Art can be many things, but it is seldom hilarious, a shortcoming Wayne White hopes to correct in the refreshingly amusing art-doc portrait “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” Best known as one of the designers on trippy ’80s TV hit “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” but recently reinvented as the wit behind a series of popular word paintings (clever quips superimposed on thrift-store tableaux), Wayne rails against the pretentious, pointy-headed high-art establishment, serving as a compelling folk hero for those who never knew art could be fun. In a genre with little room for commercial, crowd-pleasing breakouts, this doc could be a big earner.
Just as Fitzgerald and Faulkner tried their hand at screenwriting, many of the century’s most important visual artists have done their time in Hollywood, many of them in children’s television. The hook for many will be White’s tenure on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” where he created the puppets and performed the voices of Randy and Dirty Dog (though the heavy lifting on that show was done by co-creator Gary Panter, whose participation the doc rewards by making him the butt of a cut-to punchline). As musician Mark Mothersbaugh puts it, “Wayne’s stuff, kids mainlined. He was imprinting their brains, and they didn’t even realize it.”
The payoff of such early exposure is that American auds have been familiar with Wayne’s work for decades, whether or not they knew his name, lending a unique celebrity status to his unlikely second act. Just a few short years ago, his word paintings (with phrases like “Hoozy Thinky Iz?” and “Wrong Question Asker”) were amusing brunch patrons on the walls of the Fred 62 diner in Los Feliz; now galleries and museums have begun to treat him like one of their own. White has an amazing sense of humor about the whole process, as conveyed in the title of his coffee-table career-retrospective, “Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve.”
Director Neil Berkeley, who worked as White’s assistant years ago, clearly falls in the fan camp. For him, the docu is a labor of love, built on candid access across more than two years of White’s career, much of them spent with him at home and on the road. Berkeley is present to witness the creation of the first LBJ puppet head and documents its unveiling atop the Hollywood Hills.
Fresh interviews are augmented by rare behind-the-scenes material from White’s TV work and intimate homevideos from his childhood in Tennessee, where “art was something you bought at Kmart.” Berkeley includes key details to understanding where White’s aesthetic came from, illustrating how his mother’s interior decorating skills were a clear template for “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” while art-school shenanigans were the root of his continuing puppet fixation. Clips from one of White’s mutant brainchildren, a locally produced kids show called “Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose,” prove Pee Wee’s psychedelic influences weren’t all Panter’s contribution.
In order to help guide auds through the strange course of White’s career, Berkeley encouraged the artist to create and narrate a comprehensive slideshow presentation. A natural ham, White elevates the assignment to a form of standup comedy, appearing onstage before live audiences surrounded by paintings and props to spout his philosophy on how art should be allowed to entertain. White rejects the establishment’s preoccupation with conceptual art designed to “make them question their core values … and blah-blah,” and yet, even Los Angeles Times critic David Pagel admits that White’s work, which he initially dismissed as a kitschy play on Ed Ruscha, has had that effect on him.
Technically, “Beauty Is Embarrassing” may not be as disciplined as more traditional art docs; the footage of White’s family in particular is confusing in its chronology. But that raggedness suits the subject just fine. Berkeley also playfully integrates a few animated segments, including a charming comic-panel retelling of how White met wife Mimi Pond that she herself illustrated.