In this new interview series, acclaimed New York City writer Joshua David Stein sits down with an interesting guy to eat cheeseburgers and talk, in a segment we like to call “2 Guys, 2 Cheeseburgers, Talky Talk.”
If Wayne White walked by you on the street or if, perhaps, he was awaiting you at the bar of the Minetta Tavern, you might not recognize him, mistaking him instead for just another heavily bearded vaguely Southern-seeming guy, the kind that are a dime-a-dozen in New York today. But Wayne White isn’t just that. A) He’s actually from Tennessee and B) Wayne White is the guy that probably more than anyone else shaped your view of the world.
An underground comic artist hanging around New York in the 1980s, White landed a role creating the puppets for Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse: Andy, Chairry, Clockey — these are all Wayne White creations. Then he moved to LA. Remember that Smashing Pumpkins video, “Tonight Tonight”? Well, Wayne made those puppets too.
He’s now the subject of a new documentary called Beauty is Embarrassing (in select theaters now) by Neil Berkeley, who incidentally runs the graphics house responsible for the Top Chef logo. [He’s the man behind for the shwing knife boner.] I sat down with the two of them to discuss White’s trajectory, his father, Ringo Starr and, of course, one of New York’s best cheeseburgers.
What do you see as the narrative thrust of the documentary, is it just an expository like “Hey, here’s this guy you didn’t know about…”?
No. It’s the story of this hillbilly kid from Tennessee who moves to New York and then Los Angeles and gets involved with all of these big pop cultural events like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Smashing Pumpkins. It’s also, in a more general sense, it’s a story directed at artists about how to stay focused and defy the odds.
You’ve recently garnered acclaim for your paintings. Your work, especially your word paintings, are funny. That’s something in the movie that you mention actually rubbing people the wrong way.
Humor is always considered lightweight and not worthy of analysis. I want to present humor as something deep and laughter as something sacred and human as worthy of art. Nevertheless, the best humor has a core of sadness. That’s what gives it its richness.
How much of that seeped into Pee-Wee’s Playhouse?
Well in Pee Wee’s we were deconstructing and satirizing the culture — the TV shows, the books, the comics and the sitcoms — that we knew as kids in the 1960’s and 1970’s. We filtered it with art history, our knowledge of cubism and expressionism and all that. A lot of us were underground cartoonists which is all about looking at the dark side of things, taking a toy and twisting it and finding the darkness to it. We weren’t doing it for kids. We were doing it for ourselves.
[Our beautiful waitress approaches. She has a lovely English accent.]
‘ello gentlemen. We ‘ave some specials today.
JDS: I think we know what we want. We’re cheeseburger men.
WW: I’ll have the Minetta burger, medium rare. Fries.
JDS: I’ll have the Black Label Burger. Medium Rare.
NB: I’ll have the Minetta burger, medium rare.
JDS: Oh shit, wait a second. You can’t get cheese on the Black Label, can you?
It’s not recommended, sir.
JDS: Oh, okay. I’ll have the Minetta burger too then. And instead of fries, can I get pommes aligot? (edit note: it’s a fondue-like mix of potatoes and cheese, per our 100 French food/drink food phrases.)
Waitress: That’ll be five dollars extra.
JDS: That’s ok.
And just to let you know, we serve our burger slightly under. So medium rare will be red in the center. Others, in fact, might call it rare.
NG: Do you serve your steaks Pittsburgh?
I’m sorry, sir?
NG: Pittsburgh, do you serve your steaks Pittsburgh?
I don’t know what you mean, sir.
NG: It means charred on the outside; raw on the inside.
Oh, well, I’ll remember that for next time.
JDS: Don’t hold your breath until the next person uses the phrase. Oh, can I have another Manhattan, perfect, rye, up?
Preference on the rye, sir?
JDS: Michter’s, please.
Are you still close with those guys from Pee Wee’s you worked with? In the movie you seem almost like a family.
We kind of drifted apart. I still know Alison Mork, who was a puppeteer on the show. She’s my old friend from Tennessee and is the one who helped me get the job on my first show. Paul Rubens is a very private person.
There’s a character in the film named Mike Quinn. He’s your best friend. You started puppeteering together. He seems deeply artistic but he chose to stay in Belt Buckle, Tennessee when you moved to New York. His life turned out very differently.
He’s an amazing guy. He’s a very important influence on me. I rely on him in my life to regenerate my art spirit and my life spirit.
Neil: Mike Quinn will change your life. I tell everybody, if you’re ever near Belt Buckle, Tennessee, pull off and go see Mike Quinn. He’s this wonderful, spiritual, Buddhist, shaman who lives in the hills of Tennessee.
Do you feel that success and living the art life are at odds?
Success can corrupt you in a lot of different ways. You start forgetting about who you’re making the art for. You start thinking about all your rich collectors and you start thinking about the client rather than the creation. Mike makes art just for the hell of it.
Whereas you make art for money?
For a while, I did. That’s why I did the straight children’s show. I wasn’t getting rich but I was making a living; I was in the Screen Actors Guild as a performer, which is pretty good money and you get residuals every time the show runs. So I was getting a paycheck to buy a house in LA and have kids and support that whole lifestyle. I did a show, Shining Time Station with Ringo Starr.
How was hanging out with Ringo?
I only met him once. He was not in a good mood.
[The cheeseburgers arrive and a small cast-iron Dutch oven with pommes aligot. Wayne and Neil inspect their plate.]
WW: Whoa, this looks great. Cheeseburgers are also human-like. There’s just something about the bun and burger, it’s a natural mouth.
NG: I love how some of the cheese sticks to the fries.
WW: It’s just the right about of juiciness. And the accompaniments are perfect.
JDS: The other main character in the movie — besides you and Mike Quinn — is your father, who seems to be a very stoic guy, though in one scene he tears up at a reading of yours because he’s so proud.
That is the most ironic thing of the movie, my father becoming a symbol of emotionality for people all over the country because my father was opposite of emotional growing up. I still have deep insecurities from my childhood. It was either sports or exile. You either played sports or you were a complete queer misfit.
And what do you think about it now that you’ve seen the movie and seen him cry.
I have mixed feelings, you know. For one thing, I still have anger at my father for withholding his emotions from me my whole life as a child, my whole childhood.
But he also withheld them from himself.
True! He withheld it from everybody and I needed his support and love and he would not give it to me. That’s part of the origins of the title, Beauty Is Embarrassing. My father is embarrassed of his own emotions. And emotions are truth and truth is beauty and he’s literally embarrassed to be alive sometimes.
So there’s a part of me that still resents him for that and there’s a part of me that when I see him crying on the screen I go, Yeah! I’m finally getting my emotional revenge on you, I made you cry in a movie! And everybody’s seeing you cry and that’s the real you! How do you like it now?
How does he like it?
He plays like it’s nothing. He still ignores, he’s still playing like it’s no big deal, he writes it off, he still won’t address it. He’s never told me he loves me. He can’t do that, he’s embarrassed.
Hmm, this cheeseburger sure is good.