“They begged me not to use that string,” says Paul Reubens. “They begged me.”
Within minutes of my meeting the creator of Pee-wee Herman, he is apologizing for the busted Talking Pee-wee Herman doll I’ve just confessed to having cherished in my youth. Matchbox wanted to use newer, battery-operated, push-button technology. But Reubens, who had spent months torturing the doll’s designers, stood firm. “Even though it wasn’t done anymore, I wanted a pull string because it was from out of my past.” Unfortunately for him, the mechanism tended to break. “I’ve been in so many situations in the past 25 years,” he says, “where people come up to me and go, ‘My Pee-wee doll doesn’t talk anymore.’ I don’t have a snappy retort other than to say, ‘Oh, my specialized tool kit to fix the Pee-wee doll—I don’t have it with me, I’m so sorry! You’re on your own!’”
When the real Pee-wee went silent—for most of the past two decades, the world’s favorite man-child was mostly MIA—we all missed his wit and wisdom (“I know you are, but what am I?!”). But even after Reubens’s arrest in 1991 at a Sarasota, Florida, porn theater for allegedly exposing himself during a showing of Nurse Nancy, we refused to give up on him and his creation. Now, both Pee-wee and his doppelgänger are talking again, thanks to the arrival of The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway for a 10-week run starting October 26, and a new Pee-wee movie that’s tentatively set to start filming in 2011, which Judd Apatow—who cites Herman as an early influence—has signed on to produce.
“I have been a fan since I used to watch him on Letterman in the Eighties,” says Apatow. “I even went to see Paul do a one-man stand-up-type show at Carolines comedy club in New York in 1984, when I was 16. I remember he put a pirate hat on one person at each table and said they were the captain of the table. Then he gave that guy candy and said he was responsible for handing it out. He was amazing.”
For a new generation of comic talents—including Apatow, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Paul Rudd—Reubens is something of a god: a post-punch-line performance artist who propelled American comedy into a deliciously surreal new orbit. “I think he is so original that it’s hard for anyone to copy him,” Apatow continues. “He’s one of the only people who has created a character that is as classic as Groucho or W.C. Fields. And nobody else has been as appealing to both kids and adults.”