From The San Francisco Chronicle
January 24, 2007
By Peter Hartlaub
Paul Reubens strides onstage in a red power tie, black shoes, no product in his hair and a gray suit that fits so well it could be tailored. Imagine if Pee-wee Herman left the Playhouse of his kids’ TV show, temped for a few years and settled down to a job in data processing.
During a nearly two-hour-long interview for the SF Sketchfest’s tribute to Reubens on Monday night at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, interviewer Ben Fong-Torres tried out a Pee-wee voice several times, but the honoree didn’t bite. Reubens recited only one of his famous lines (“Why don’t you make me”), and even then he used his real voice — which is low-pitched and serious, sounding like a doctor who’s about to give you bad news.
It would seem that the actor is trying to shed his famous image, or at least let the character grow up a little. But it’s looking more as if Reubens will be returning to the land of anthropomorphic furniture and the Word of the Day, executing an idea that he presented to Paramount years before “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” made the character a pop culture star in 1985. Reubens is hoping to get all the original “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” actors together — with the exception of his good friend Phil Hartman, who died in 1998 — for a new movie.
“Everything that (Hartman) did in the script I gave to Laurence Fishburne,” said Reubens, who admits that the actor, who played Cowboy Curtis, hasn’t yet agreed to return. “Whenever he’s hedging, I tell him, ‘Well, Wesley Snipes has expressed interest.’ “
The excitement about putting on Herman’s too-tight suit and red bowtie again is a change for Reubens, who has spent 15 years doing voice work and taking smaller parts in movies and television. He has two cameos in the next couple of months, on the TV shows “Dirt” and “30 Rock.” And he says he enjoyed meeting with fans during his time in San Francisco this week, including a Sunday memorabilia signing session at Amoeba Records.
After his infamous arrest and no-contest plea in 1991 on charges of indecent exposure at an adult theater in Florida — which was accompanied by a first-ballot induction into the Celebrity Mug Shot Hall of Fame — Reubens has only worn the suit once, during a 1991 MTV awards show where he made light of the scandal. (“Heard any good jokes lately?”)
In interviews, Reubens has refused to talk about that arrest or his subsequent legal trouble over a controversial collection of erotica — and the subject didn’t come up during the tribute.
Those arrests may explain Reubens’ infrequent public appearances. His adoring fans, who at times seem almost smothering, may be another explanation. During the Q&A session Monday night, they seemed to cheer a bit too hard at times, sometimes when Fong-Torres was just giving background material.
“You were born in Peekskill, N.Y. …” (“Whoooo!”)
You grew up in Sarasota, Fla. …” (“Whoooo!”)
But the laughs were genuine. One advantage of keeping to himself is the wealth of war stories that Reubens has that few have heard before. And because Reubens has never embraced the Hollywood mainstream, he’s not afraid to dish a little or talk about his own failings.
Reubens says he was a secret smoker during “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — and now admits that his beloved robot sidekick, Conky, was sometimes used as an ashtray.
“I had really tough security on the ‘Pee-wee’ set,” Reubens said. “Ninety percent of that is I didn’t want some kid to walk on and see me smoking.”
Another interesting tidbit was his outrage at not getting cast for “Saturday Night Live” in 1980; he believed that Gilbert Gottfried was a friend of a producer and the fix was in.
“I was so bitter and angry, I thought, ‘You better think about doing something to take this to the next level,’ ” Reubens said, describing his plane ride home from New York. “So I borrowed some money and produced this show. I went from this ‘Saturday Night Live’ reject to having 60 people working for me.”
While a more adult Pee-wee Herman script has also been pitched, Reubens sounds honestly excited about making another movie for kids, who have rediscovered his comedy on DVD. (The Cartoon Network has also featured “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” during its more mature Adult Swim time periods.)
“The most fun I really ever had writing on that show was when we’d come up with something, and look at each other, and know that a 4- or 5- or 6-year-old would fall off the couch laughing,” Reubens said.
The only problem that remains is the age of the characters. Reubens has stayed trim, but is starting to look less like a young Alan Cumming and more like a middle-aged Frank Burns from “MASH.”
Reubens has a funny and self-deprecating response for that issue as well, recalling a conversation with his former “Playhouse” makeup artist who told him the wonder of “very detailed digital retouching” in modern motion pictures.
“I think there’s a good chance that the next Pee-wee movie, we’ll all look younger than we did originally.”