Pee-wee Herman has been popping up on talk shows and at surprise live appearances lately to promote his new HBO special, The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway. Seeing Pee-wee is always a treat, but it was equally delightful to catch up with Paul Reubens, the man behind the iconic character, at a SXSW panel in Austin.
Here are five takeaways from Reubens’ chat with panel moderator Mike Sampson of JoBlo.com:
1.) Pee-wee Herman was born a fully-developed character on an improv stage.
In 1976, Reubens was a member of LA improv troupe The Groundlings. He created Pee-wee one night when they were doing an extended improv scene set in a comedy club; Reubens thought Pee-wee would be someone you looked at and immediately thought would bomb onstage.
“Almost all the character came out that night,” recalled Reubens. “I had the suit, I had a little tiny kid’s black bow-tie. (I found a red one maybe a week after that.) The voice was a voice I had used in a repertory play many years before that. Some of the behavior was based on a couple of kids I knew growing up, and some of it was me… I think the character was born very fully hatched.”
Reubens added that the only thing that developed over time was Pee-wee’s occasional attitude. “When I look back at that original HBO special… I’m struck always by how sweet Pee-wee is. He was never that sweet again. He got snarkier and snarkier.” Writers and people he worked with would say their favorite thing was angry Pee-wee, “so I try to weave that in, as hard as it is for me to be like that,” Reubens said with a wink.
2.) Pee-wee, unlike Paul, is ageless.
Though he mentioned a sister in early appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Reubens ultimately didn’t focus on Pee-wee’s family because it would mean he had to pick an age for him. That was something he wanted to avoid. “Interestingly now, thirty years later, I’m grappling with that again. Not so much the family, but just trying to figure out how I continue doing this for even a short period of time and be old at the same time. Jury’s still out.”
What made him feel like he could pull it off was that he would do a live show onstage with lots of backlighting. “And then we filmed it… in high-def.” Reubens thinks it came off well, especially because he had a lot to do with the editing and shooting, so there were few unflattering angles. He’s hoping similar camera magic will happen with his upcoming Pee-wee film.
“I’m waiting to find out on that movie what the budget’s going to be, and how much of that budget I can use for CGI.” Reubens imagines his close-ups will be digitally retouched like many leading ladies’ are today, and that he may look younger now than he did as Pee-wee in 1976. “You think I’m joking,” he quipped.
Speaking of the Judd Apatow-produced flick: “I would give anything to tell you right this second what the plot of that movie is, because I’m so excited about it, I think it’s so phenomenal, and you would laugh your asses off if I told you, you really would. But I can’t tell.” He begged Apatow to let him announce the plot at SXSW, but he was shot down.
3.) Pee-wee Herman may have been one big performance art piece.
Fellow Groundling Phil Hartman argued with Reubens for years that he was making a mistake by throwing all his other characters away after that breakthrough night with Pee-wee. Reubens says he just had a very strong gut feeling that he should follow this path.
“Not to be heady or try to make something out of what I do that it’s not, or be pretentious in any way, but I always felt that there was an element of performance art for me to be Pee-wee Herman… and the element that really informed that was that I would try to make the public believe that that was a real person.” He says he guesses it was only really performance art to him because the public didn’t know him as Paul. He was always billed as Pee-wee, did interviews as Pee-wee, etc.
“I went many, many years without ever being photographed out of character… until one day…” he said with an eyebrow raised, alluding to his scandalous arrest in 1991 for indecent exposure in an adult movie theater. “I always felt that really what I did in that way was why everything turned out so extreme… I felt that there was such a strong juxtaposition between my mug shot and my Pee-wee pictures, and there was nothing ever in between that.”
Reubens added candidly, “In hindsight I could say that maybe that backfired, but I don’t really believe that, because I have no regrets.”
4.) Reubens’ success as a writer began as a big rejection.
“The Pee-wee Herman Show was 100% created out of spite for not getting Saturday Night Live,” declared Reubens, who had been an up-and-comer on the comedy scene in the early 80s. He panicked when he lost a spot on the SNL cast to Gilbert Gottfried, and he realized he had to take his career into his own hands.
“I became a writer and a producer and a director, I felt like, out of necessity,” he admitted. “It’s all stuff I don’t really want to do. I’d rather not be a writer because writing’s really hard for me. But anyone out there who’s even considering writing, you should totally go for it. I think that’s my biggest thing I tell people who ask ‘How did you make it?’ or ‘What would your advice be, particularly to actors?’ Figure out how to write, get a book.”
When it came to writing Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, that’s what he did. He literally bought Syd Field’s Screenplay and wrote by the book.
“It’s a 90-minute film, it’s a 90-page script. On page 30 I lose my bike, on page 60 I find it. It’s literally exactly what they said to do in the book,” laughed Reubens. “There should be like a MacGuffin kind of a thing, something you’re looking for, and I was like, ‘Okay, my bike.’” This last bit was said in Pee-wee’s guttural tone, much to the crowd’s delight.
“It’s really a good example of how anybody could write a movie if you follow the rules,” Reubens concluded.
5.) Pee-wee’s Playhouse really was for kids, okay?
Reubens got his show Pee-wee’s Playhouse through a verbal deal at the premiere of Big Adventure. CBS told him he could do whatever he wanted, and they lived up to that deal, giving Reubens just three notes during the show’s run. First they said he couldn’t stick pencils in potatoes, and when he asked why they didn’t know. So he did it. Then they said he couldn’t leave in the sound of Pee-wee urinating offscreen. He pointed out that it was a kids’ show, and pee is funny to kids, but the show only aired once with the “streaming” soundtrack. And finally, they said Miss Yvonne couldn’t say she had a smoke detector over her bed. Fair enough.
“Despite what some people have thought, the show was really a full-on kids’ show. And all the writing staff and I took it very seriously, in terms of being responsible,” said Reubens. “When me or any of my writing staff would think of something that we would all identify immediately as something that would kill a six-year-old – that would make a six-year-old fall off of the couch onto the floor – that was the funniest feeling to me,” proclaimed Reubens. “I would get such gratification out of realizing we had hit something that a kid would think was funny.”
You can catch The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway throughout the next month on HBO.