TODAY’S THIRTY-five-year-olds are the first to be told regularly that being thirty-five really means sometimes being ten and sometimes fifty. They have grown up hearing that a continuous rapport with childhood is not only okay but necessary, and that the need for play is biological and lifelong. Even as men and women suspend these notions long enough to produce children of their own, they uneasily eve their single friends, who are eyeing them right back. Everyone is wondering who’s going to be sorry later. Baby Boomers are afflicted with premature nostalgia. In fact, they never really gave up the preoccupations ot the sixties and seventies but kept re-examining and fondly satirizing them, keeping them current until they pervaded the culture of a new generation.

Pee-wee Herman skipped onto this scene several years ago. In his shrunken suit, skinny bow tie, and bucks, Peewee is the alter ego of the comic Paul Reubens, a perennial man-child whose toys and gags seem drawn from a toy chest stocked during the past few decades. Last year someone in children’s programming at CBS realized that this character might draw an audience from two generations, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse joined the Saturday-morning lineup. Six months after the show first aired, surveys indicated that a third of the viewers were eighteen or older. No one should have been surprised that a man who claimed to love his toys but not enough to marry them would find an audience beyond the playground.

Pee-wee does nothing but play, whether alone or with a few children or adults in the neighborhood. His game may be purely imaginary or involve dozens of special effects; he has a chair that tickles anyone who sits on it, a talking globe, and a refrigerator full of animated food. Pee-wee seems sometimes ingenuous—absorbed in his ant farms, bebop music, and robots—and sometimes ironic. Asked if he is ready to play, he strikes a jazzy pose and says, “I was born ready to play.” The incongruities of his attitudes are hardly stranger, however, than those in the commercials on Saturday morning. In one ninety-second break unnaturally sophisticated boys and girls in adult makeup and business suits promote after-school snacks, and then come two ads that could have appeared in 1965, with cherubic girls sighing over Barbie, and Fred Flintstone talking up a new cereal.

The national confusion about time’s passage is the mainspring of Reubens’s work. He draws from any of the first fifteen years of life and of the past thirty’ years of American culture as though they were somehow coextensive. Everything he does is derivative, but to his adult audience his evocations of the past are weirdly affecting. Pee-wee’s toy collection, like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, is filled with knickknacks that individually make no impression but that in certain juxtapositions produce resonances that are themselves art. No one can say whether Pee-wee Herman’s games will seem funny twenty years from now. Their present impact depends deeply on Reubens’s ability to gauge precisely his audience’s appreciation of their original social context. Pee-wee gets a letter from a pen pal in Japan and reads it aloud: it’s a string of cliches (“Dear Peewee-san”) that children associate with the Orient, like paper houses and raw fish. One from a French pen pal reads, “Bonjour, Pee-wee. My parents eat stinky cheese with every meal. Today I saw Brigitte Bardot.” The letters appeal to children, yet for adults they also evoke the Peace Corps—era conviction that international understanding could be fostered through children’s correspondence. Reubens does not restrict himself to material objects—knowing, for example, that a schoolyard taunt is no less a cultural relic than, say, Silly Putty. When Pee-wee deflects a bully’s insult by saying, “I know you are, but what am I?” his delivery suggests at once to children of the sixties those occasions in their childhood when this seemed the inspired response.

Critics have compared Reubens to Soupy Sales and Jerry Lewis, but these men were always adults behaving childishly. Pee-wee’s closest predecessor may be Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, forever five and a half, legs dangling over the edge of an oversized rocking chair. But unlike Edith Ann, who is perpetually weighed down by a family just out of view. Feewee seems to have been born in the funny papers, where many characters have no family or domestic context. In this way he is like Snoopy. It is not clear that Snoopy knows he is merely a dog, and those who love him protect him from the full force of that intelligence. In the playhouse only one adult, the mailwoman, occasionally challenges Pee-wee’s reality, and that is about as many as the act will bear. When she asks, “Is there something wrong with you?” Pee-wee rasps back, “What do you mean? The metaphysical foundations of the playhouse shudder.

Pee-wee, like all the Feanuts characters, exists primarily in relation to friends. In these dealings his level of maturity can fluctuate amazingly. He may gently correct one playmate’s grammar and yet unpleasantly insist that another pay him five cents to see his ant farm. In a single skit he can seem like an adolescent and a fourth-grader. He leers appreciatively at his Sandra Dee-like neighbor, Miss Yvonne, in a bathing suit, and tells her, “You are the most beautiful woman in Puppetland. You have the biggest hair.” Yet when he is playing house with her and she asks for a kiss, he says tersely, “That’s it. Game’s over.” Whatever age he is adopting, Peewee does nothing he doesn’t want to do. At a time when everyone says ruefully “I can’t” but really means “I won’t,” Pee-wee says, “I won’t—want to make me?”

Reubens is honest, even gleeful, about the ways in which parents and children madden each other—children pretending not to know things they know perfectly well and parents pretending to know things they don’t. After confidently telling his household that there is no such thing as a monster, Pee-wee has to eat his words when one finally stalks the premises. Trying to appear nonchalant but barely able to conceal his terror, Pee-wee says, “All right, I made a mistake.” As Pee-wee shows how to make a grilled-cheese sandwich, one little girl persists in interrupting his instructions to ask “Whyyy?” until Pee-wee grows so angry he can’t speak.

MUCH OF REUBENS’S routine is facial contortion. During one program, about the mystery and ennui of rainy days, it is dark outside and Pee-wee is sitting mournfully in a window seat, looking out. Suddenly his face is illumined by lightning, revealing how remarkable a face it is in repose—as it so rarely is. With his large eyes, strong bones, and bow lips, Reubens has the sad beauty of Buster Keaton or a Picasso harlequin. (Indeed, his face makes one wonder how else this man could have occupied himself if he hadn’t become Peewee Herman.) The spell is broken when, overcome by frustration, Pee-wee screams into the camera, “I’ve got playhouse fever!”

Reubens succeeds for the reason that all great comedians do. He has an astonishing memory, and what he remembers is childhood. The importance of winning—anything; the significance of mail when one’s strongest claim to adulthood is the sight of one’s name on an envelope; the crisis when an unsatisfactory ratio of chocolate sauce to ice cream produces something to which skipping dessert altogether seems preferable. All this he can suggest by tucking in his chin, arching an eyebrow, taking a step sideways.

Such an act can never last. Marcel Marceau behind a mask of greasepaint can double as Bip—child, octogenarian, dowager, or dandy—decade after decade. But with the first gray hair or wrinkle, Pee-wee is finished. Many in a generation that used to say “Don’t trust anyone over thirty" but when the time came could never bring itself to say “Don’t trust us” hope that Pee-wee Herman will get in as much play time as he can, before the whole thing becomes too painful to watch.

—Katie Leishman