Anybody who grew up watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse during the late 80s—and that could mean anyone from actual elementary school kids to very, very stoned college students—has probably used words like “subversive” or “cult” when describing the once wildly popular Saturday morning children’s show. But watch a few episodes today and it’ll probably seem tame by modern standards. Sure, the host is a man-child who lives alone and has conversations with furniture. But compare it with more recent programs like Wonder Showzen or TV Funhouse, which were also considered “children’s shows for adults.” They obviously all share comedy D.N.A., everything from a Dadaist worldview to the not-nearly-as-innocent-as-they-appear puppets. But Wonder Showzen and TV Funhouse should never, under any circumstances, be viewed by children you don’t want to damage emotionally. Pee-wee’s Playhouse, however, was perfectly acceptable children’s programming for many years, at least until Pee-wee’s creator, Paul Reubens, got bot busted for allegedly getting his money’s worth at an adult movie theater.
That was the subtle brilliance of Pee-wee Herman. He made adults work for their ironic enjoyment. Even Pee-wee’s official debut, the 1981 HBO special The Pee-wee Herman Show, was only filthy if you read between the lines. His two movies, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Big Top Pee-wee (1988), barely earned their PG ratings and they both went on to become quintessential midnight movies. But it was Pee-wee’s Playhouse that really rewarded close scrutiny. On the surface, the show seems earnestly innocent and child-like. But then how to explain the shirtless pool boy who looks vaguely like Jeff Stryker? Or the pajama party in which the secret word is “Watch”? Or Pee-wee’s wedding to a fruit salad? The double entendres and sexual innuendo are everywhere, if you just take the time to look for it. There’s Cowboy Curtis (played by Laurence Fishburne) smirking that “You know what they say, big feet . . . big boots,” and Pterri the Pterodactyl gazing longingly at Miss Yvonne’s cleavage and muttering “The view’s good from here,” and virtually dozens of other clues that it wasn’t just another squeaky clean TV show for kids.
It took almost two decades, but Pee-wee is finally staging a comeback. The Pee-wee Herman Show, after a short run earlier this year in Los Angeles, is opening on Broadway on October 26th, playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre at least through early December. (Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s mild-mannered alias, is also co-starring in the Todd Solondz film Life During Wartime, which opens today in New York and other places in August.) As exciting as it is for some of us to have our beloved Pee-wee back, it’s also a little distressing. When he appeared on the Jay Leno Show back in September, the unforgiving glare of HD made it apparent that age is catching up with Paul Reubens. But it could be argued that it’s actually an improvement. Maybe Pee-wee Herman is past his expiration date, or maybe there’s something about a late middle-aged actor playing a child with an adult sense of humor for an audience of middle-aged fans nostalgic for an idyllic TV past that’s actually a satire of TV nostalgia that’s more subversive than anything Paul Reubens ever did in the 80s.
During my phone interview with Reubens, I was hopeful that he’d break character at some point and reveal himself as Pee-wee, letting loose with an unmistakable Ricky-Ricardo-on-helium laugh, or scream at the top of his lungs when I inadvertently uttered the secret word. But no such luck.
Eric Spitznagel: On August 8th and 9th, you’re appearing as Pee-wee at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where you’ll be leading the world’s biggest “Tequila” dance. Was that your idea?
Paul Reubens: I knew somebody who was going to Sturgis and she mentioned to me that it was the 70th anniversary and they were expecting six to seven hundred thousand people. It’s the biggest party on the planet. So I said to her, “You should do a little checking around, because I have a pretty good following among bikers.”
Because of the biker scene in Big Adventure?
Exactly. So a few weeks later she called me back and said, “Oh my god, I cannot believe the reaction I got by dropping your name to the biker people I know.” She was hooked up to the owner of the big premiere campground there, the Buffalo Chip. And that’s who’s bringing me to Sturgis. We’re going to try and recreate the scene in Big Adventure where I dance on the bar in the biker bar. We asked if some of the people attending want to be extras, and we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of applications. It’s just really incredible.
I would’ve thought that doing the “Tequila” dance again would be your idea of hell. Like fans running up to you and saying, “I know you are but what am I!”
I wasn’t out and about very much back in the day, back when I was really famous originally. So I wasn’t in many places where people would say things like that to me. But sure, it happened. A lot. I’ve been to hundreds if not thousands of places where, once my presence is known, somebody puts “Tequila” on the loud speaker. And everyone looks to me like, “Come on, do it!” But it’s never felt like, “Oh god, if I hear that song one more time!” That’s just not me. It happens infrequently enough that I get a positive charge out of it.
After the biker thing, you’re opening a show on Broadway. Is it going to be pretty similar to the live show you did in LA earlier this year?
It’s the exact same show but with some great new additions to it.
By “great new additions,” I assume you mean new characters like Sergio the handyman and the dancing-mute Bear. Is it wrong that I feel a little weird about that?
Well, all I can say is, when you come see it, you’ll understand why.
I remember watching Sesame Street again as an adult and they’d just introduced a new character named Elmo, and it really upset me.
It did? Why?
I was worried that Grover would get less work. Elmo is the younger and more attractive version of Grover. And sure enough, that fucking muppet scab stole most of Grover’s screen time. I just don’t want the same thing to happen to Jambi the Genie.
I think Jambi will be fine. With the Saturday-morning CBS series, we had something like 800 characters, which was way too many. Definitely more than you’re supposed to have. There were maybe three episodes where we were able to have everybody on at the same time. But for the most part, we had to pick and choose who was going to be in each episode, and that’s always hard. I think I need to scale back in terms of how many characters are in Pee-wee’s world.
When you’re writing for Pee-wee, are you writing for kids or adults?
It depends. When I was writing the CBS show, we were definitely writing for kids. Our target audience was four- to eight-year-olds. But we also tried to appeal to people of all ages. I think that’s been sort of the way I’ve done it all along. But it can be tricky. We had to cut a few jokes from the stage production we’re doing right now because they didn’t seem appropriate for kids.
You’re expecting a big prepubescent Broadway crowd?
I wasn’t, but then while we were in preproduction in Los Angeles, people were calling for tickets and asking, “Is it O.K. if I bring my four-year-old?” So we had to reconsider everything. It’s based on a stage production that existed before the Saturday-morning show, so for some reason I’d forgotten that I’d also had a kids’ show and some people might think it was the same thing. Once I realized that we’d be getting a younger audience, we made a couple of very, very simple cuts, and now I have a show that’s a nice mix between the two; between the HBO show and the Saturday morning show. It has lots of double entendres, which most little kids won’t understand.
Don’t kids have a pretty dirty sense of humor anyway?
They do, yeah. And that’s part of the fun of writing for kids. But dirty for them is poo-poo and pee-pee.
Not the subtle sexual gags?
No, not at all. A good poop joke is enough to slay them. Or toilet paper stuck on your shoe. That was always the most enjoyable part of writing the Saturday morning show, coming up with something we knew would kill a 5-year-old, that would make a 5-year-old fall off the couch laughing.
You’ve said that Pee-wee Herman was inspired by the children’s shows you grew up watching, like the Mickey Mouse Club, Howdy Doody, and Captain Kangaroo. At what age did you realize there was something a little weird about those shows?
I don’t think I ever thought that. I still don’t think I think that.
So how did you go from loving Captain Kangaroo unironically to creating a kids’ TV character as openly bizarre as Pee-wee Herman?
You might be asking the wrong person. I don’t know the answer to that. As Pee-wee’s creator and the person who’s inside his head, I can’t view it like that. It may be the difference between a Pee-wee world and a non-Pee-wee world. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and pretty much everything I’ve done with him, Pee-wee is normal. Wherever he goes, people aren’t like, “Oh my god! Look at that guy!” They’re just like, “Hey Pee-wee, how are you?” He’s just a guy living in the world, no more special or unusual than anyone else.
Pee-wee’s been called subversive. Do you think he’s subversive?
I think he’s slightly subversive. I think you can look at him in many, many different ways, and subversiveness is definitely an ingredient. Probably the most subversive thing about him is how he encourages kids to scream all day long, or bang on pots and pans, or just do whatever’s necessary to drive their parents crazy. To some degree that’s meant to be innocent fun and tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also a little subversive.
I always assumed there were “adult” jokes hidden in the Saturday-morning show. Was I reading too much into it?
No, they were there. But I wouldn’t say they were hidden. (Laughs.) There was definitely an effort to make the viewing experience enjoyable for a parent watching the show with their child. But, it’s funny, I’ve read so many things about the Playhouse describing layers and subtext that I didn’t intend at all. When people say, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse was filled with hidden stuff,” my only response is, “There’s not much hidden.” You know what I mean? It’s all out there, worn on my sleeve. I was all meant to be kind of obvious.
So what you’re telling me is that I wasted most of my late high school and college years watching your show and looking for subliminal messages?
(Laughs.) I don’t know if I’d say wasted.
Do you know how many conversations I’ve had trying to dissect Pee-wee’s Playhouse? “Is Pee-wee a parody of H. R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville? Or is he like Mr. Rogers post-LSD experience?”
I like that. Quite honestly, it was slightly set up like that, to make an audience think it’s more complex than it appears. But it’s all a big sham. It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s set up to make you think it’s got all these layers and meanings, but in actuality, half the time I don’t think it means anything, and the other half it probably does mean something but I didn’t realize it.
How much thought did you put into Pee-wee? Or did you just throw on a gray suit and give yourself a butch-waxed haircut and bing-bam-boom, Pee-wee is born?
Well, I think all of that is thought. You know, it’s just a character. It’s not saving the world or rocket science or being Sean Penn in Haiti. I love doing what I’m doing, and I think having a Saturday-morning kids’ show was important. It was important work, and I took it very seriously. I think there’s an argument to be made that you can affect a whole generation of young people with a show like I had. It was my way of leaving a mark and having some kind of positive impact, taking some responsibility and doing something important in a serious way that was not necessarily serious, because it was a comedy.
Does that important work include entertaining college students who’d watch your show after getting ripped on crazy-strong weed?
(Laughs.) Sure, why not?
Do you think the Broadway show could have a similar impact?
No, not really. It’s definitely something that’ll be fun and I’ll enjoy, but it’s nowhere as important as the Saturday-morning show. A few years ago, I decided I should get back out there and be this character again and see what’s left to do with it. I did the stage show mostly because I want to make more Pee-wee movies, and this seemed like a good way to get started again. This is the way I know how to do it.
You couldn’t get a Pee-wee movie or TV show green-lit with one phone call?
I really couldn’t. To have a TV show, you need a network and somebody to say, “Here, you can have a TV show.” With a stage production, I just looked for a theater and got a producer and boom, I’m off and running.
Is there going to be as much Pee-wee merchandise this time as there was in the 80s?
Oh gosh, are you kidding? I hope so. I love the whole merchandize world. We had great merchandize in Los Angeles for the stage production, and we’re beefing it up like crazy for New York. There’s going to be all kinds of cool stuff for the show.
In a 1999 Vanity Fair profile, you told us about Pee-wee Chow, a dog food–style cereal for kids that you’d tried unsuccessfully to sell to the public during the late 80s. If Pee-wee gets huge again, could Pee-wee Chow get a second chance?
I doubt it. I think Pee-wee Chow is a little on the dead side. But who knows? Never say never. Purina really wanted to do it. They loved the idea. I was going to be the very first person ever to use the Purina checkerboard on a non-pet food item. The commercial was going to be a mom putting a couple of bowls on the floor and little kids crawling up and eating it like dogs. Which I thought was hilarious and would have been a big seller.
So what happened? Kids didn’t like the taste of it?
We failed the blind taste test. We were all ready to release it and then we discovered kids didn’t like it. It tasted exactly like my favorite cereal from childhood, which was Trix. But as it turns out, in the late 80s—I think this was maybe ‘87 or ‘88—kids’ cereals were like ten times more sugary than the cereal I remember as a kid. That’s why it failed. Kids were like, “Uggh, this isn’t sweet enough.”
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve been working on two scripts about Pee-wee, one of which is kind of dark and R-rated. Just how dark are we talking about?
It’s not dark at all. It really isn’t. It’s more like a black comedy. I know I’ve called it the dark Pee-wee movie, but that’s a total exaggeration. It’s darker than Big Adventure or Big-Top Pee-wee, but not by much.
You compared the script to Valley of the Dolls. Does that mean it’s filled with prescription drug addictions and characters doing porn to pay the bills and a sanitarium?
Well, half of it’s there. There’s some drinking and pill-popping going on, and there’s a sanitarium. There’s no porn, unfortunately.
I just want to hear Chairry say “They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope!”
There’s something that’s close. Chairry’s not in it, but you’re very, very close.
Judd Apatow has signed on to produce a new Pee-wee movie, and from what I’ve heard, he wants the script to be more “reality-based.” So we’re talking about a world in which chairs and floors don’t talk back to Pee-wee?
I think we are. It’s a little early to say anything definitively. And I’m always pushing for something unreal to happen. I’m being kept at bay thus far and that’s probably smart.
But if there’s too much reality, doesn’t it become increasingly likely that Pee-wee could be crazy?
(Long pause.) I have to leave that up to you.
That’s never crossed your mind? You never thought Pee-wee might be mentally disturbed, and the Playhouse is really just a skid row, one-bedroom apartment filled with second-hand furniture and trash?
No. I’ve never contemplated that.
Hmm. (Long pause.) Is it possible I’ve spent way too much time trying to deconstruct Pee-wee?
(Laughs.) Yeah, you may have over-thought it a little bit.
Judd Apatow has a track record of getting his leading men to expose themselves. Is the world ready to see Pee-wee’s, uh… pee-wee?
You know, we’ve been talking about exactly that. The other thing that Judd is known for is using chunky leading men. I had to drop a little bit of weight for the L.A. production, to fit into Pee-wee’s suit again, so I’m thin now. I guess we have two bridges to cross with Judd. First I have to figure out if Judd is going to require me to put on 50 or 60 pounds. And then we’ll address whether I’m going to be naked or not.
I think it’d be less traumatizing to see a fat Pee-wee than a naked Pee-wee.
And the other issue is, how big do I have to be?
How… big? Oh wow, there are so many ways I could take that.
(Laughs.) There are, yes.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com