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Pee-wee Herman, Seriously
As the The Pee-wee Herman Show makes its Broadway debut, the ageless performance artist is being hailed as a genius by today’s comic auteurs—including Judd Apatow, who will produce Pee-wee’s next big adventure. Simon Dumenco takes the measure of our favorite man-child.
“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.”
“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.”
“What’s the story with Santee Alley?” I ask.
“It’s sort of self-explanatory. It’s all stuff,” he says. “You can buy hair”—he points past a group of Hispanic ladies to a wall of wigs, many of which would look right at home on the dressing table of Miss Yvonne—“you can buy jewelry, you can buy knockoff stuff. I come down here once in a while to buy the rip-off stuff. Usually I have a hat on and I look like law enforcement, so it’s not very effective. I’m like, ‘Where’s the knockoff stuff?’ They’re like, ‘We don’t have that, I swear.’”
I spy a SpongeBob SquarePants doll on a rack in front of one shop and point it out.
“He’s credited me a lot,” Reubens says. It’s unclear whether he’s talking about Stephen Hillenburg, SpongeBob’s creator, or SpongeBob himself.
It’s wall-to-wall bodies—Reubens and I seem to be the only people speaking English—and the dozens of shops, spanning two blocks, have an ad hoc garage-sale feel, since they open directly onto the alley via rolled-up metal grates rather than proper doors. “You used to be able to buy turtles and birds and stuff,” Reubens says as he gravitates toward one of the shops, “but I think they might have shut that part down.” He’s now got his hands on what appears to be a tote bag with President Obama’s face on it. Friends of Reubens’s have spoken about his legendary collection of Americana, of toys and vintage magazines and photographs, and of general weirdness—stuff like plastic food—that fills not only his home in the Hollywood Hills but various storage lockers around L.A. “Last time I was at Santee Alley, I bought a jeweled, gold plastic license-plate cover,” he recalls, “but I won’t use it because I’m afraid someone will steal it off my car.”
Upon closer inspection I see that Obama’s cartoonish head is squished next to Martin Luther King Jr.’s, Mount Rushmore–style; the bag itself is, improbably, Pepto-Bismol pink. Reubens hands over five bucks. “I like Obama stuff, especially the unauthorized stuff,” he explains. Reubens turns the bag over, examining it as we continue weaving through the crowd. He suddenly gets a very Pee-wee grin on his face. “And it’s a tote bag!” he exclaims. Then he immediately calms down. “I’ve almost stopped collecting,” he says. “Too much stuff. Way too much stuff. I filled my house up two or three times.”
“Very Warhol,” I say. (One of Reubens’s oldest friends, Marc Balet, who worked for Warhol as art director of Interview magazine, will later tell me, “Paul has thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces that I would love to get my hands on, so I could put them in some kind of book. I mean, his collection is unbelievable.”)
“When you first came to L.A.,” I ask, “did you come to places like this consciously trying to make a link between the kitsch culture of Florida you grew up with?” Reubens visibly flinches at the word “kitsch” but is too polite to interrupt me. “No,” he says, “I never consider anything kitsch anyway. I’m always amazed when I hear that expression. I’m always like, ‘Oh, that’s right, not everybody wants that or appreciates that.’ My definition of it is more art that’s not considered by the masses to be art.”
We’re both getting sweaty in the midafternoon sun—Reubens is dressed in a black short-sleeve shirt and black pants—and we’re moving at a senior citizen pace amid the slow-moving throng. Another wall of wigs looms ominously next to a rack of what are almost certainly not genuine Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses.
As we emerge from the alley onto 12th Street, a guy on an old-timey bike nearly sideswipes us, and I immediately think of the souped-up red and white Schwinn Racer that costarred with Reubens in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—the bike that Pee-wee Herman loved more than anything.
“Where’s the bike?” I ask.
Of course, he knows immediately what I’m talking about. “I have two of them,” he says. “One of them is in the Hollywood Museum; the other I have in storage. I’m prepping that one to go to the Smithsonian. They’re doing an exhibition, a pop-culture show, that’s going to start in 2014 and go for 20 years, I believe. They’re taking a bunch of my stuff, actually. They’re taking the door to the Playhouse and maybe Chairy,” Reubens says of the famously friendly furniture. He is trying hard to sound matter-of-fact, but I can sense his barely contained glee.
Here is what’s important to understand about Paul Reubens, CalArts grad (B.F.A. ’73), and the trademark visual culture that surrounds him: He’s made every large and small aesthetic decision of consequence during the entire 33 years since he gave birth to Pee-wee in skit form at the Groundlings, the L.A. improv troupe. He commissioned artist Gary Panter to design the original Playhouse after noticing the concert posters and flyers that Panter was doing for punk acts like the Germs. He overruled Warner Bros.’ choice of a director for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and brought in a young Tim Burton as a last-minute replacement. (“I told the studio I needed somebody who understands art direction, and they were like, ‘Art direction? It’s a comedy.’”) He costumed Pee-wee, borrowing the character’s trademark gray glen plaid suit from Groundlings founder Gary Austin. He even choreographed the classic biker-bar tequila dance in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. (It’s based on shtick his dad used to do.)
“In my mind, he is such a visual icon,” says veteran scenic designer David Korins, who created the updated Playhouse set for The Pee-wee Herman Show’s New York staging. “He is such a juggernaut and definer of visual vocabulary.”
“To me,” says Alex Timbers, director of the Broadway show, “Pee-wee is the meeting of performance art and a mainstream sensibility in the way David Byrne and other artists of the time were bridging the gap between popular culture and the downtown worlds. Growing up, I was a huge Pee-wee Herman fan. Pee-wee was like a combination of Andy Warhol and the Muppets.”
Back in the Town Car, I bring up Warhol’s declaration that “Pop art is liking things,” then ask Reubens whether he had the kind of relationship with his toys that Pee-wee has.
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I was the kid who was always checking that the toys weren’t facedown. I wouldn’t want to be that stuffed bear and be like, My face is mashed down.”
His empathic connection to the physical world around him—his sense of the secret life of things—extended far beyond his stuffed animals. “I’ve been collecting since I was in high school or junior high,” he says. “Old stuff, thrift-store stuff. I wasn’t very discriminating. My whole thing was saving stuff, rescuing stuff. I always felt that in a thrift store, the next person who comes through is going to break this, and then it’s gone forever. My whole thing was just keeping stuff—sort of Fahrenheit 451-like.”
When I ask what the first thing, other than a toy, he remembers really loving as a kid, he answers without hesitation. “I had this jeweled box from my grandmother’s house that I always used to obsess about and covet. And one day she gave it to me.” He was floored; it was the best gift ever. “I was like, ‘You are kidding me.’”
That glorious box connects directly to a key feature of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The genie “Jambi’s box came from that, for sure. But it also came from a job I had early in my career in a real-estate office in L.A. The building was owned by Liberace, and he had his fan club upstairs. The woman who worked there would always trap me—‘You got a minute?’—and she’d show me stacks of Polaroids: ‘Here I am in Palm Springs, here I am in Las Vegas….’ But one day the whole thing paid off, because she had two boxes of handpainted publicity shots of Liberace in his 20s, and in one of them he’s wearing jewel-encrusted hot pants.… Hot pants were a pretty big fashion statement for that time, and jewel-encrusted hot pants were, like, off the charts. And when I say encrusted, it wasn’t like a jewel here and a jewel there—it was solid jewels. When I looked at Jambi’s plain old box in the first season of the show, I flashed back to those Liberace hot pants and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”
The morning after my day with Reubens, I hunt down his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On a shabby stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from a check-cashing place and right by Maya Shoes (“The Highest Heel in Town”) and a Lady Love boutique, I find it. It says “Pee-wee Herman” on it, not “Paul Reubens.”
Standing a few yards off to the side, I watch a steady succession of tourists come upon it. “Pee-wee Herman! Oh, shit! Hell, yes!” says one thirtysomething woman. A minute later, a couple who had stopped a few stars away to snap a picture of their toddler with Dr. Seuss’s plaque now repeat the photo op with Pee-wee’s.
Next, a couple of teenage girls approach the star, and one of them starts jumping up and down on it, saying, “Pee-wee! Pee-wee! I love Pee-wee!” (Given her obvious youth, I can only assume she became a fan through the DVDs or by watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse when it ran a few years back on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.) Then, as she waits with obvious impatience for her friend to ready the camera, she stands back and reverentially regards the star. There’s a little bit of schmutz on the “Herman,” and with her pink-sandaled right foot, she gingerly tries to clean it off.