Evolution may be the wrong word; part of the joy of Pee-wee Herman is that he stays the same. Star of stage, screen, and now Netflix, Pee-wee is that weird kid inside all of us who just wants to play. When we see Paul Reubens, now 63, back in the suit and the bow tie, the shiny white shoes, his hair slicked back, we spend the first minute saying "Whaaa?" and then all the rest wanting to join in, check out his toys, and see what else is going on at the playhouse.
The newest incarnation of Pee-wee hits Netflix tomorrow, and looks to be worth the wait: it's produced by Judd Apatow, written by Reubens and Paul Rust, and co-stars Magic Mike's Joe Manganiello (aka Mr. Sofia Vergara) along with a handful of faces familiar to longtime Pee-wee fans. Pee-wee's Big Holiday will take our hero out of his element and on a road trip as he searches for adventure beyond the safety net of his beloved hometown.
Before checking out the newest Pee-wee offering, let's take a look back at the origins of the character, and revisit some of the bigger milestones on his journey to fame and fortune.
Jimmy Fallon, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Ferrell all trained with The Groundlings, a troupe and theater with a rich history. Even in its early days, it was THE place to scout talent in L.A., with pros like Lily Tomlin coming by to find performers for her TV specials. Lorne Michaels found Laraine Newman there when he was casting his brand new show, Saturday Night.
In the late 1970s, Paul Reubens was a Groundling, along with future collaborators John Paragon, Edie McClurg, Lynne Stewart, John Moody, and future SNL and The Simpsons star Phil Hartman. Reubens' problem? He wasn't good at stand-up because he couldn't remember punch lines, and he wasn't good at improv. To compensate, he tried out a "bad comedian" character who would just laugh instead of telling jokes. He also had knack for finding cool stuff and showing it off, stemming from his love of thrift shops and vintage toys.
Influenced by comedian Andy Kaufman and intrigued by conceptual art, he created the character of a little boy in a man's body, who loved to show off his toys, and talked like a kid: I know you are but what am I? That's my name, don't wear it out. If you love it, why don't you marry it? Pee-wee Herman was born.
The Dating Game
Reubens had done TV before, having appeared multiple times on The Gong Show, but Pee-wee Herman’s debut was on The Dating Game. An open casting call inspired Reubens to don his Pee-wee suit and head over, in character. The minute he walked in, all eyes were on him.
He filled out the form as Pee-wee. Hobbies: going to the library and cleaning my room. The casting team was hooked.
He appeared on the show three times, winning the date on the third try. The woman who chose him ended up getting married before they actually went out, but it didn't matter: Pee-wee was finding his audience.
Note for the future: 13-year-old Judd Apatow was watching those episodes, and became an instant fan.
The Pee-wee Herman Show
In 1980, Saturday Night Live was relaunching with an entirely new cast, and Paul Reubens was one of 22 finalists up for a spot. When Gilbert Gottfried got it instead, Reubens wondered if he should pack it in. Instead—thank goodness!—he got some cash from his parents and help from his Groundlings friends, and put together The Pee-wee Herman Show.
The live stage show ran for five sold out months, and was filmed by HBO for a TV special later that year. It featured a dirtier version of Pee-wee and pals than later audiences would see, but it still had its roots in childhood charm, ending with a joyful note as a boy's biggest dream—to fly—came true.
Cheech & Chong's Next Movie
In 1980, Pee-wee Herman hit the silver screen for the first time. He had a small role, but it was Pee-wee all right: the credits read “Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman.” Groundlings pals Edie McClurg, Phil Hartman, and Cassandra (“Elvira”) Peterson were also in the movie, along with the future Mrs. Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson. Reubens appeared in two other Cheech & Chong movies, but not as Pee-wee, although there was a definite resemblance in his Howie Hamburger Dude in Nice Dreams.
Late Night with David Letterman
Pee-wee was already on a 22-city tour, but he reached a national audience when he started making appearances on David Letterman’s late night NBC talk show. He brought toys, addressed Dave as "Mr. Letterman," and showed up in costume two Halloweens in a row. He brought giant underpants that he turned into a swing, Gremlins cereal, a film about lunchtime manners, and made audiences wonder who this guy was and where they could see more of him.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure
This movie was what catapulted Pee-wee into the spotlight, and marked the feature film directorial debut of a 26-year-old Tim Burton.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure is smart, funny, constantly surprising, and visually stunning, bursting with gorgeous colors and inventive sets. It starts with a bike race dream sequence, then delights with a Rube Goldberg-esque breakfast-making machine which cracks eggs, toasts bread, squeezes oranges, flips pancakes, cooks bacon, and then drops it all on a plate for Pee-wee to pour his Mr. T cereal on. ("I pity the poor fool who don't eat my cereal!")
The story takes Pee-wee in search of his one-of-a-kind bike after it gets stolen by a jealous neighbor (also played by a grown man) and follows the trail, cold or hot, across the country. He goes to the Alamo (where Jan Hooks’ tour guide almost destroys him with the news that the Alamo has no basement), hits truck stops, and helps a fugitive escape by channeling Bugs Bunny and pretending to be a woman. He makes enemies, then friends, at a motorcycle bar, winning them over with his famous “Tequila” dance, and then heads to Hollywood, where he finally locates his bike.
Pee-wee's charm soars even higher when he stops in the middle of a high-speed chase because he sees a pet store on fire. He pulls over and rescues the animals, one by one. With the help of a monkey, he rescues birds, dogs, cats, mice, fish, ducks, hamsters, and when he can't put it off anymore, comes running out of the store clutching fistfuls of snakes. It's a gem of a scene in a gem of a movie, scored with brilliance by composer Danny Elfman. Reubens wrote it with Phil Hartman, who has a brief cameo at the end, interviewing Francis the bike thief at the drive-in.
While the HBO special was a little racy, it was still born out of Pee-wee's love for vintage 50s kids' shows like Howdy Doody. So when the opportunity came up to do a REAL kids show, taking that 50s style but updating it with bright colors, fun characters, and a diverse, inclusive cast, it was a no-brainer.
Phil Hartman reprised Captain Carl for six episodes before heading off to Saturday Night Live. His character was retired and 25-year-old Laurence Fishburne came in as Cowboy Curtis, a new alliterative love interest for Miss Yvonne, still played by Lynne Stewart. John Paragon was Jambi the Genie, and designer Gary Panter, known for his work as a punk comic book artist, was brought in to design and supervise the team creating the sets and characters, a process as integral to the show as the writing and casting. S. Epatha Merkerson, now best known as the precinct captain on Law & Order, was Reba the Mail Lady. A young Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) played one of the Playhouse Gang. Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) scored the show, with additional music coming from Todd Rundgren and Mitchell Froom. Rob Zombie was a production assistant, and John Singleton was either a security guard or another production assistant, depending on who you ask. Cyndi Lauper sang the theme song, and Pee-wee returned the favor by turning up on a track on her True Colors album.
The show ran for five years on CBS, won 22 Emmy Awards, and viewers didn't just watch it, they adored it. Toys, pens, watches, magnets, Pee-wee dolls, and action figures flew off the shelves and quickly became collectors' items. Fans even made their own Pee-wee souvenirs, which ultimately became some of Paul Reubens’ favorite thrift store finds over the years.
Even though it was part of the series, a special note must be given to. . .
Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special
Finally available on Netflix, the special featured Pee-wee and the playhouse gang planning for a big Christmas celebration with a gaggle of guest stars. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were put to work making Pee-wee's Christmas cards. Magic Screen's cousin Magic Johnson came for a visit. Little Richard showed up to go ice skating. Other guests included Cher, Dinah Shore (via phone), k.d. lang, Grace Jones, Charo, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, and Oprah Winfrey. Really, this one should be right up there as a yearly special along with Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch.
Big Top Pee-wee
During the run of Pee-wee's Playhouse, Paul Reubens got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and we got a second Pee-wee movie. Big Top Pee-wee told the story of what happens when a storm blows a traveling circus into Pee-wee's back yard. One minute he's eating egg salad sandwiches with his schoolteacher fiancée, the next he's falling in love with a sexy trapeze artist. Reubens was something of a circus expert: he’d spent his teenage years in Sarasota, Florida, which was where the Ringling Brothers circus stayed during their off-season. His high school even had a full circus program.
Lynne Stewart was back, this time as Zelda the Bearded Lady, and co-stars included Kris Kristofferson, Penelope Ann Miller, and Benicio del Toro in his first film role as Duke, the Dog-Faced Boy. Danny Elfman did the score, and Reubens co-writer was George McGrath, who provided many of the voices for Playhouse characters on his weekly show. Randal Kleiser, best known for the mega-hit Grease, was the director.
Then, Pee-wee got quiet for a while.
The MTV Video Music Awards
In 1991, after months of silence following a scandal and an arrest, Pee-wee Herman re-emerged at the MTV Video Music Awards. “Heard any good jokes lately?” he asked the roaring crowd.
The Pee-wee Herman Show (2010)
In 2010, Pee-wee returned in the format that started it all, a live stage show, recreating the playhouse set and giving audiences what we'd missed all those years. It played in Los Angeles, then moved to a limited Broadway run. History repeated itself when HBO recorded one of the shows for a TV special. There were new faces on stage along with Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, and John Moody, who’d been in those first Groundlings shows and multiple projects since. Reubens hoped that if successful, the show would drum up interest in a new Pee-wee movie, and he was right.
Pee-wee's Big Holiday
And here we are! When movie studios passed on it, the project was snapped up by Netflix. After years of waiting, fans were finally treated to a teaser, and then a full-length trailer. The movie premieres today at SXSW, the day before it hits Netflix, and will appear in select theaters with a special live-streamed Pee-wee intro.
Longtime fans will spot Lynne Stewart of Miss Yvonne fame, Diane Salinger (Simone from Pee-wee's Big Adventure), and John Paragon. We still miss Phil Hartman, and we wish Laurence Fishburne would put in an appearance. But we've got our Pee-wee back. Ha-ha!
I love that story.