The Pee Wee Herman Effect: Engagement and Interest in Modern Storytelling

It’s not the Mandela Effect.

That term refers to those curious instances when you remember something a particular way, but it turns out to be incorrect. There are myriad examples all over the internet (Like actor Sinbad never playing a genie in any movie, Nelson Mandela not dying in the 1980’s and realizing that there is no such thing as “Jiffy” peanut butter (it’s Jif).

No, the Pee Wee Herman Effect is something much more personal yet just as intriguing.

It’s the experience you have when you see or hear something that seems really familiar, but you know that it’s something completely new. This effect often occurs in your formidable years (between the ages of 10–14), when your world is still relatively small and you are just beginning to dip your toe into more adult themes and concepts.

It could be a TV show, a song, a movie or even a game you’ve seen somewhere. There is something about it that draws in your curiosity. One part of you relates to it on a deeply, familiar level, while another part of your brain identifies it something brand new, unique and different.

It happened to me with Pee Wee Herman.

When I was 13 years old, I was a Saturday Night Live fanatic. My friends and I would build our weekend plans around getting together, staying up late, and watching the comedy revue that came on at 11:30pm every Saturday night.

Unfortunately, one weekend in 1981, Saturday Night Live was not on. It got preempted at midnight by something called, “The Pee Wee Herman Show.” (Remember, this was years before the Pee-Wee Movie or Pee Wee’s Playhouse fame).

As I watched the show for the first time, I was stunned, shocked and mesmerized. It looked like it was for kids, but the show was filled with finely tuned, clever, adult content. The show had the feel of a cheesy 1950’s kiddie TV show, but it was far from it. It was weird, quirky, funny and surreal. It was also very, very different from anything I’d ever seen before.

I had never seen anything like it -ever.

Or had I?

All at once, I had the conflicting sensation of feeling familiar with something that was completely new to me. I was drawn in by the campy, 1950’s vibe, but I was held captive by Paul Reubens portrayal of an odd, pancake make-upped, giggling man boy.

As we tee up a new series at Folkteller Entertainment, I’m drawn back to that moment in my life and compelled to create a similar experience for our audience. The challenge with good storytelling is always about two things: initial engagement and ongoing interest.

It’s up to the creators to build a fascinating gateway to bring the audience in. But that’s only half of the equation. The other half is that you have sustain a rich, powerful and intriguing storyline to hold the audience’s interest.

If you don’t, all you get is form without substance and a polished, beautiful shell without nothing else inside.

Great series and franchises understand the Pee Wee Herman Effect and somehow find a way to tap into it. It’s a subtle, delicate art that fails more often than it succeeds.

The ultimate success comes when the audience embraces a new, innovative story told in a compelling way. They do so by identifying with the content and its characters, anxiously waiting for more as the tale unfolds over time.

In a way, the audience actually helps shape the ongoing story through their interest and response. By relating to and interacting with the story, they end up answering Pee Wee’s eternal question –

“I know you are, but what am I?”