Interview: ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse’ Designer Wayne White Finds That ‘Beauty Is Embarrassing’

“Beauty is embarrassing.” Or so says former Pee Wee’s Playhouse designer (the guy who built Chairy, and more) Wayne White, who’s new movie takes that motto, and explores it over the course of a hilarious, introspective, and ultimately inspiring documentary of the same name. In advance of the limited release of the movie this week, we chatted with White about beauty, working on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and his simple advice to young artists:

MTV Geek: First of all, what can you tell us about Beauty is Embarrassing? Why is it embarrassing? What’s the big idea?

Wayne White: Beauty is embarrassing for three reasons. When we see something beautiful it calls up raw, naked emotion and that’s an embarrassing situation to be in. Number two… People that are born beautiful like supermodels act like entitled a**holes. It makes you embarrassed just to see ’em. They handle beauty embarrassingly. Number three… Artists are people who create beauty. That’s the bottom line. It would be really embarrassing to introduce yourself as somebody who makes beauty. So that’s just three of several reasons why I think beauty is embarrassing.

Geek: To take a step back, I’m guessing a lot of people know your work from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse… How’d you get involved in that?

WW: I did my own crazy punk rock puppet shows for years before Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. In ’85 i got my first pro job making a show called Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose. I took that portfolio to NYC and showed it to a company called Broadcast Arts and they gave me the job on Pee-Wee’s.

Geek: And what was the creative process like? How collaborative was it?

WW: Yes Pee-Wee’s was very collaborative. The head designer was the great Gary Panter, and I also worked with the very talented Ric Heitzman. We would sit in a room and draw together.

Geek: As an artist, did you have any reservations working on something that could be seen as “selling out” at the time, by doing a comedy TV show? In the interim, I think people do recognize Playhouse as art, but were there any concerns back then?

WW: No concerns at all. Pee-Wee was ultra hip at the time, and it was considered a badge of honor to work on the Playhouse.

Geek: Clearly there was a long, controversial period where your creations for the Playhouse went away. I know this is a chunk of the film, but where’d you go, and what did you do?

WW: I continued on after the Playhouse as a set designer, puppet designer, and puppeteer in Children’s TV. It opened up many doors, and made me a lot of money!

Geek: What about when it came back? When people started coming around to Paul Reubens and his buddies again? What was that like, and were you involved in the live show tour at all?

WW: I was very happy that Paul go to revive the show on Broadway! I designed a few new touches, but was not involved in the performance.

Geek: General question: what’s the line between high art and pop art? Or is there no line? Or SHOULD there be no line?

WW: As far as I’m concerned, there is no line, and there should be no line. That’s one of the messages I try to impart by my work.

Geek: For anyone looking to create their own art, do you have any tips? Inspiration?

WW: The only tip I have for an artist is perseverance… Never give up.

Geek: What about technically speaking… What are some easy mistakes in your pieces you made early on that you learned to avoid?

WW: I had to learn to do stuff only for myself, and stop thinking about pleasing some imaginary client or boss. It’s a habit that many artists get into that have worked in commercial ventures.

Geek: Is there a piece you’re particularly proud of?

WW: Yes! The World’s Largest George Jones Head, at Rice University in Houston, TX.

Geek: Lastly, why see this movie, if you haven’t already convinced everybody? What makes this a must see?

WW: Quite simply… It inspires people. I didn’t set out to be an inspiration, but I’ve seen it over and over in the faces of the people that come up to me after they’ve seen it. There’s something undeniably positive about it. It helps people in their creative struggles… Plus it’s funny as hell!

Beauty is Embarrassing hits theaters in NY, LA and Seattle on September 7th! Check their website or Facebook for more info; and here’s a trailer to tide you over: