"Let's face it, the world needs more Pee-wee Herman," Judd Apatow recently told Daily Variety, discussing the plan to make a brand new Pee-wee Herman film. And yes, I couldn't agree more. As a child growing up in the '80s and early '90s, Pee-wee (a character Paul Reubens invented in 1982) both amused and amazed me; essentially, Pee-wee is a grown man who never actually grew up. A grown man who still acts and sort of looks like a little boy, but with a unique-to-Pee-wee wacky sense of humor.
I was introduced to Pee-wee through his show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986-1990, together with the Tim Burton (then relatively unknown) cult-classic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, and also Big Top Pee-wee (which, believe it or not, holds the world record for the longest on-screen kiss!). While Burton's film showed a slightly more troubled and anxious side of Pee-wee, The Playhouse served as his colorful and ageless habitat, a place where Chairy, Konky, Globey, Terry, Floory, Magic Screen and all other characters communed to entertain and enlighten Pee-wee, along with millions of child viewers like myself. And when I tell you I was obsessed, I mean obsessed. My father gave the blue living room chair paper eyes and a mouth to look like Chairy, I owned a replica of the Playhouse with tiny figures, and of course I loved the Pee-wee doll that talked (and now the voice sounds Satanic).
My admiration for Pee-wee didn't simply lie in the fact that a grown man was acting so childish, and thus defying the adult world I was already subconsciously preparing for, but that his TV show didn't try to make kids feel childish. Pee-wee spoke directly to his audience during each show, but since the children watching were basically on his level, Pee-wee seemed like an equal. He tapped into child imaginations; in the Playhouse, everything was alive: animals and objects, flowers and the floor, claymation dinosaurs who live in the wall, and even the food in the fridge! He walked kids through writing letters (with a giant pencil), talking on the telephone (tin cans!), making a healthy breakfast, meeting new people, making heartfelt wishes, learning new words, and wearing a helmet. He was visited by aliens, a cowboy (played by Morhpius!), puppets, "the most beautiful woman in Puppet-land," the King of Cartoons, and many other characters.
Paul Reubens was exceptionally dedicated to his creation, appearing for multiple interviews and awards ceremonies as Pee-wee. And though he hadn't at first intended his character as one for children (when he first performed with The Groundlings), he turned Pee-wee into a proper role model, making his show a morally positive one that cared about issues like racial diversity and compassion. Reubens was also very careful about his influence; even though he was a heavy smoker, he never allowed himself to be photographed with a cigarette, and he also refused to endorse candy bars and other kinds of junk food. Reruns of Playhouse lasted until 1991...until, that is, Reubens' arrest.
We all know the story: he was arrested for "indecent exposure" and his career was, for that moment, through. But there's more to this tale: he was arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater, where he was watching a porno film, in the dark, alone. My question is: why were the police patrolling an adult movie theater? Was there nothing better for them to do in Sarasota, Florida than catch, or watch, lonely guys touching themselves? In my opinion, Reubens' offense was mild, very mild, especially when compared to the crimes rumored or committed by other celebrities. And obviously the courts didn't even consider it a hefty offense, since all Reubens had to do was pay a $50 fine and perform seventy-five hours of community service.
The major problem here was that he was still a role model for children; except, of course, Reubens was not actually Pee-wee. The public didn't quite see it that way. Reubens had not been in character for a year and a half, so his mugshot was shocking: long-haired, a little bearded, and wearing a tee-shirt, oh no! The public couldn't fathom how this Paul Reubens was the same guy who donned a too-small gray suit, shiny white shoes, little red bowtie, and closely cropped boyish haircut. Many assumed that the arrest caused the cancellation of his TV show, even though the show was already in reruns. CBS did cease airing the show after the incident and Reubens, as well as Pee-wee, kept a low profile for the rest of the '90s.
But in recent years, Reubens has both managed to act in major films and also to dredge Pee-wee from the ashes. As evidenced by his new production, "The Pee-wee Herman Show," running first in Los Angeles and now on Broadway, Pee-wee is still loved and respected. I was fortunate to have gotten to see the Broadway show this month, and I cannot even describe how wonderful it was to witness the love Pee-wee devotees expressed throughout his show. Many wore his signature red bowtie, and some even full Pee-wee regale. The place was jam-packed, sold out, and I even spotted Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green sitting together.
When Reubens parted the big red curtain and walked out onto stage, the theater roared with applause for several uncontrollable minutes. The diverse audience just couldn't clap enough. It may sound strange, but the support and love for Pee-wee brought me to tears! Here was a character who touched so many lives, and now those who religiously watched the show as children could all revisit a collective childhood for a solid ninety minutes.
After the curtain fully parted, the Playhouse, in all of its original glory, came into view. There it was, right in front of me! I was sucked back into the world Reubens so artfully and carefully created, and even the original Jambi, Miss Yvonne, and the mailman appeared through the zig-zaggy red door. Essentially, the show was made for Pee-wee afficianados, though anyone could enjoy it, revealing Pee-wee's aluminum foil ball (it has grown quite large over the past two decades), "la la la la, connect the dots," cartoonish eyes in the dark (from Big Adventure), a Penny cartoon, and the years in which it existed.
A new character, Sergio, decided to properly wire the Playhouse so Pee-wee could go on the internet, but after Pee-wee finally logged onto AOL on his gigantic, out-of-date computer, he became overly obsessed. Soon, he realized that he didn't need to make "new" friends via Chatroom because he already had his loyal ones right beside him (cue the "aw"). While the show relied on childish humor, it was definitely geared to adults, just like The Pee-wee Herman Show that existed prior to his children's show days. He referenced gay marriage, children in the Israeli army, group sex, and of course, masturbation! If the standing ovation Reubens received has proven anything, it's that Pee-wee is far from finished...."I know you are, but what am I?!"