Much Bigger Than Pee-Wee


From The San Francisco Chronicle

January 7, 2007
By Sam Hurwitt

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It was a pretty sketchy endeavor at the beginning.

David Owen, Janet Varney and Cole Stratton started SF Sketchfest in January 2002 as a showcase for their own sketch comedy group, Totally False People, and five other local comedic combos. In the past five years, it’s snowballed into a major festival attracting a number of big-name performers each year, ever since they managed to book Fred Willard and the Upright Citizens Brigade for the second Sketchfest in ’03.

Along with the usual assortment of up-and-coming local and national acts, this year’s high-profile guests include Stella (comprising former members of the State), Bruce McCulloch of the Kids in the Hall, “The Daily Show” correspondent Rob Corddry in the sketch group Naked Babies; Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of “Mr. Show” performing separately with the Upright Citizens Brigade and Comedy Death-Ray; and the “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ crew in their new film-heckling endeavor, “RiffTrax Live.” And Paul Reubens, better known as the hyperactive man-child Pee-wee Herman, has been invited to chat with journalist Ben Fong-Torres at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater for the SF Sketchfest Tribute, an onstage Q&A with a favorite sketch-comedy figure. The previous honorees have been Amy Sedaris, Dana Carvey and Cross and Odenkirk.

“Every year we thought it would be great to pay tribute to somebody whose work has inspired a lot of the up-and-coming groups that we have in the festival every year,” Stratton says. “It just seems like a nice, low-pressure way to get them to come up and do a conversation in front of a big audience of people who look up to them, too.”

“Some of these people, like Cross and Odenkirk, they did the tribute one year, and the next year they come and perform,” Owen adds. “The same with Dana Carvey — the next year he showed up unannounced for a surprise performance. This year Paul Reubens is coming, and maybe in the future, he’ll be able to perform in something.”

People don’t necessarily think of sketch comedy when they think of Reubens, but he got his start in the late ’70s in the Groundlings, the Los Angeles improv group from which also came Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson and many more. It was in the Groundlings that Reubens created Pee-wee, originally conceived in a 1978 improv exercise as a particularly inept wannabe stand-up comic. Pee-wee soon became far more of a household name than Reubens, and for good reason.

From the 1985 movie “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and ’88 sequel “Big Top Pee-wee” through the end of five seasons of his surreal children’s show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” in 1991, all his public appearances were made in character, and Pee-wee was billed as playing himself, a conceit that had started 10 years earlier with his late-night “Pee-wee Herman Show” at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles.

That illusion was broken in a particularly jarring and embarrassing way when Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theater in 1991. He pleaded no contest for a community-service sentence, but maintained that he was innocent. His children’s show had already ended, but Pee-wee made only a couple of appearances after that, most notably at the MTV Music Video Awards two months after the arrest, where he received a standing ovation with the salutation, “Heard any good jokes lately?” After that Reubens hung up his red bow tie for good — or at least until now.

For more than five years, Reubens has been shopping around treatments for two completely different Pee-wee Herman movies. One is a kids’ movie in which Pee-wee and his pals from the TV show have adventures in the Puppetland that lies outside the Playhouse. The other, older idea that he’s been batting around for at least eight years is a dark comedy, although he says he’s been told he shouldn’t call it that. “Pee-Wee becomes famous, and fame doesn’t agree with Pee-wee Herman,” Reubens says in a phone interview. “He goes into a downward spiral and basically turns into a monster. I call it the ‘Valley of the Dolls’ movie, and it has things certainly inspired by, if not outright lifted from, that movie.”

At this point the Playhouse script is the front-runner among the movie concepts, though Reubens says that a third movie idea, to which he’s still a bit resistant, has come up recently.

“All of a sudden, in the past less than a month, there seems to be a drive toward the idea of having him be in the real world,” Reubens says. “And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t want to be in a reality-based world, or I don’t want people to be in a reality-based world. It’s just a different movie that I’ve had in mind. The one I really want to make is based in a crazy fantasy world that’s whatever is outside the window of the Playhouse.”

If people still think of Reubens as Pee-wee, it’s more because he values his privacy than any dearth of other roles. He played a vampire heavy in the 1992 “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie that spawned the popular TV series, and he had a cameo in “Batman Returns” that same year. He was one of a stream of secretaries on “Murphy Brown,” did voice work in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Doctor Dolittle,” and appeared as drug-dealing hairdresser in “Blow” and a flatulent superhero in “Mystery Men.” He recently shot episodes of the Tiny Fey sitcom “30 Rock” and the new Courteney Cox TV series “Dirt.”

Though Reubens, 54, jokes that he figured it was time to bring Pee-wee out of mothballs “when I heard that Sylvester Stallone was playing Rocky again,” now might be as good a time to do such a movie as any. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” recently came out on DVD and has been rerun as part of the Cartoon Network’s late-night “Adult Swim” lineup. For that matter, San Francisco has hosted its own Pee-wee tribute for four years. Each year the Drunken Redheaded Sluts observe Paul Reubens Day on the July anniversary of Reubens’ 1991 arrest, in which people dress up like Pee-wee Herman and indulge in various adult-themed high jinks.

“Yeah, I’ve heard about that,” Reubens says quietly. “It goes into the ‘it’s all good’ category, I guess.”

Though it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see some of those distinctive gray suits in the audience, the SF Sketchfest Tribute will be more about the comedic mind at work than his pop-culture or tabloid trappings. “We’re so excited about Paul, because it is a pretty rare public appearance,” Varney says.

“We’ve had him in mind for a couple of years,” Owen adds. “For our audience and for the type of comedy we like, he’s an example of someone who can go from a tiny theater doing improv and sketch and build that into a character who goes on to become kind of a cultural icon. So for us he’s the perfect kind of person to pay tribute to.”

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