This is the birth of Pee-wee Herman, in a nutshell: A young comic with L.A. bona fides flies to New York to audition for Saturday Night Live, set to join the show's first "new" cast after the departure of its famous founding fathers (Aykroyd, Belushi, Chase, and the rest). "The producers were pulling me aside, going, 'You should get an apartment right away, you're definitely in,'" remembers Paul Reubens, the man who is Pee-wee (and who, for the record, answers without so much as a raised eyebrow to Mr. Herman, Paul Herman, Pee-wee Reubens, or any imaginable variation thereof). "And I didn't get it."
"I left there so devastated and freaked out that I was going to go from an up-and-comer to a never-been," he continues. "I got off the plane in Los Angeles and called my parents from a pay phone at the airport and borrowed money from them right then and there on the spot to produce a show." Its star was Pee-wee, a rouged androgyne in a high-water suit, one of Reubens' creations from his days in the seminal improv comedy troupe The Groundlings. When the show opened in 1981 at the group's 99-seat L.A. theater, it was an immediate sensation. The waiting list for tickets grew so long that the show moved to the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, onetime home to another cult classic, The Rocky Horror Show. From there, it was recorded for an HBO special that introduced Pee-wee to audiences nationwide."The whole show was kind of out of spite and anger and bitterness, I think," Reubens says, "but it worked out great." (SNL, by contrast, had its worst year ever.)
Between then and now, there have been -- to put it mildly -- some ups and downs. Two movies, a Saturday morning kids' TV show, 24 Emmys (two for Reubens himself), a sold-out date at Carnegie Hall, an unimaginable quantity of merchandise, two scrapes with the law and a none-too-sympathetic media, and a handful of non-Pee-wee film and TV roles. But The Pee-wee Herman Show, which arrives on Broadway this month, returns to the little live act on the Strip on which it's based. Almost 30 years later, Pee-wee's in the same glen plaid suit, the same red bow tie. He's hard to get a handle on, this perma-preadolescent. You could call him an enigma. But he'd have his retort at the ready: "I know you are, but what am I?"
What's funny about Pee-wee--aside, of course, from Peewee himself, who is funny, very funny -- is that this totally unlikely, exceptionally weird character has made his mark on pop culture in a very deep way. Many of his collaborators, often unknowns at the time, are now famous in their own right. The script for his first movie, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, was co-written by another Groundlings member, Phil Hartman, and directed by a guy who, at the time, didn't have a feature credit to his name, Tim Burton. An L.A. stylist named Sally Hershberger worked on the hair and wigs for the Pee-wee's Playhouse TV series, taking home an Emmy for her efforts. (She's now better known for her eponymous line of hair products.) The young art star Dan Colen opened a show at New York's Gagosian Gallery last month with a motorcycle assemblage inspired by Pee-wee's run-in with a biker gang from Big Adventure. And the Pee-wee wardrobe, which seems so deliberately odd and gawky? It's strikingly similar to the shrunken suits that menswear designer Thom Browne shows to near-universal acclaim.
In short: People love Pee-wee. But Reubens isn't inclined to parse why exactly. "I never try to figure that out," he says. "I don't know. I honestly feel like, if I have to figure that out, it'll ruin it. It's sort of like Samson cutting off his hair. I'm superstitious about it. I just do it."
Nevertheless, he feels the love. During the show's four-week Los Angeles run, Reubens stayed after every performance to do a Q&A with the audience--and to his amazement, the audience stayed, too. "I was so busy the entire time I did it to begin with back in the eighties that I never really got any real feedback," he explains. "Now, 25 or however many years it's been later, the feedback I get from people doing it is just -- it's leveling. It's literally sobering. I can't even talk about it without getting emotional. It turns out, people love me, and I didn't know that. I didn't feel that ever before."
The show's director, Alex Timbers, agrees. "I was totally surprised by the reaction, to be honest," he says. "I knew that people cared about Pee-wee, but when he's getting a one-minutelong standing ovation as soon as he arrives onstage, you see that he's not only an icon, he strikes a deeply emotional chord with his fan base." (Count among those fans Judd Apatow and his wife, Leslie Mann. Apparently Apatow had never seen his wife laugh so hard; he subsequently signed on to produce the next Pee-wee film, currently in development. "I'd love to make one more Pee-wee movie," Reubens says. "Or two or three.")
The stage show takes the theme of the original, 1981 version: namely, Pee-wee's desire to fly. (He's taunted in the endeavor by Pterri the jive-talking pterodactyl.) Several of the original characters, like Jambi the Genie and Miss Yvonne, are back, joined by many of the puppets from the TV series: Chairry the talking armchair; Globey the globe.
For 90 minutes, the show chugs along, but the plot is really less important than the schtick, which is, as always, Pee-wee's inspired weirdness. It appeals in almost equal measure to young people and adults, and the show is pitched to both. "In every version so far, there's been material that a kid would hopefully not get -- if they did, it's something that I didn't teach 'em," Reubens says. "Hopefully it works on a couple of different levels."
But the Playhouse kids of yesteryear are the adults of today -- a fact not lost on the show's creative team. "He was a part of growing up for people in my generation," says Timbers, the 32-year-old founder and director of the experimental theater group Les Freres Corbusier. "He was a key figure in our development. It's like seeing your uncle you haven't seen in about 15 years."
His oddity feels timely, too. "Pee-wee is very much like the id personified onstage," Timbers goes on. "I think we're in a comedic moment right now where we're really enjoying that sensibility and sort of archetype." And then there's that other thing. "I think there's something uniquely American about our love of a comeback," the director says. "We love comebacks, and we love to see people who've been maligned or gone away strike back with a vengeance, reassert their dominance. I think that's exciting."
He's referring, of course, to the two scandals that put Reubens -- and Pee-wee -- on the front pages in the nineties and early aughts. It's a sore subject, and one that Reubens does not often discuss. But his 1991 arrest, which coincided with the end of Pee-wee's Playhouse, effectively sent both Reubens (and Herman) underground for a long while. Reubens has taken parts in film and on television (most recently, in Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime), but with the exception of two awards-show appearances, Herman hasn't really surfaced since. And his rehabilitation -- rather than Reubens' own -- is at the heart of The Pee-wee Herman Show.
"My story could've had a shitty ending," Reubens says frankly. "I didn't want to go out like that. I love Pee-wee Herman. And it was really sad to me that there was any kind of tarnish on Pee-wee Herman. Me? Put whatever tarnish you want on me. But the headlines all over the world were like, 'Pee-wee Herman Arrested.' Pee-wee Herman wasn't arrested; I was arrested."
Arrested, yes; convicted, no. Reubens pled no contest to the charge of indecent exposure in Florida, and a later charge of possession of child pornography was ultimately dropped. But the damage was done. "I spent a lot of years being melancholy -- I didn't want this to be the end of my story," he says. "I write a happy ending into anything I can possibly come up with. I wanted the same thing for myself, just to be blunt about it. That's what really motivated it. [I said to myself,] if you can entertain the possibility of doing this at all, tick tick tick -- get going!" Clocky the clock couldn't have said it better.
About age and legacy, Reubens is refreshingly direct. "I'm blown away that it's had this longevity," he says of his most famous creation. "I'm getting old! I certainly didn't expect to really be doing this -- in the same way that I didn't expect to see the Rolling Stones out there doing it. It's awkward! There's no other way to say it. I keep getting cautioned by people I work with, 'Stop talking about how old you are!' But one gets a certain wisdom, you get a certain perspective, certain growth patterns as you get older -- it's not so easy for me to go, 'Age isn't really into this at all.' It's not only related to it, it's very interesting to be becoming wise and know stuff I didn't know, and apply that to the process of writing and creating something." He's a young-looking 58. Pee-wee, on the other hand, is ageless.
As roads to redemption go, it's hard to think bigger than the Great White Way. (The just desserts are the films now officially in the offing--Reubens candidly offers that a production deal was one of the driving forces for recreating the stage show in the first place.) But Broadway offers a return in more senses than one. Pee-wee comes back not only to the scene, but to the nightlife. In contrast to the Saturday morning slot of the TV series, Pee-wee's once again on after dark. (The original L.A. production began at midnight.) Postshow,Reubens -- like all of nighttime's denizens -- winds down until 2 a.m. or later and sleeps through the afternoon. Were it still at its original airtime, he'd miss the Playhouse broadcasts.
Day or night, he's the same weird, wonderful Pee-wee, the one we've loved for almost three decades. And for that, the man who created him is grateful, determined, a little bewildered. "I've spent my entire career with people going, 'Did you ever think Pee-wee Herman would be this successful?'" he says. "I never thought about that. It didn't surprise me because I never thought, 'Here's my master plan.'" But as master plans go, you could do worse. "I have to say, I'm completely shocked that I'm doing it now. That I'm doing it, that I'm doing it successfully, that people like and support it -- it's beyond my wildest dreams." Or as Pee-wee would say in his full-throated squawk, "I'm the luckiest boy in the world!"