No Longer A Punch Line, Pee-Wee’s Creator Tries Reviving His Oddball Character


From The San Jose Mercury News

January 11, 2007
By Mark de la Vina

His high-water pants and red bow tie have been mothballed for 15 years, but Pee-wee Herman lives!

Paul Reubens, the accomplished character actor who turned the sketch comedy man-child into an icon of kids’ TV, is the subject of a San Francisco Sketchfest tribute. He will participate in a question-and-answer session with writer Ben Fong-Torres at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco on Jan. 22.
Though he’s readily identified with Pee-wee, Reubens, 54, is an chameleonic performer who won praise for his work in the ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” movie (1992), the ’90s sitcom ”Murphy Brown” and the Johnny Depp film ”Blow” (2001).

With renewed interest in ”Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — the show celebrated its 20th anniversary last year — Reubens is looking at reviving the character in a feature film. In the meantime, fans can catch him in ”Dirt,” the new Courteney Cox series on FX; ”30 Rock,” with Tina Fey; the upcoming movie version of ”Reno 911”; and ”The Tripper,” a David Arquette horror film shot in Santa Cruz and Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Reubens doesn’t speak about his much publicized 1991 arrest for indecent exposure, which has been so mythologized it nearly turned the actor’s career into a punch line.

”Honestly, I’ve spoken about this in print several times,” he says, ”and I don’t plan on talking about it any more.”

However, he did talk by phone from his Los Angeles home about his experiences with Pee-wee, the ”The Gong Show” and the Groundlings, the improvisational comedy group whose alumni include Phil Hartman and Will Ferrell.

Q
Because you’re a part of Sketchfest, fill us in on how much sketch comedy and the Groundlings helped you develop as a performer.

A
The Groundlings was such an incredible experience for me because it pulled me into writing, not only in performing and coming up with characters, but full writing came out of that. And it also helped with my improv skills.

Q
You performed on ”The Gong Show” several times?

A
It was a great situation. After the first time, I joined the television union from that show. We got paid union scale. Plus, if you won, you won $500. Plus, a bunch of consolation prizes. I was kind of semi-supported by ”The Gong Show.” I’m probably one of the few people who admits he was on ”The Gong Show” a lot.

Q
I’ve read that the Pee-wee character was partly rooted in a problem you had in remembering lines in the Groundlings and that the character was supposed to be this incapable stage performer. Is that true?

A
Not really. We were doing an extended scene at a comedy club and Pee-wee Herman was going to be the guy who would never make it as a stand-up comic. I guess what you’re referring to is that I had trouble remembering punch lines to jokes, so Pee-wee was the person who could never remember the punch line, or didn’t know the punch line to begin with. Or he wasn’t really relying on jokes, but on props.

Q
What were the origins of that character? How did you develop him?

A
It was for a scene, and the director of the company, Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which was the Pee-wee suit until we made ”Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (in 1985). Then somebody gave me a small bow tie, which was originally black, and I swapped it for a red one later. It was drawn from several different sources and experiences. I didn’t really think about it too much — it just kind of came out fully grown.

Q
What’s the status of the ”Pee-wee Herman” movie?

A
Boy, I hope I have a better answer a week from now. It’s sort of on-again, off-again. Financing is in place, then it’s not in place.

Q
Your goal is to reassemble the show’s cast?

A
Oh, absolutely.

Q
Since 1991, you’ve appeared as Pee-wee only twice, at the MTV Video Music Awards in ’91 and at the Grand Ole Opry tribute to Minnie Pearl in ’92. Why haven’t you brought him back?

A
I just haven’t found the right opportunities.

Q
With the 20th anniversary of ”Pee-wee’s Playhouse” last year, I’ve read lots of affectionate reflections on the show. How do you take in this renewed appreciation?

A
Honestly, I take that all in very proudly. I love it when anybody says something nice and positive about it because I took it all very, very seriously and I worked really, really hard to do something that I thought would stand the test of time, be educational and informative and inspire kids.

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