As a child, I adored the CBS Saturday morning program, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” A phantasmagoria of cartoons, slapstick, and puppetry, the show was a miracle shot of creativity in a realm of glorified commercials, drilling into my brain with its purity of imagination and firm grasp on ridiculousness. At the time, I didn’t consider the personalities that drove the series alongside Paul Reubens, but as the years went by, revisiting “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” exposed brilliant work emerging from multiple sources. One of those fountains of genius was Wayne White. While the playhouse festivities don’t define his career, it’s an excellent entry point into a snowballing mind always on the prowl for absurdity.
Born and raised in Tennessee, White developed his skills early in life, growing as an artist and minor league rebel, building a bright personality that would come to serve him well later in life. Moving to New York City, White’s world was rocked when he was introduced to future wife and fellow artist Mimi Pond (who wrote the first episode of “The Simpsons”) and locked down a gig on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” then a fledgling television program taped inside a cramped and stifling studio space. Bonding with his fellow creators and allowed to flourish on the show, White found his calling as a puppet craftsman and performer, also achieving industry success as a three-time Emmy winner. “Beauty is Embarrassing” director Neil Berkeley is happy to survey the Pee-Wee years, even interviewing Reubens for his perspective on White’s contributions to the show. However, time with the puppets was short-lived, leaving White without a secure position of public communication for years to come.
“Beauty is Embarrassing” is White’s life story put to film, but also a tale of choices, stepping back to investigate the connections the artist made as he scrambled for work throughout the years. While eccentric and madly in love with swearing to keep a hand on the hard body of rebellion, White remains an emotional subject, now coming to terms with the lane changes of life that brought him to his current success (White’s music video design forays include the Smashing Pumpkins’ hit, “Tonight, Tonight”). Recalling teachers who recognized his abilities at a young age, traumatic accidents that helped to sharpen his perspective, and like-minded friends who stayed behind in Tennessee, White is an open book in “Beauty is Embarrassing,” permitting Berkeley access to a life I doubt the subject ever thought was even remotely special. However, the pages turn fluidly in this riveting work, walking through a resume and good-natured resolve that’s flowered spectacularly over time. Even those without awareness of White are sure to be pulled into the documentary’s slick editing and blasts of creative expression -- the story of Wayne and Mimi’s courtship recounted in comic panel form being a highlight.
I’ll admit, I don’t quite understand the whole “word painting” fascination, but there’s plenty I don’t grasp about contemporary art. White’s need to disrupt the glum attitude of the art world is truly fascinating, and “Beauty is Embarrassing” highlights several of his creations, with a particular fixation on an oversized Lyndon B. Johnson puppet head. The documentary is colorful and insightful, but also exciting in its exploration of a singular creative drive, nurtured through years of love and support and madness and failure, locating a fresh perch in these later years, with White finding success and fulfillment at a time when most artists begin to lose their focus. “Beauty is Embarrassing” is an explosively realized reminder of the purity of craft and the need to support such efforts with a meaty personality and unique vision.