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

By | August 7, 2020

test article image
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

test article image
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.