wee, was so forgiving. One of Reubens’ last great roles was a guest shot on PORTLANDIA. The episode he’s in begins with someone robbing and setting fire to a taxidermy store called Dead Pets. (If you’ve never seen PORTLANDIA, just trust me, in the world of the show, this makes perfect sense.) The police decide to round up all the weirdos in town—they literally say it that way—and they end up arresting goth couple Vince and Jacqueline, who are recurring characters on the show. Reubens plays their lawyer. His hair is spectacular:
He goes on to make what I am required by journalistic convention to call “an impassioned speech” to the jury:
Being weird is not a crime! … Benjamin Franklin was a weirdo! Do normal people fly kites with keys attached? No! Weirdos were the first people to eat kale. The first people to try marijuana. To write poems. To fall in love.
(At this point the trial is interrupted by a ski-mask-wearing rock band who perform a song confessing to the crime. I told you, just roll with it.)
It’s especially satisfying to see Paul Reubens make that speech, of course, because “being weird is not a crime” was basically his mission statement. He, and Pee-wee, showed a whole generation of kids—and adults, too—that weird was its own kind of cool.
And really, not even weird. Just human.
A quick reminder: My upcoming book, DOGLAND, is now available for preorder! You can get to many of the major bookseller sites through the Simon & Schuster page. I also have a deal through my favorite bookstore, Park Road Books in Charlotte—if you preorder DOGLAND through them, I’ll sign and inscribe your copy (or copies!) however you like. Jump on that deal here:
10 things I wanted to share this week:
My guest on this week’s SOUTHBOUND podcast was the brilliant journalist Anne Hull, whose new memoir THROUGH THE GROVES explores her coming-of-age years in Florida before Mickey Mouse arrived. She’s so good you will smell the orange blossoms (and the DDT from the mosquito trucks).
For more on that other song—that (ugh) Jason Aldean song—listen to Tressie McMillan Cottom, who has impeccable credentials when it comes to the whitewashing of country music. She talked to Sam Sanders about all of it on Sanders’ podcast INTO IT.
My dear friend Joe Posnanski’s new book, WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL, comes out next month and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You might even find a certain newsletter writer in there with a short piece on a great moment in Atlanta Braves history. Joe will also be on tour—if he’s anywhere near you, GO.
DOG NEWS: From now until DOGLAND comes out (April 2024!), I’m devoting this slot to dog stories. This week: The Japanese man who spent 14 grand to turn himself into a collie. (Men’s Journal) Here’s a glimpse of the world I’ve been immersed in the last few years: When the story first came out, it said the man had made a border collie costume. Dog people immediately jumped in to say it looked more like a rough collie. So most stories are now going with just “collie.” Good for you, dog sticklers.
One story I’ve had in my idea files for years: the small but mighty group of dancers devoted to the shag, a dance centered in the Carolinas (especially Myrtle Beach) and performed to the smooth R&B known as beach music. Now I can cross that story off the list because my friend Amanda Heckert did it up right for Garden & Gun, telling the story through a family that has excelled at the shag for for three generations.
I had no idea until I read this Siddhartha Mitter story that a major black modern artist placed a sculpture not just in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, but in a park I’ve been to hundreds of times. (NYT)
A couple of my colleagues at WFAE have done some great work lately. Ann Doss Helms has been like Nancy Drew, chasing down the case of the Vanishing Private School. And my bud Steve Harrison took one for the team by getting blazed to investigate how North Carolina shops figured out how to legally get folks high.
Two former Charlotte Observer colleagues, Larry Toppman (the paper’s longtime movie critic) and Tim Funk, have been arguing about films for decades—and are still doing it even though they’re retired. I loved this profile by Théoden Janes about two old friends, and the joy of going to the movies. (Charlotte Observer)
Since reading Amanda Heckert’s story on the shag, I’ve been mainlining beach music. If you’ve never encountered it, the one song you have to hear is Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. Imagine sliding across the dance floor to this on a Carolina summer night.
It’s getting hot in here. See y’all next week, everybody.