Af­ter 25 years, ev­ery­one’s favourite mad­cap man­child is fi­nally back in an all-new movie adventure


More than two decades af­ter the Play­house was shut­tered, Paul Reubens re­turns as the small, child­ish man with the loud, child­ish voice.

Pee-wee Herman is chomp­ing on a pop­si­cle.

The sun is silly-hot to­day in South Pasadena, where new film Pee-wee’s Big Hol­i­day is be­ing shot, and he’s re­quested some­thing sooth­ing, to cool him down as we talk in his trailer. So here he sits, Pee-wee Herman, once one of the most pop­u­lar fam­ily-en­ter­tain­ment char­ac­ters in the world, wear­ing his trade­mark, tight­fit­ting grey Glen plaid suit and red bow tie, eye­balling Em­pire and savour­ing his ice-pop. Which is ex­actly what you’d ex­pect to find Pee-wee Herman eating.

It is also ex­actly what you’d ex­pect, some­how, of Paul Reubens, the man who has lived and breathed Pee-wee, on and off, for nearly four decades. Here in the trailer, Reubens stays in the suit but ditches the shouty voice — his own is softer, gen­tler, con­sid­er­ably less an­i­mated. Things were dif­fer­ent dur­ing the 1980s, when he would only do press in char­ac­ter. For a long time, Reubens wanted the world to be­lieve Pee-wee was real, keep­ing him­self hid­den from view. Even to­day, Pee-wee is such a beau­ti­fully re­alised char­ac­ter that know­ing there’s an ac­tor in there some­where means noth­ing when you see him walk­ing about be­fore the cam­eras, yelp­ing glee­fully on the side­walks of Pasadena. It doesn’t feel like a film pro­duc­tion; it feels like we’re on Pee-wee Herman’s street.

It’s a lit­tle odd to be look­ing at Pee-wee but talk­ing to Reubens, now 63. Em­pire won­ders how it feels to still be sport­ing that un­der­sized suit 39 years later, strolling around this quaint Los An­ge­les sub­urb. “Well, I be­came an ac­tor be­cause I thought I’d pick a job where I never had to wear a suit, so there’s that…” he dead­pans. “It feels the same in that way that it did 30 years ago, where I was like, ‘Ah, I’m wear­ing this suit all day!’ Be­tween you and me and your bil­lion read­ers, it’s not that com­fort­able. If I had a choice I’d be Pee-wee Herman with Ber­muda shorts and a T-shirt, but it doesn’t work as good.”

Three decades plus is a long time to have been wear­ing such a tight out­fit, but for Reubens it was cer­tainly worth it. Dur­ing his ’80s hey­day, Pee-wee was huge, launch­ing Tim Bur­ton’s film ca­reer with the joy­ous Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, then be­com­ing one of Satur­day-morn­ing kids’ tele­vi­sion’s big­gest stars with Pee-wee’s Play­house, a sur­real Tech­ni­color world of talk­ing fur­ni­ture, cow­boys played by Lau­rence Fish­burne and never-end­ing fun. As snarky as he was sweet, Pee-wee was America’s favourite man­child, both adorably sweet and hi­lar­i­ously petu­lant. Then, sud­denly, he dis­ap­peared for a cou­ple of decades. But now, here we are, fi­nally join­ing him on a new adventure in which Pee-wee, seem­ingly un­both­ered by the rav­ages of time, heads off on his first va­ca­tion. It’s been a long and crooked road.

PAUL REUBENS WAS BORN in 1952, and spent much of his childood in a New York farm­ing com­mu­nity called Oneonta. It was an idyl­lic town, with an­i­mals roam­ing freely and crab ap­ple trees lin­ing the street. Pee-wee Herman was born in 1977, on a lit­tle stage in a Los An­ge­les com­edy club. The char­ac­ter, Reubens thought at the time, was a spon­ta­neous creation. Look­ing back, he can trace the DNA.

South Pasadena, which dou­bles for Pee-wee’s street in Pee-wee’s Big Hol­i­day, as it did in 1985 for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, is al­most un­bear­ably ap­plepie, a mon­u­ment to post­card Amer­i­cana. When the cam­eras roll, neigh­bours wave as they walk past. “Morn­ing, Pee-wee!” says one. “Morn­ing, Mr. Me­ga­tron!” Pee-wee hollers back, driv­ing up the road in a minia­ture Ford Thun­der­bird. It’s all rooted in Reubens’ early years. “When I was grow­ing up, America was very much like that, or at least, that’s what they were push­ing on tele­vi­sion and in books,” he says. “Ev­ery­thing I saw as a kid was very idyl­lic. My par­ents took me and my brother and sis­ter to ev­ery sin­gle lit­tle sto­ry­book-land tourist at­trac­tion. All of

that is def­i­nitely rep­re­sented in what I do.”

Af­ter study­ing per­for­mance art at LA’S Calarts, Reubens joined im­prov group the Groundlings, cre­at­ing Pee-wee as part of a skit about a com­edy club. Reubens dreamed up a hope­less co­me­dian who, like him, couldn’t re­call punchlines. the name came from a har­mon­ica he had that said “Pee Wee” on it, and an overly en­thu­si­as­tic kid he’d known grow­ing up whose sur­name was Herman. the voice came from a teenager Reubens had played in a reper­tory pro­duc­tion. the suit be­longed to Groundlings di­rec­tor Gary Austin (who was shorter than Reubens, hence the tight fit). the bow tie was given to him by some­one as he went on stage.

the crowd loved it, so he kept push­ing Pee-wee, de­cid­ing the char­ac­ter would find greater suc­cess if Reubens never ap­peared pub­licly as him­self. He wanted peo­ple to think Pee-wee was real, even, in 1979, au­di­tion­ing for tv’s The Dat­ing Game as the char­ac­ter, to obliv­i­ous pro­duc­tion staff. “that was re­ally ex­cit­ing,” he says, “be­cause it seemed very con­cep­tual to me, al­most per­for­mance art. ex­cept that no-one knew it was that but me.” He got through, ap­pear­ing on the show three times, al­ways in char­ac­ter, and won (the ac­tual date, alas, fell through). His fate was sealed. “I went, ‘Whoa, this is what I’m gonna do. Fo­cus right on this.’”

And so it was Pee-wee who be­came fa­mous: Reubens didn’t just take a back seat, he locked him­self in the boot. It’s Pee-wee Herman, not Reubens, who has a star on the Hol­ly­wood Walk Of Fame. Years ago, Reubens was of­fered a spot on Amer­i­can re­al­ity tv show The Sur­real Life. He said he would, but only if he could do it as Pee-wee. they said no, so he didn’t.

While off-duty, Reubens does not walk, talk or act like Pee-wee, yet he con­cedes that the line blurs. “I have a lot of af­fec­tion for the char­ac­ter,” he says. “If you strip away all of my hor­ri­ble­ness you get Pee-wee Herman. Or a part of Pee-wee. Although one thing we’ve been try­ing to be care­ful about [on the new film] is Pee-wee’s snarky side. Pee-wee Herman has never been a to­tal in­no­cent. I think lots of peo­ple like that he can flip re­ally fast and not be so sweet. If you’re ex­u­ber­ant or joy­ful or snarky or frus­trated, ev­ery­body has a ver­sion of that. I just think that Pee-wee doesn’t have that much con­text be­cause I don’t think about it that much and nei­ther does he. He just is.”

Judd Apa­tow, pro­ducer of Pee-wee’s Big Hol­i­day, thinks the char­ac­ter’s ap­peal is time­less. He’s been a fan from the start, hav­ing caught Pee-wee’s Dat­ing Game ap­pear­ances in 1979. “He was al­ways so hys­ter­i­cal,” he says. “And there are very few orig­i­nal char­ac­ters like that in com­edy. Peo­ple don’t do that any­more. It’s a throw­back to the Marx Broth­ers. It makes me laugh harder than al­most any­thing. I loved the Marx Broth­ers and W. C. Fields, Ab­bott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, and this is as close as we have to that.”

Reubens is loathe to an­a­lyse Pee-wee’s psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up. “Some peo­ple were con­fused about it: ‘Is he slow? Is he a man, is he a kid? What is it?’ And I never re­ally wanted to ex­plain it much. I never liked to think about it that much be­cause it takes the fun out of it for me. But I also just didn’t think it was wise to go, ‘He’s 26.’ Or what­ever. If some peo­ple thought I was slow, then great. If it works like that.”

THE CHAR­AC­TER’S per­ceived re­al­ity was one of its great strengths, but it also worked hor­ri­bly against both Pee-wee and Reubens. It is why the me­dia had such a field day when, in 1991, Reubens suf­fered a high-pro­file ar­rest. Af­ter ex­haust­ing him­self in the late ’80s — two movies, five tv sea­sons, with the fi­nal two filmed back to back — Reubens had ended Pee-wee’s Play­house to take a break from show­busi­ness. And then, while ly­ing low with his par­ents in Sara­sota, Florida, he was ar­rested for mas­tur­bat­ing in a porn cinema. the in­ci­dent swiftly and vi­o­lently dis­man­tled so much of what Reubens had done with Pee-wee. CBS can­celled its re-runs of Pee-wee’s Play­house, lead­ing many to be­lieve that this in­ci­dent ac­tu­ally killed the show Reubens had al­ready ended.

It was easy tabloid fod­der. Later, Reubens com­mented that the story dom­i­nated the news even over the grisly rev­e­la­tions about se­rial killer Jef­frey Dah­mer, who’d been ar­rested three days ear­lier. the mor­ti­fied ac­tor re­treated and went into shock, barely leav­ing the house for months. He has al­ways main­tained he wasn’t do­ing what they said he was do­ing in that cinema, but didn’t want to go through a pub­li­cised trial, so pleaded no con­test, was given 75 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice and, bizarrely, was asked to do a pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment, in char­ac­ter as Pee-wee, about the dan­gers of crack.

Sur­pris­ingly, a few weeks later Reubens was in­vited, as Pee-wee, to in­tro­duce the MTV Video Mu­sic Awards. On stage he seemed over­whelmed by the crowd’s roars, bask­ing in the glow as they chanted Pee-wee’s name. “Heard any good jokes lately?” he said af­ter col­lect­ing him­self, in ref­er­ence not only to the

wa­ter-cooler wise­cracks and tabloid at­tacks, but to his own con­tem­po­raries tak­ing shots at him dur­ing stand-up gigs. “So funny I for­got to laugh.”

Pee-wee’s come­back, though, was fleet­ing. MTV, which had en­joyed a long re­la­tion­ship with him (he’d of­ten ap­pear in its New Year’s Eve shows), of­fered to broad­cast re-runs of Pee-wee’s Play­house, but Reubens thought it best to just draw a line un­der the show. Con­cerned that Pee-wee’s im­age had been tar­nished by the ar­rest, he in­stead be­gan tak­ing other film and TV roles (see side­bar, right). He also spent three years de­vel­op­ing Meet The Muck­les, a com­edy pi­lot for NBC about a fam­ily of va­ri­ety per­form­ers, but when he was fi­nally done the net­work had lost in­ter­est, and passed.

Mean­while, none of the act­ing work he’d been do­ing had been in­spir­ing him. In 1999, ap­pear­ing on Jay Leno’s show to pro­mote his role in Mys­tery Men — the first time he’d ever been on a talk-show as him­self — Reubens an­nounced that he was writ­ing a new Pee-wee film. The char­ac­ter, dor­mant for al­most a decade, was al­ways a part of Reubens’ id, and wasn’t go­ing to sleep for­ever. “In the same way I went, ‘I’m gonna stop do­ing this,’ I just one day went, ‘I wanna do it again,’” he says now.

In fact, he was writ­ing var­i­ous Pee-wee films, two of which he be­gan to men­tion reg­u­larly. There was The Pee-wee Herman Story, a more adult, Val­ley Of The Dolls-in­spired tale fol­low­ing Pee-wee as he finds fame as a singer, goes to Hol­ly­wood to make mu­si­cal movies, then turns into a pill-pop­ping, booze-guz­zling mon­ster. And there was Pee-wee’s Play­house: The Movie, bring­ing the Play­house world to life out­side of the house, in Pup­pet­land. How­ever, Reubens no longer had the clout to make a Pee-wee movie — the char­ac­ter, he was told, was no longer bank­able. In a bid to con­vince stu­dios oth­er­wise, he de­cided to res­ur­rect the Pee-wee stage show he’d mounted in 1981.

Es­sen­tially a live, rather bawdy ver­sion of Pee-wee’s Play­house, loosely cen­tring around Pee-wee’s wish to fly, the 2010 show was a blast, and a hit: in Los An­ge­les, where de­mand was so great it had to be moved to a larger the­atre, it boasted a four-week sell-out run, and then per­formed to equally ec­static crowds for a lim­ited two-month run on Broad­way. Pee-wee was back, and Reubens’ plan to get a movie out of it came up roses.

“My wife Les­lie (Mann) and I went,” says Judd Apa­tow, “and it’s the hard­est I’ve ever seen my wife laugh. She just lost her mind. I thought, ‘This is the most fun thing ever, we have to find a way to make another movie.’” Reubens told Apa­tow

about his new Pee-wee screen­plays, but Apa­tow sug­gested it would be more log­i­cal to do some­thing more along the lines of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a road­trip movie set in the real world. He in­tro­duced Reubens to writer Paul Rust, and they be­gan on a script, with Apa­tow help­ing to shape it. “What Judd likes to bring to any­thing he does,” says Reubens, “is a cer­tain char­ac­ter arc and growth… Well, what he usu­ally does ap­plies 80 per cent to this movie. We can’t do all of what he asked us to do. Pee-wee Herman doesn’t make a huge, big change. Like ever.”

Ul­ti­mately, Apa­tow just wanted to help Reubens get his movie made. “This is a man who knows ex­actly what he wants to do,” says Apa­tow. “A lot of my job was to help find a di­rec­tor he would be in sync with. And a com­pany that wanted to 100 per cent sup­port his vi­sion.” That com­pany would be Net­flix, which stepped up to the plate with healthy funds, and that di­rec­tor is John Lee, who had been re­spon­si­ble for Won­der Showzen, MTV2’S very dark, very funny take on Se­same Street. Reubens gushes about work­ing with Lee, com­par­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence to the one he had with Bur­ton 30 years ear­lier. “I’m in­cred­i­bly lucky to have found and worked with Tim, and John Lee has been a rock star. Although now it is more com­pli­cated. Me and Tim were prac­ti­cally kids…”

PLAY­ING THE ETER­NAL man­child at the age of 63 is some­thing Reubens has wres­tled with. Will it con­vince, or dis­tract? Is it weird? Does it even mat­ter? “At the very be­gin­ning,” he says of the new film’s pro­duc­tion, “to con­cep­tu­alise how I would come back as Pee-wee Herman, it was: ‘I’m still gonna play Pee-wee, what does that mean?’ We dis­cussed that quite a bit. Do we ex­plain where I’ve been? But I feel, in the big gi­ant scheme of things, it works to me to just have, ‘Here’s the third Pee-wee movie.’”

Still, phys­i­cally, it’s a stretch, he says. “Six years ago I was do­ing my Pee-wee show on Broad­way, do­ing di­a­logue I’d writ­ten 30 years ago, and part of me would be like, ‘What are you do­ing?! You’re too old to be do­ing this.’ I have that feel­ing on and off here. There’s been a few times I’m try­ing to pour my­self into that lit­tle teeny car and I’m like, ‘Are you out of your mind? Your legs don’t bend like that any­more.’ Try­ing to make a Pee-wee Herman movie at this point in my life is cer­tainly like a lit­tle bit of a mea­sur­ing stick: ‘Oh, I can do this,’ and ‘I can’t do that.’”

Some dig­i­tal work, it was de­cided, should be done to, let’s say, smooth out some edges, but they were un­sure of how far to go. Should Pee-wee look like he did in 1985? Or maybe a decade older? Ul­ti­mately they de­cided to make only sub­tle al­ter­ations; too much trick­ery, says John Lee, would have been dis­tract­ing. “We could have made him look younger, but it starts to look more false. Pee-wee needs to have ex­pres­sion. It’s so easy to think of him as an an­i­mated char­ac­ter, and the more you push that, the more it takes away the com­pas­sion of the char­ac­ter. I’d rather have re­al­ity and emo­tion than make him Peter Pan.”

Maybe, though, Pee-wee can stay young for­ever. Heart­ened by what tech­nol­ogy can do, Reubens says he’s even con­sid­er­ing, years down the line, play­ing Pee-wee via per­for­mance cap­ture. Then, he says, it doesn’t mat­ter how old he is. This, surely, is the ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion for a char­ac­ter who has taken a life of his own: un­bur­dened even by the shack­les of his cre­ator’s body. In any case, Reubens is en­joy­ing this sec­ond act. Last year, Pee­wee’s Play­house found new, young fans on Net­flix. Is it nice for him to have Pee-wee back on the air? “Well, yeah, ab­so­lutely. Bet­ter than lots of other places I’ve been,” he says, fix­ing Em­pire a look that speaks vol­umes about his past ex­pe­ri­ences.

Pee-wee’s Big Hol­i­day fea­tures a Pee-wee as funny, as time­less, as sweet and as snarky as he ever was. Time has not with­ered him. As ever, this is a char­ac­ter who loves life — played by some­one who so clearly loves be­ing him.

Apa­tow thinks the joy of this film is as much about Reubens as it is Pee-wee. “I feel there’s some built-in emo­tion to just the idea of Paul mak­ing another movie,” he says. “We’ve all waited a long time. It’s loaded, in a lot of ways: we all want Pee-wee Herman to be happy. And I al­ways felt like that would come through in the movie. We all want him to have a friend, we all want him to be ac­cepted. And that’s how you feel as a child as well. It’s hard to put your fin­ger on why you love this guy so much. But it makes you so happy. I can watch Pee-wee Herman play­ing with a bal­loon for five hours.”

De­spite the tight out­fit and de­mands on his joints, it makes Reubens happy, too. “I’ve been bump­ing around for a while and now I’m just gonna have a nice lit­tle cap­per to my ca­reer,” he says. “It’s kind of fab­u­lous to be Pee-wee Herman.” Which may be the most telling thing he’s said all af­ter­noon: he’s not play­ing Pee-wee Herman, he is Pee-wee Herman. It suits him well.


Above: Our hero (paul reubens) hangs out in Pee-wee’s Big Hol­i­day. Left: Mak­ing his film de­but in Tim Bur­ton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Bot­tom left: Fall­ing for pene­lope ann Miller’s Win­nie in fol­low-up Big Top Pee-wee (1988).

Hol­i­day high-jinks with Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz and Jessica Pohly.

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