So why do we love Rube Goldberg feeding contraptions so much?
Between the anvils and the dipping birds and the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, Pee-Wee Herman always knew how to start the day off with style. The iconic breakfast machine that kicks off the 1985 movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure isn’t the first pop-culture appearance of feeding devices, but it probably left the most unrealistically exciting #breakfastgoals for a generation of children, myself included. And in my old age, as my Hello Kitty toaster starts to bore me, I’ve started to wonder... does the Pee-Wee Herman breakfast machine exist in real life, churning out smiling pancakes to the dulcet tones of Danny Elfman? The complicated answer to this question starts not with Pee-Wee, but with Rube Goldberg.
Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist who utilized his engineering training to draw contraptions as complex as they were humorous. Each zany, convoluted invention would accomplish a relatively simple task, such as swatting a fly or licking a stamp. Just ask Jennifer George. In addition to being the editor behind The Art of Rube Goldberg, she’s Rube Goldberg Inc.’s legacy director and Goldberg’s second-youngest grandchild. The fashion-industry veteran didn’t initially plan to fall in with the family business; she took over compiling the quintessential Rube Goldberg book, a seven-year-long task that had her digging through her grandfather’s archives, after her father’s passing. But by the time we meet in her multi-hued and knick-knack-filled apartment (a definite playhouse), it’s clear she’s embraced Goldberg’s legacy with endearing zest.
George’s grandfather’s career coincided with the second industrial revolution. “Making things and building things and coming up with new ways to do something, I mean, that’s what America was all about. It’s what it was built on,” she said.
Goldberg clearly capitalized on the era’s widespread fascination with technology, and food was an underlying part of it. From “The Self-Operating Napkin” to “Simple Way For Cooling Soup,” Goldberg had a fair share of machines that made meals into comical adventures. George guided me through her grandfather’s multi-layered, hilarious creations, with lots of laughing and plenty of meowing (her cats’ contributions). The most breakfast-y Rube Goldberg contraption, however, is featured on the book’s cover, which features a moving illustration titled “Simple Way To Get Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice Upon Awakening.”
“Simple?” Pull the tab and watch it take eight elaborate steps to get that OJ. I had found the ancestor to Pee-Wee’s breakfast machine... but did the breakfast machine have a descendant?
Indeed it does. A recent resurgence in fascination with Goldberg can be tied to another technological boom. The dawn of YouTube brought along next-Gen inventors showcasing their own machines. It made Rube Goldbergs, in George’s words, “hashtaggable, searchable, viral. It took on a whole new meaning and life of its own in the digital world.”
That explains the popularity of Joseph Herscher, a kinetic chain reaction artist and computer programmer turned YouTube star (his first Rube Goldberg video, Creme That Egg has over 2.8 million views). I meet him for a cup of New Zealand breakfast tea in 88-degree weather (no sugar, a splash of milk, steeped for two minutes—which is very important) to talk about his inventions.
Herscher built his own breakfast machine for the first episode of his web series, Jiwi’s Machines. The contraption feeds Herscher’s madcap character toast and jam and orange juice, making his day-to-day life simpler so he has more time for, you know, more inventing. The comedy occurs when it goes utterly haywire on Jiwi and his sister June.
Things got complicated in real life too: the machines all had to be built in New York (where Herscher lives) over the course of six months and reassembled in New Zealand (where he was raised and the series was filmed). Even as one of the “easier” machines to build, the breakfast machine took a month to make, and was a whole adventure of its own to film (read: lots of splashed orange juice).
Rube Goldberg breakfast machines, for all their silliness, are ironically concocted for early-morning productivity. Herscher takes this one step further. “In a way it’s the most routine meal of the day,” He says. “[For] dinner you have something different every day usually, lunch same thing. But breakfast you often will have the same meal, so it makes more logical sense to have a machine that does that.”
There’s a whole slew of pop-culture feeding machines between the industrial age and the internet age, and they exist in cinema. Dick Van Dyke’s Rube Goldberg in 1968’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang may be the first well-known breakfast-specific one, but an even earlier example is Charlie Chaplin’s eating aid in 1936’s Modern Times.
Where do Tim Burton and Pee-Wee fall in all of this? Goldberg, per the accompanying literature of Burton’s 2009 MoMA exhibit, was definitely a filmmaker’s influence. Though Herscher acknowledges Pee-Wee’s machine as one of his touchstones, he regards Burton’s machine as more “magical realism,” whereas his Rube Goldbergs are, well, real. (And I’ve watched him chain a cuckoo clock to his head. I can verify this.)
What, ultimately, is point of the breakfast machine when making a breakfast isn’t really hard enough to require a complicated mechanical process? When I asked George, she jovially said it was “to highlight our incredibly imaginative wasted efforts to do certain things... We’re always trying to simplify our lives and in the process making it more complicated. I think it’s more of a satirical kind of window or looking glass onto the human condition.” For Herscher, the reasoning is much simpler: “I realized I could make machines that were both very practical and improve my life, but also make people laugh.”
At the end of my quest I found myself with a mimosa at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema, as generations of children cackle at a screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s clear now: The point of breakfast machines isn’t practicality, really, but whimsy. It’s way easier to crack an egg than to assemble a complicated 16-step mechanism to do it for you. But these machines celebrate the possibility of mechanics, and the human imagination. And that’s exactly what the Pee-Wee breakfast machine is doing, right before Pee-Wee drowns his expertly created pancake face with Mr. T cereal. Sure, the machine made him breakfast. But its real creation is fun.