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Paul Reubens Before and After Pee-wee

Paul Reubens in Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

A herky-jerky pogo stick clad in a gray suit half a size too small, white socks, white shoes with white tassels, and that tiny red bow tie, Pee-wee Herman was the most grating and endearing pop-culture phenomenon of the Reagan-Bush era. And the most confusing. “The mysterious nature of his character—was he supposed to be a man, a child, or a man pretending to be a child?—seemed to excuse his exuberant energy and excessive volumes, and he, in turn, gave that same permission to his audience,” writes Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times. Even more confounding, the actor who dreamed him up, Paul Reubens, who passed away on Sunday at the age of seventy, couldn’t have been more different from his creation. “It wasn’t simply that he had a gentle manner or a decidedly un-Pee-wee-like reluctance to call attention to himself,” writes Itzkoff, “he also had a natural speaking voice that was soft enough to be drowned out by a passing breeze.”

The first iteration of Pee-wee, a comic whose schtick was that he couldn’t tell a joke, was introduced in 1978 when Reubens was working with the Groundlings, the improv comedy troupe based in Los Angeles. Reubens had grown up in thrall to the circus and I Love Lucy reruns, and with a little help from fellow Groundling Phil Hartman, Pee-wee evolved into a sui generis character supercharged with, as Jason Zinoman puts it in the NYT, “a Bugs Bunny level of charisma, built to last.”

Reubens landed a few bit parts in movies in 1980—he’s a waiter in The Blues Brothers—but Pee-wee first showed up on screen later that year in Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. Reubens then auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but he lost out to Gilbert Gottfried, so he borrowed a few thousand dollars from his parents, rounded up a few dozen Groundlings and friends, and put on a show. The Pee-wee Herman Show, set in a Puppetland playhouse, was the blueprint for the future hit Saturday morning series on CBS, but Reubens first spent the next few years taking the show on the road and honing the character.

Whether giving interviews or appearing on Late Night with David Letterman, Reubens presented himself as Pee-wee. “I always felt it was conceptual art, but no one knew that except me,” he once said. “I went out of my way to make people feel Pee-wee was a real person. It worked way better if people were going: ‘Who the hell is that?’” After The Pee-wee Herman Show aired as a special on HBO, Warner Bros. set up Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985).

For Ty Burr, Tim Burton’s debut feature is “one of the most creatively otherworldly movies to ever come out of the American movie factory, inhabiting a playfully plastic universe not far from those of Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and other visionaries for whom the movies aren’t a machine to capture the reality that exists but a canvas to create an entirely new one.” It’s a three-act road movie, with Pee-wee setting out across the country in search of his stolen bicycle, and it’s shot through with “an ad hoc surrealism encompassing everything from urban-legend ghost stories to Texan exceptionalism to biker-gang chic,” as Adam Nayman wrote for the Ringer in 2020. “If it resembles another movie of its era, it’s Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s 1986 directorial debut True Stories, a candy-coated musical-comedy exulting in the imagery and ideology of what Greil Marcus famously called ‘the old, weird America.’”

It was also a major hit that led CBS to greenlight Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a variety show for kids and savvy parents, zipping from one goofily psychedelic bit to the next at the speed of MTV at its prime and featuring, as Burr notes, “a hella diverse cast (including Laurence Fishburne as Cowboy Curtis and S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady), and with sets by the hippest of downtown graphic artists.”

William Marshall, best known at the time for playing Blacula in early 1970s, showed up as the King of Cartoons, and “each episode was a weekly history of animation techniques,” wrote Nick Pinkerton for Artforum in 2014. “Pee-wee’s Ant Farm was rendered with a silhouette animation technique reminiscent of that created by Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s.” There were “1930s animations by the likes of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer. When Pee-wee would visit his ‘toy shelf,’ he was greeted by stop-motion creations as disturbing as anything in the Quay brothers’ corpus, while a distinctly Ray Harryhausen–esque Dinosaur Family lived in the Playhouse wall. The recurring ‘Penny’ skits, which illustrated the free-associative ramblings of six- and seven-year-old girls in Claymation, were courtesy of England’s Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace & Gromit. There was even early computer animations: Pee-wee’s ‘Connect the Dots’ adventures, courtesy Ellen & Lynda Kahn’s TWINART.”

The set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, “with its midcentury candy palette and zigzag angles, looked like a B-52s album you could live inside,” suggests the NYT’s James Poniewozik. “I can only imagine the freak-outs our umbrage industry would have over the show if it were new today. Are people mad about drag queen story hours? Everything on Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a form of drag, a glitzy dress-up party that played around with definitions of gender and propriety and normalcy.”

After five seasons, Reubens was worn out. He headed home to Sarasota, and in 1991, he was arrested at a porn theater for indecent exposure. Headlines blared, and CBS pulled Pee-wee’s Playhouse from circulation. Reubens kept a low profile, set Pee-wee aside, and over time, began staging a quiet, tentative comeback. He appeared as Amilyn, the acolyte of Lothos, the vampire king played by Rutger Hauer, in Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). “Sporting a dashing goatee and looking as if he’d just escaped from a prog-rock band,” writes Elisabeth Vincentelli in the NYT, “Reubens chewed the scenery with gusto. He fully embraced camp in a death-by-stake scene that went over the top, and then did not even stop there. (It continued after the end credits.)”

Reubens took small parts in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and played a recurring role on Murphy Brown in the mid-1990s. He was an FBI agent in Danny DeVito’s Matilda (1996) and a drug-dealing hairdresser in Ted Demme’s Blow (2001). Todd Solondz cast Reubens as Andy, an unhappy ghost in Life During Wartime (2009), a decision prompted by the “insight that Reubens’s scandal-besmirched history would intensify the audience’s sympathy for Andy,” wrote David Sterritt in 2011, “and by the filmmaker’s idea that Andy is the kind of guy who would have a Pee-wee doll at home.”

For Marya E. Gates, writing at RogerEbert.com, the fact that Reubens’s “final film as the Pee-wee character, 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, trades not only in the same Norman Rockwell mid-century iconography of his earlier iterations but also features a queer-coded bromance with Joe Manganiello, styled as a Tom of Finland drawing come to life, feels like the closest he got to addressing his presumed sexuality, and the persecution he endured because of it.” In one of his final roles, Reubens played the gay best friend of Sharon Stone’s author and illustrator in Steven Soderbergh and Ed Solomon’s interactive murder mystery, Mosaic (2018). “Sardonic and supportive,” writes Elisabeth Vincentelli, “his character, J. C. Schiffer, was the dream confidante, and Reubens beautifully underplayed him.”

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