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.
PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY IS ON NETFLIX FROM MARCH 18.
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.