Wayne White in “Beauty is Embarrassing,” an entertaining and surprisingly uplifting documentary
Wayne White in “Beauty is Embarrassing,” an entertaining and surprisingly uplifting documentary

Even if you’ve never heard the name Wayne White before, you’ve probably seen his handiwork. An artistic polymath and obsessive junk collector whose influence on late 20th-century pop culture is greater than one might suspect, White is the focus of Beauty is Embarrassing, an entertaining and surprisingly uplifting documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, September 14.

Born and raised in rural Hixson, Tennessee, White grew up in a home filled with folk art made and collected by his mother Billie June. An obsessive artist from the age of two, White’s drawings were already controversial by the time he reached high school, where the principal described his work as “not the drawings of a red-blooded American boy.”

Inspired by the sneering disapproval of his elders, White matriculated at Middle Tennessee State University in 1975, where – in addition to pursuing a self-proclaimed “education in braless hippie chicks” – he began designing and constructing puppets, staging bizarre theatrical shows, and making crude animated films. MTSU soon proved too small a pond for the ambitious White, who moved to New York City in 1980.

Cue massive but unsurprising culture shock in the East Village, where the small town country boy nonetheless managed to make his mark drawing for the cutting-edge art magazine ‘Raw‘ and creating a puppet show entitled, appropriately, ‘Rootless’. A few years later White was hired to work on the first season of a new television program entitled Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the rest is Saturday morning television history.

Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) was, of course, an ‘80s icon whose show was must-see TV for children and hipsters (who otherwise had no reason to get up at 9:00 am on a Saturday). As much art project as TV show during its first season, Pee Wee’s Playhouse was created entirely in a cramped former sweatshop loft by, among others, Gary Panter, Ric Heitzman, and White, whose primary job was designing puppets like Randy (the little boy with the massive wooden head) and Dirty Dog (the sax playing canine who network censors wouldn’t allow to smoke).

White moved to California for the show’s second season but found himself unemployed when Reubens’ career came to an unfortunate halt in the wake of his embarrassing arrest. Happily, however, the puppets he’d created were only the beginning, and White’s post-Playhouse career has seen him embrace a huge variety of art forms, from music (the man can pick a mean banjo) to painting, where such irreverent pieces as ‘Picasso’s Ass Falling Off’ and ‘Fuck You Invasion’ have ruffled feathers in the stuffy and humorless world of high art.

Directed by the delightfully named Neil Berkeley, Beauty is Embarrassing details all this and much more, incorporating remarkable home movie footage shot by the teenage White and interviews with Reubens, Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, and Simpsons mastermind Matt Groening, who describes White as a cross between Zach Galifanakis, Snuffy Smith, and the Unabomber. Indeed, White does come across as a bit of a cranky old man, but you’ll like him anyway.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...