“He has an artist’s eye,” says Lynne Marie Stewart, Miss Yvonne on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, who will reprise the character on Broadway. “He’s a visionary. He will take you back to being a kid. And all of a sudden you’ll remember, Oh yeah, I used to do that as a kid, I used to think that as a kid. You know, he can really come up with things that are universally funny and also are part of your past.”
Reubens grew up watching The Howdy Doody Show, the ur-kids’ show of his era; he recalls his seven-year-old self weeping when it was canceled in 1960. But his most powerful comedic influences were much closer to home. “My mother and father, they had so much material,” he says as we cruise along Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, on a rather random tour of some of his favorite spots. His “very blue-collar” dad, Milton Rubenfeld, owned a car dealership in Peekskill, New York, and his mom, Judy, was a grammar school teacher. When the Rubenfelds, including nine-year-old Paul and his younger brother and sister, moved to Sarasota in 1961 (“My dad hated shoveling snow”), the comic potential of the Sunshine State’s abundant Eisenhower-era Americana was immediately apparent to Milton. “My dad loved all the dressed-up chimps—the postcards of a chimp taking a picture, a chimp dressed as an astronaut. He always loved that. Whenever we saw anything like that, which was fairly often, he would always go, Oh, what’s your picture doing here?!”
Perhaps you are imagining Reubens saying all of this in a rapid-fire, slightly manic, sky-high register while screwing up his face and gesticulating wildly. Well, no. He tells this story, as he tells all his stories, softly and intently, with an almost zen carriage. In fact, he’s generally so soft-spoken that I often have to lean in close to fully hear him, even though we’re in the pin-drop quiet of a hired Town Car.
“I also think a lot of who I am is because my mother took me to every single kid tourist attraction within 500 miles of where we lived.… I don’t think it was her passion. She just thought, I’m a mother, I have kids, and here’s the place you’re supposed to take kids, so she took us. I got a real strong dose of fantasy and nursery rhymes and fairy tales and all that kind of stuff...” Reubens interrupts himself. “Okay, let’s pull over. This is Santee Alley.”
As we get out of the car and snake through the narrow lane lined with shops, he says, “Not sure about the pickpocketness of all of this. If you have something you want to throw into your coin pocket, do it now.”