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How Did Pee-wee Herman Become A Thing? Paul Reubens' Strange Alter Ego

Entertainment | August 9, 2020

Actor Paul Reubens poses for a portrait dressed as his character Pee-wee Herman in May 1980 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Pee-wee Herman is loner and a rebel. He loves his bike, and he only likes his friend Dotty. There’s no in between for the Pee-wee's Playhouse and Pee-wee's Big Adventure protagonist, you either love him or you’re disturbed by his very existence. Created by Paul Reubens when he was a member of the upstart comedy group the Groundlings, Pee-wee Herman is and remains an ambiguous creature in the world of entertainment. It’s not clear what his whole deal is, if he’s a child in a man’s body, or just a big kid. But really, those things aren’t important. Pee-wee Herman is a source of pure joy. He’s an anarchic, PG rated satyr who eschews normalcy and asks his viewers to embrace the chaos inside of themselves.

Pee-wee Herman was created to be a cringey failure

source: pinterest

Before the delightful imp that we know as Pee-wee Herman was even a thing, Paul Reubens was performing as a member of the Groundlings alongside Phil Hartman, future SNL star, and Cassandra Peterson, another comedic performer who'd end up creating a wildly successful alter ego -- Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

In 1978, when the Groundlings decided to put on a show featuring characters that could be seen in a comedy club, Reubens and Hartman created Pee-wee Herman. Initially his shtick was that of a nervous guy who couldn’t get through his set. From the very start, Reubens dressed in a small gray glen plaid suit that he borrowed from Groundlings director Gary Austin. Reubens later explained the creation of the character to Parade:

I could never remember punch lines to jokes, so my character was a bad comic you would never expect to make it.

The character transformed over the years, but the initial spark was that spastic flailing that comes with falling on your face in front of an audience.

Pee-wee made his television debut on The Dating Game

John Belushi and Paul Reubens in 'The Blues Brothers' (1980). Source IMDB.

Pee-wee Herman was such a hit at the Groundlings show that Reubens decided to give the character his own stage show. Using $5,000 of his own money, Reubens created an entire world for which the audience could get lost in. The show did so well that Herman was brought onto The Dating Game in 1979 three times. Unfortunately none of that footage exists so we’ll all have to imagine how profoundly awkward those episodes were.

In 1980, Reubens had a small part in a big film -- he played a waiter in The Blues Brothers

Paul Reubens and Cheech Marin in Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (1980). Source: IMDB

In 1980 and 1981 Pee-wee appeared in two consecutive Cheech and Chong films, Cheech And Chong's Next Movie and Cheech And Chong's Nice Dreams, in two very different roles that coalesced into a version of the character that audiences can see in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. His appearance in Next Movie uses Herman’s traits found in his raucous night club act. He’s loud, he’s cursing, and he’s overtly sexual. In Nice Dreams, Reubens plays a character named Howie who’s obsessed with hamburgers. Even though this is decidedly not Pee-wee, the voice and obsession with something so simple will be familiar to anyone even vaguely familiar with Herman.

Pee-wee exploded when he appeared in late night

source: CBS

By the early ’80s Pee Wee was everywhere. He had his own Evening at the Improv special, a blown out version of his early stage show was on HBO as The Pee-wee Herman Show, and he regularly appeared as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman. Audiences wanted to know what the deal with this little weirdo was. Is he a child? An adult? Gay? Straight? What? For Reubens, none of that has ever been important. He explained:

To me, there was a conceptual aspect to Pee-wee. If you thought Pee-wee was a kid, fine. If you thought Pee-wee was a man trying to be a kid, great. If you thought Pee-wee was developmentally challenged, fine, whatever.

Even if the ambiguity of Pee-wee was off putting to some members of his audience, the chaotic power of the character was a welcome presence on late night television. Pee-wee allows the audience the be as weird as they want. At his stage shows in the ‘80s, audiences could give in to Pee-wee’s conceptual leaning and leave feeling like they did something surreal and interesting. 

Pee-Wee really exploded when he hit the big screen

source: Warner Bros.

Infinitely quotable and endlessly funny, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is less a movie and more a cultural touchstone for a generation of weirdos and outcasts. From moment one it’s clear that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure -- which was directed by Tim Burton -- is nothing like anything else in the theaters in 1985 (or any other year for that matter).

The anarchy of Reubens’ earlier takes on the character is there, but there’s a childlike wonder imbued within the film that further complicates whether or not the film (and character) is for children or adults.

The film throws the audience into the deep end of Pee-wee’s weirdness - viewers are inundated with his colorful house, his love of Mr. T cereal, and a Rube Goldberg breakfast machine that we’re still scratching our head about - and then it slowly dials up the surreal nature of the film until you don’t even realize how weird it is until it’s all over. Like the television show that followed Big Adventure’s success, the film isn’t for one specific age group, it’s for everyone.

Pee-Wee's Playhouse was for out and out weirdoes

source: CBS

In 1986, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse joined a growing list of Saturday morning programs that aimed to entertain children and adults. Cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could only do so much to please all of the age brackets, but Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was less about making sure there was something for viewers of a certain age and more about creating a series for viewers on a specific wavelength. Caseen Gaines writes in the book Inside Pee-Wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon:

An onslaught of positive press and word of mouth began to bring more adults to Saturday morning television. Although adults were not the target audience, and were considered worthless viewers as far as the advertisers were concerned, they were bringing their children, nieces, and nephews to the show. Within weeks, the show started climbing in the ratings, ultimately surpassing The Smurfs before the first season concluded.

The series was an overwhelming, ice cream sundae with all of the fixings and the kitchen sink kind of show. Reubens incorporated elements from his stage show and the HBO series like Cowboy Curtis (played by Lawrence Fishburne) and Ms. Yvonne while upping the dadaist weirdness of it all. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse didn’t talk down to children, and instead gave them a new language. And adults who were awake early enough could tap into the artistic world that Reubens and his cohorts created.

Pee-Wee will never die

source: Netflix

It’s impossible to talk about Pee-wee Herman without discussing the hot water that Reubens found himself in after he was arrested in a Florida adult movie theater for indecent exposure. By then he’d already turned down a sixth season of the show, but CBS still refused to air the final four episodes of the series, a decision that brought an anti-climactic ending to one of the few bright spots on television in the early ‘90s.

After a few more live appearances as Pee-wee, Reubens retired the character to focus on new roles, but in Herman’s absence from the public eye his star only grew. It’s impossible to quantify or discern why Pee-wee Herman is so beloved. Is it that he allows his audience to be their true selves? Do we just love to watch someone act out in a way that we don’t feel comfortable? Is he our id, doing whatever he wants while we obey the rules of polite society? Or are we just overthinking Pee-wee Herman?

Tags: Cheech & Chong | Childrens Television | Paul Reubens | Pee-wee Herman

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.