Pee-wee Herman’s new adventure
It’s the kind of comeback that even Jambi the Genie or Madame Ruby might not have been able to predict.
Almost 30 years after the story of a boy and his bike launched him stratospheric, Paul Reubens has donned his two-sizes-too-small grey suit to play the manic man-child Pee-wee Herman again.
Coming off hit stage shows in New York and Los Angeles, Reubens is working on a movie script for Judd Apatow, developing a TV series that he classifies as top secret, and remastering all his beloved 1986-to-1991 Pee-wee’s Playhouse television shows for Blu-ray. Best of all for local fans, on February 20 Pee-wee spazzes his way up to Vancouver to host the Best of the Fest show at the NorthWest Comedy Fest.
Is Herman mania—the same adoration that once turned Pee-wee’s Big Adventure into one of the biggest surprise hits of the ’80s and sent fans feverishly running out to buy talking dolls and lunch boxes—ready to strike again? The timing would seem to be perfect. The children who grew up watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse are young adults. The university students who once watched the show stoned have their own kids now. And let’s face it: thanks to the likes of McLovin and Napoleon Dynamite, nerds have never been cooler. Pee-wee could practically pass for a menswear muse these days.
Reached at his Los Angeles home, the man behind the legend professes to have little perspective on his enduring and much-loved creation. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s blind to the fact that Pee-wee Herman is suddenly hot. Again.
“A lot of that stuff is extremely hard to not notice,” Reubens tells the Straight over the phone, sounding like the low-key, deep-voiced antithesis of his hyperactive alter ego. “Even I, who am not looking for that kind of stuff, can’t miss it.”
The adulation that met him in 2010 during his first stage shows and performances as Pee-wee in more than two decades, was impossible to ignore.
“It was just very, very overwhelming and huge and everyone was extremely vocal and kind and supportive. And it was really kind of outrageous, both what happened in Los Angeles and in New York on Broadway,” he says of his experiences with the sold-out The Pee-wee Herman Show runs. “It was kind of a validation, for sure.”
That validation has to be important, coming as it does after years of serving as a punch line for an incident (tame by today’s TMZ standards) at an adult-movie theatre in 1991. Reubens, in the late ’90s and 2000s, gradually ventured into cameos in everything from the movie Blow, as a flamboyant hairdresser–drug dealer, to TV’s 30 Rock, as a hilariously twisted Austrian prince with a prosthetic arm. But it wasn’t till the offer came for a stage show that he decided to become Pee-wee again. Reubens doesn’t overdramatize the decision.
“I got a phone call to go somewhere and instead of saying no I said yes, ” he explains matter-of-factly. “I mean, I spent a long time where, when someone would ask me, I would say no, and then one day I just decided, ‘That sounds good, yeah.’ So there wasn’t a lot of thought involved.”
Reubens, however, seems to have been putting a lot of thought into where he’s been and where he’s going. Take, for example, his fabled collection of kitsch treasures, so legendary you picture Reubens’s home looking a little like the bedroom and kitchen at the beginning of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, packed with retro train sets, hanging solar systems, pastel ceramics, and maybe even an Abe Lincoln statue. But Reubens admits, at age 61, that he thinks he’s done with shopping and collecting.
“I don’t have any more space,” he says. “I own one of just about anything you can imagine, so I don’t want or need more stuff and I just don’t have the interest that I had.” Reubens, who once publicly mused on the idea of setting up a museum of his memorabilia, has now changed his mind: “I thought about it for a long time; I’m now thinking more of getting rid of it all and having a huge auction, and, like, doing a book saying here’s my favourite 1,000 or 10,000 or 1,000,000 things I own and then getting rid of it all.”
What’s been occupying him much more than collecting lately is his work resurrecting the groundbreaking Saturday-morning Playhouse show that launched after the Tim Burton–helmed Big Adventure. Even pop-culture junkies raised on Sid and Marty Krofft had to admit that they’d never seen anything like it, with Pee-wee’s Playhouse set in a world where ice cubes figure-skated in the freezer, a blue-faced genie doled out wishes from inside a jewelled box, and a boombox robot called Conky spat out the day’s secret word. And now Reubens is remastering the series for Blu-ray, giving a new generation of parents the chance to warp the minds of their offspring in the best way.
“We’re taking every single edit, every effect, and we’re redoing the shows from scratch,” Reubens explains with enthusiasm. “It’s never been seen before on film; the show was shot on film and then transferred immediately to videotape, where by the time we broadcast it, there were between three and four generations of clarity lost. So it’s just unbelievable what it looks like.”
Predicting the package will be released either this summer or at Christmastime, he adds: “It’s just been such a huge task. We’re just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of finishing it. They have to literally find every single shot and re-edit it and re-create every effect that was shot on tape. The good thing for me is that I saved absolutely everything.
“Probably me and a producer and a director are the only people who have seen a single foot of the film,” he continues, saying there will be a lot of extra material with former costars talking about the show. “So it’s really exciting to me that the new generation of young people will get to see it—and see it like it was shot yesterday.”
If it looked like everyone was having a blast on the Playhouse set, it’s because they usually were, he recalls.
“I was having fun but I was the chairman of it all, so I had to shepherd everything and be a leader,” he confesses. “But it was an extreme lot of fun and if you go back and ask anybody working on that show about it, they’ll all say it was one of their favourite jobs. And I think we knew it was fun at the time; it wasn’t one of those things where you go, ‘Wow, we didn’t know what we had!’ We all knew we were creating something really nice and having a really good time doing it.”
Watching Playhouse episodes today, even at their lower definition, you’re struck by how out-there and subversive they are. There was almost always innuendo for parents to enjoy while their kids sat glued to the tube, whether it was Laurence Fishburne’s Cowboy Curtis joking about his foot size or Miss Yvonne looking like she’d gotten just a little too much enjoyment out of a mechanical pony ride. Reubens reveals that CBS hardly ever presented him with notes and allowed him and his crew almost free rein.
“There’s certainly a lot of innuendo on all kinds of levels on that show, but for the most part, 99 percent of what’s in that show, if a kid heard something it either went over their head or if they understood something, that was based on some education that we weren’t giving them,” Reubens says. “The innuendo was really designed for the parents watching to be entertained on a different level than their five-year-old. So it was kind of perfect.…It was really a great, great experience to work on that sort of level—and ever since then I’ve been extremely spoiled about how you develop a television show.”
Today, children’s TV pushes the boundaries in ways that owe a debt to Playhouse (hello, SpongeBob SquarePants and Yo Gabba Gabba!), but Reubens says he hasn’t seen much of what there is on offer. It’s a bit surprising, coming from an artist who has always said Pee-wee and his Playhouse were largely inspired by the copious amounts of television he watched growing up in the ’50s in Sarasota, Florida, with kids’ shows like Howdy Doody, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and Captain Kangaroo ruling the airwaves.
“I actually don’t know anything on television right now; I didn’t really watch it much when I was creating it,” Reubens says of Playhouse. “The only time I really watched television was when I was a kid, and I watched a lot of it then. But I did know what was on TV at the time I created my show. In broadcast there wasn’t anything live on. There was just a lot of animation and a good deal of it was extremely simple animation.…So I always feel like my show looked better because everything else was kind of lame.”
Times are different now, but Pee-wee’s world was so whacked-out, anarchic, and eye candy–loaded that you have a feeling it would do just as well today. Reubens is hoping his new television project will succeed too, but he can’t talk about it much—only enough to hint that it’s another show that should appeal to all ages.
The movie deal is similarly under wraps, and Reubens is gun-shy about talking about it too. “It’s taking a very long time,” he says. “It’s all moving forward and swirling around and getting talked about.”
Reubens reminds us that even back in the day, he wasn’t exactly an overnight success. Since the ’70s, he had been working improv and sketch with an L.A. troupe called the Groundlings, growing Pee-wee out of that creative hothouse. Reubens is enough of a veteran to know these things take time. Meanwhile, he’s keeping the momentum going, with gigs like the one here at the NorthWest Comedy Fest.
Yes, Pee-wee is back—just don’t ask Paul Reubens to analyze the staying power of his sweet-yet-snarky jester in white loafers. Not surprisingly for a guy whose character once said in Big Adventure, “There are a lot of things about me, things you wouldn’t understand, things you couldn’t understand, things you shouldn’t understand,” Reubens is reluctant to overanalyze his alter ego’s lasting appeal as a cult figure.
“If I start thinking in those terms, then I don’t want to do what I do anymore. It just kind of takes the fun out of it. I just want to have fun and be goofy,” he insists. “I think it’s dangerous for me to sort of figure that out—I never thought about it when I originated it and created it, and the honest truth is I just don’t think about that.”
While Reubens may be hesitant to trumpet his own comeback story, let alone try to explain it, he will at least admit to the satisfying feeling that comes from knowing there are still legions of fans who can’t wait to get more Pee-wee. Not that he’s going to let that go to his Brylcreemed little head, mind you.
“What’s really incredible for me is all the people that say, ‘I’m an artist because of you,’ ” Reubens allows at the end of our interview. “That’s enormously gratifying to me. I set out to show people it’s cool to be original and creative and nonconformist. I took that very seriously in my, you know, self-appointed job to teach young people things. And to hear people go, ‘You affected me in a great way’—that’s really fun. That’s exciting and I love every minute of that. But I don’t really take it any further.”