Heard any good jokes lately? Chances are if you’ve caught any part of the recent resurgence in Pee-wee Herman’s career, the answer is yes. The world’s favorite bow-tie wearing man-child is back and on ubiquitous levels. He’s everywhere. Pee-wee tweets! He goes tag-team with Andy Samberg on tequila drinking benders and chair-flinging assaults on Anderson Cooper. He shows up at wrestling matches and taunts The Miz on WWE Raw. He’s not just making cameos either. Pee-wee’s HBO special, “The Pee-wee Herman Show Live on Broadway,” (yes, he’s on Broadway) was nominated for a Primetime Emmy this year. And fans of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure have had their bow-ties spinning ever since Pee-wee Herman creator/actor Paul Reubens revealed that decades-old scripts he wrote might finally see the light of the silver screen.
“Many, many years ago, I flew at the Oscars. I was sitting in the midst of all these stars, just thinking, I’ve got a secret that no one knows about, and I was so excited. No one knew that I was going to be up on the ceiling later,” Reubens said, in reference to his 1989 Academy Award stunt complete with a RoboCop battle and piano wires. “It’s sort of like that right now,” Reubens explained, “I feel like I have this secret thing.” The not-so-secret-anymore thing is that Reubens is in the works on a Pee-wee feature film with Judd Apatow, who saw his show on Broadway. After a near twenty-year hiatus, the eternal kid is the new comeback kid. Pee-wee is flying high once again.
Oscar appearances aside, it’s not the first time he's been on top. Pee-wee Herman made his debut in 1977 during a late night comedy act when Paul Reubens was a member of Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings (home to fellow alums Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and other Lorne Michaels approved comedians). Less than 5 years later, Pee-wee had an HBO special and not longer after, a feature film. In its five seasons, Pee-wee’s Playhouse garnered over 20 Emmy nominations, winning 15 of them. The lovably impish character even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Yes, the character – not Paul Reubens. An award that all too tellingly speaks to the magnitude the alter ego took on. For the better part of Pee-wee’s early success, Reubens avoided being photographed out of costume and made all his interviews and public appearances in character.
In a 2010 interview with Playboy, Reuben was asked, “But wasn’t Pee-wee your own façade?” He replied, “Boy, that was convenient, wasn’t it, to become somebody else? Even then people said to me, “Don’t you think this has some kind of meaning, having an alter ego? That you publicly do everything in that character? …. It’s threatening to me to have to dissect Pee-wee because I feel as though I’ll lose him. I mean, he is me. I have the same face, the same voice, the same everything…. Amazingly, by way of a mutual friend of his son Christian, I learned that even Marlon Brando thought Pee-wee was a real person! He couldn’t believe I was an actor who had created that persona—which is maybe the highest benediction. … Of course, this was my awkward way of dealing with fame. I would just grow a tiny beard and get a little length on my hair and no one would know me. I could go have a regular life.” Though from the time he was a kid growing up in Sarasota, Florida, then the sunny winter headquarters for the Ringling Brothers Circus, it was clear that Reubens would be a performer. Between the stage his dad built for him in the basement and putting on blind-folded balance beam acts at summer camp as a kid (rings of fire fully included), Reubens was primed for creating a show about childhood antics, willful imagination, and daring to be different. Still, fame is a fickle and not to be trusted friend, something Reubens knows all too well, what with his decade-long near-disappearance.
But he’s back! And I love that Pee-wee is back - and still at that perpetual age of having just discovered sarcasm and half-discovered girls. I love that Reubens is back at all of his 58 years. It’s amazing that a man nearing his 60s can so convincingly embody a spirit so youthful and mischievous. Though, truthfully, it’s just as amazing that the character worked at all. Ever.
On paper, on storyboard, on anything other than Paul Reubens's stiff and arm-flapping body, Pee-wee Herman shouldn’t have lasted more than a decade. Pee-wee is a essentially a manic man-child who, Ruebens himself has even said, never began with any real jokes. Instead, the character started as a take on the wanna-be comedian who would never make it. “I don’t even think I had jokes at the time,” Reubens said, “I just had a paper bag of toys. It was really sort of a pathetic kind of act.” Reubens took what, at maximum. might have been a recurring SNL character for a year. and he turned it into a career and a beloved alter ego.
Even then, Reubens explains that most of the Pee-wee’s origins were born out of various acting failures. In an interview with NPR, Rueben says the signature ghostly pallor and bright red lips began partially because he didn’t have a makeup artist and didn’t know what he was doing. The defining, high-pitched Pee-wee voice came from doing theater in a production of “Life with Father” when he unwittingly and failingly turned his role into an on-stage cartoon. Reubens also credits the very existence of The Pee-wee Herman Show to the fact that he got rejected from Saturday Night Live. Spiteful and terrified that his only chance had just passed him by, the first thing Reubens did before returning home was call his parents and ask to borrow money. Within 2 weeks he had a team of 60 people and they started producing The Pee-wee Herman Show.
When you hear a story like that, it becomes vividly clear that the success of Pee-wee Herman was never an accident. The same plucky determination, the bicycle-thief-be-damned attitude of Pee-wee Herman is one aspect never needed an alter ego - it was Reubens all along. That he’s come back now is just another lesson that Pee-wee has to teach us: that you’re never too old to make a game out of life. The secret word is always fun.
More Pee-wee stuff:
Pee-wee’s official homepage (side note: site is streaming "Pee-wee’s Christmas Special" for Pee-wee fans in the holiday spirit!)
Paul Reubens on IMDB
Interview with The A.V. Club (2006)
Interview with NPR WHYY-FM’s Fresh Air (2004)
Pee-wee feature in EmmyWrap (2011)
“Older, But No More Mature” - The New York Times review of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” (2010)
“Paul Reubens on Pee-wee Herman’s Next Big Adventure: A New Movie” at The New York Times (2010)
“I Know You Are, But What Am I? You’re a Broadway Star, Pee-wee Herman” at Paper Magazine (2010)
“Apatow developing Pee-wee Herman Pic” on Variety (2010)
“Return from Planet Pee-Wee” from Vanity Fair (1999)
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.