On Paul Reubens and Pee-wee’s Playhouse

Paul Reubens a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman (b. 1952) turns 70 years old today. I realized that just in the nick of time when I was posting about Tim Burton a couple of days back and decided that my previous post on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which I penned nearly a decade ago, was a completely vague gusher of generalities and I really ought to do a proper post on both the comedian and his popular TV show, given that I’ve by now given attention to so many of his collaborators.

Reubens is from Sarasota, Florida, home of Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Baily Circus winter quarters, an influence which probably found its furthest flowering in Big Top Pee-wee (1988). He did local theatre as a teenager, then attended Boston University and CalArts. In L.A., he performed at local comedy clubs and became a member of The Groundlings, where he met and began working with several of the people who would become cast members of Pee-wee’s Playhouse years later.

While not well-known at the time, in retrospect Reubens’ pre Pee-wee screen credits all fit into place as being in tune with the kind of comedian he would be. He made the first of his 14 appearances on The Gong Show in 1977. In 1978 he appeared on “Things We Did Last Summer” a Gary Weis short for Saturday Night Live. He was on the short list as a potential SNL cast member for the show’s notorious sixth season (the first cast to follow the original one) but dodged a bullet by not making the cut, though he does have a small role in the 1980 Belushi-Aykroyd comedy The Blues Brothers. All the while during the early ’80s, you could see him in TV specials with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, and shows like Letterman (as early as 1982), Madame’s Place, and Mork and Mindy, as well as motion pictures like Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (1980) and Nice Dreams (1981), the all-star oddity Pandemonium (1982), and Meatballs, Part II (1984).

Ironically, not being on SNL kept Reubens free to pursue an act that made him famous anyway. He began performing the live stage version of The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1980. By 1985 he had amassed enough fame to star in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure , the box office success of which made the TV show possible. Pee-wee’s Playhouse ran on CBS from 1986 through 1990. Ostensibly it was a kid’s show, but honestly you had to be a grown-up to appreciate the heights and depths of its cleverness, for it was an explosion of post-modern quotation, a kind of last-word compendium of ’50s kitsch and classic boomer children’s shows from back in the day: Howdy Doody; Super Circus; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; Soupy Sales; Pinky Lee; Captain Kangaroo; on and on and on. I was in my early ’20s at the time — as it turns out, the last generation that would automatically be plugged into that stuff before the internet buried it underneath a tsunami of subsequent human outpourings. Once, you could almost count the number of kid’s shows on your hands — now the number has increased by orders of magnitude. I would not be surprised if some informed person told me there had been 10,000 kids programs by now. For younger folks, then a little background. Early TV kids entertainment was very much influenced by vaudeville, and tended to feature such bright, kinetic elements as clowns and other outsized costumed characters, puppets, animations (both cartoons and the 3-D type), singalongs, and suchlike. I haven’t watched a kids show in a while. Today, they probably feature gang rapes and serial killers.

Reubens wasn’t the first person to resurrect the aesthetics of these old time shows. Andy Kaufman, Uncle Floyd Vivino, and The Groove Tube guys had also done it. There was almost a kind of Renaissance happening at the time, although these new takes on it had a certain amount of edge, satire, and camp as part of the picture. That said, there was a sweet, positive tone to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Everyone was kind of friendly and cheerful. This was particularly potent given the show’s matter-of-fact diversity. John Paragon played Jambi the Genie as a swishy nance. Three of the core cast members (Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkeson, and William H. Marshall) were people of color. Johann Carlo (Dixie the Cabbie) is Latina. Shirley Stoler from The Honeymoon Killers, far from a beauty queen, played a nosey neighbor. Other cast members included Phil Hartman and Lynne Marie Stewart, both (like Reubens and Paragon) fellow Groundlings alum. A young Natasha Lyonne was one of the kids in the cast! Special guests included The Del Rubio Triplets, Larry “Bud” Melman, Bernard Fox (Dr. Bombay from Bewitched), and Jimmy Smitts.

Conky the Robot gave Pee-wee a “secret word” every week, reminiscent of You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, but in this case the word triggered a loud scream from everyone within earshot. Other puppet characters included talking flowers, Chairy (a chair), and Pterri (a toy pterodactyl). Delightfully, music for the show was written by Danny Elfman (who’d scored the movie), Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, The Residents, and others.

As with Soupy Sales and Batman, celebrities were only too glad to get in on the action. Pee-wee’s 1988 Christmas special had drop-in visits from Whoopi Goldberg, Cher, Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Magic Johnson, k.d. lang, Oprah Winfrey, Charo, Little Richard, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Dinah Shore, and Zsa Zsa Gabor!

Needless to say, young adults and teenagers watched this show every week just as avidly as small children. (Substances may have been involved). Reubens and his Pee-wee character were fact becoming an American institution. Then, of course, it all came crashing down faster than you can say “Let the cah-toon begin!” In 1991, while on hiatus from the show, Reubens was arrested at a Sarasota porn theatre and charged with public masturbation. A minor enough event in the scheme of things, but unfortunately irresistible to both the press and many comedians. The name of his character, and his show and the fact that he was the star of a children’s program all added fuel to the flame. He was ridiculed, fired, shunned, and widely blacklisted. The public humiliation had him hiding from the limelight for awhile, although he still had many friends in the industry (and much like Fatty Arbuckle a century ago) he slowly worked his way back to favor in small roles using a pseudonym, and the like.

This despite an even more potentially worrying though not nearly as famous scandal involving Reubens that happened a decade later for possession of child pornography (the same sweep that nabbed Jeffrey Jones). In light of the Jimmy Savile scandal one can perhaps be forgiven for being a wary of a children’s entertainer acquiring such material. But the truth of it is that none of us knows what it consisted of and a law like this may technically be broken without the suspect being a full-on pedophile. Reubens is a huge collector of vintage kitsch. Among the materials, he has said anyway, were mid-century men’s magazines and porn. Some of the models in the photos could have been under the age of consent. Thus without being an actual pedophile a person could break the letter of such a law. I’m not totally comfortable with the claim (why do it when there’s even a risk?, one wonders). But like I say, nobody but Reubens, his lawyers and the authorities knows the whole story, and show business has given him the benefit of the doubt. That bust went down in 2002 and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premiered in 2016. As recently as 2019 he was on The Conners. Boy, would he and Rosanne have a lot to talk about!

For more on the history of variety entertainment, including TV variety and kids shows like Pee-wee’s Playhouse please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous