Wayne White is a man who makes things of strange and quirky beauty. And he’s a little bit embarrassed. As he explains toward the end of this bizarrely joyful escapade of a documentary, “You want to put yourself out there because of the exuberance of being creative, then you feel bad about yourself.”
White embodies the spirit of creative absurdity to the highest degree. He rose to fame as one of the original designers for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, creating much of the set, along with Gary Panter and Ric Heitzman, and voicing Dirty Dog and Randy the bully. He won three Emmys for his work there and went on to design iconic music videos for Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel. He has recently gained notoriety in the art world for his so-called word paintings — whimsical and sometimes profanity laced phrases, such as “Eastern F*ckit” and “Funny Sad Funny” meticulously painted onto vintage landscape reproductions he finds at thrift stores and flea markets. But along with his life’s many ups, there have been as many downs, and for someone who has steadfastly rejected the “Hollywood life” and has lived according to his own convictions, that road can be a hard one sometimes.
White has been making art his entire life, for as long as he can remember, and this documentary, Beauty Is Embarrassing, shot over three years with over 300 hours of accumulated footage, captures Wayne White’s world perfectly. White is a self-taught polymath from the hills of Alabama who now lives in L.A. with his wife and two kids. His parents didn’t always understand his strange ways, but they were always supportive. After a car accident left his mother with partial brain damage and mobility issues, White confronted the dark side of life, which left a permanent impression, but it didn’t deter him from his ambitions. He went on to be a painter, sculptor, cartoonist, puppeteer, set designer, art director, animator, and illustrator. The film captures all of this perfectly in all its anarchic glory with a combination of animated sequences, behind-the-scenes footage of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, snippets of White’s live performances, and interviews with friends and family, as well as extensive conversations with White in his home, in his studio, and abroad.
White’s wife, Mimi Pond, is a cartoonist in her own right and one of the original writers on The Simpsons and has provided unflagging support for White’s sometimes meandering career. Interviews with her, along with people like Matt Groening, Paul Reubens, and Mark Mothersbaugh, flesh out a life that has been lived according to White’s own rules. His humor boarders on the chaotic but is wonderfully sublime at times, and his love and lust for life is infectious.
“I think humor is sacred,” explains White at one point. “It’s the most important thing we have as human beings. People think of it as a lesser thing, but it’s really our most sacred quality. Without it, we’re dead.”
As the film follows him back to the Tennessee landscape of his college years, we see a man utterly in love with living. “It’s so beautiful here, it hurts my feelings,” he jokes. We meet early childhood friends who embody the very essence of the colorful Southern hippie. They were the fellow weirdos who shared his passions and who helped him realize that art could be fun and could be something you do your entire life. We follow White up through the halcyon days of Pee-wee, which is described as a John Waters movie come to life. But the success also had its downside, and as Matt Groening explains, when you have the combination of ego, greed, stupidity, and insanity that so permeates Hollywood, it’s a recipe for bad things.
The film briefly covers some of White’s darker moments, and it would have been interesting if it delved a little more into the downside of fame, but it chooses not to linger there. And that’s just as well, because the joie de vivre that permeates this doc is a testament to White’s resilience, and the viewer is well-served to dwell there. Whether White is dancing in the street in his oversized Lyndon B. Johnson puppet head or picking furiously at his banjo and singing about his father, the enjoyment of watching the raw spirit of White’s humor and humanity is an inspiring thing to behold.
This transcendent sense of humor, however, was more of an impediment when White decided to enter the art world. As White notes in the film, his paintings were regarded as a “gimmicky, surface thing” when he first came onto the L.A. art scene. People found them funny, but in the art world, funny isn’t taken very seriously. He was at first seen as a sort of lowbrow Ed Ruscha, which just shows how narrow-minded and over-serious the traditional art world can be. (White’s work looks absolutely nothing like a Ruscha painting.) After he eventually published a book of his paintings with the help of designer Todd Oldham titled, “Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve,” he in fact did get that respect. It was a sweet victory for a Southern boy, born of parents who came from the place where the word “hillbilly” originated.
White’s world is a jumble of complementing contradictions, and the film balances it all quite fluidly, giving us a real sense of this true eccentric. He knew he was going to be an artist when his first grade teacher brought him to the front of the room and told the entire class so (there’s a wonderful scene with her later in the film). From his life in the East Village scene when Warhol was on the prowl, to early MTV, to his eventual life in L.A., Wayne White has lived his life his way and to its fullest, something not many people — artists or not — can claim. As he says at one point during one of his performances, “We make beauty — however awkward, or strange. Beauty is a thing of awe. And it’s infinitely inspiring.”
This film captures the life of Wayne White in all its inspiring awe, and it’s a pure joy to behold.