The little man, named Pee-wee Herman, created and played by Paul Reubens, is a fey and infantile parody of an awkward child circa 1961, even though the movie (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) is set in the 1980s. When called names by the neighborhood bully, he chirps back, “I know you are, but what am I?”
One night, Pee-wee has a dream in which he wins the Tour de France. When riding his bicycle in the park, he throws his feet up onto the handlebars and giggles in delight. The bike is covered in tassles and gadgets, including James Bond–like devices that spew smoke to ward off would-be pursuers. When he locks it up, the chain he uses is so bulky and ostentatious, the bicycle disappears beneath its wrapping.
Despite his primitive Fort Knox security system, Pee-wee one day finds the chain snapped and his bicycle gone. This throws him into a paroxysm of despair. He heads out from what appears to be California (his bike is stolen in the old Santa Monica Mall, before it was reimagined as the Promenade) to the Alamo, because a fortune-teller tells him she could see his bike in the basement there.
In Texas, Pee-wee discovers that there is no basement at the Alamo. Now looking for a public phone, he ambles into a private club filled with scary-looking bikers. Obsessed to the point of solipsism with finding his stolen bicycle, Pee-wee strides to a wall phone and slips coins into the slot. The bikers being a noisy bunch, the Chaplinesque little man can’t hear anything on the other end of the line. Pee-wee contemptuously exhales before shouting out in an arrogant, nasal squeal, “I’m TRYING to use the PHONE!”
The bar falls silent. Heads bedecked in bandannas and skullcaps turn in Pee-wee’s direction. Greasy, tattooed fellows in leather and denim glare and then slowly close in on him.
“Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” Pee-wee utters in a series of adenoidal variations, sometimes with his head propelled forward on his shoulders, other times with a shrug. “My mistake.”
Miraculously, with a little pirouette he squeezes past them, and out the door. Free at last, and with none of the bikers in sight, Pee-wee gleefully sashays in the fresh air, ever so gay, in the process accidentally tapping one of the parked Harley-Davidsons. Of course the finger touch causes it to tumble directly into the next bike, which tumbles into the next, until a dozen Harleys have fallen like dominoes in a series of cringe-inducing crashes. Pee-wee grits his teeth and grunts with his trademark nasality as the bar door bursts open, the mob emits a collective scream of rage, and the little man finds himself inside once more, now slammed onto a table, pleading for his life.
A moment later, he’s dancing to “Tequila” on the table — to the nutty delight of the bikers, who high-five him and send him off a hero.
The absurdist yet incontestable logic to this surreal turn of events is, in fact, not unlike the life and career of Paul Reubens, who is attempting to come full circle with a new show in Los Angeles, where Pee-wee was born.
After a humiliating 1991 arrest in Sarasota, Florida, for lewd conduct, to which Reubens pleaded no contest, and a second arrest in L.A. in 2002 for possession of child pornography — Reubens pleaded not guilty, the district attorney refused to file charges, and the city attorney’s dubious misdemeanor charge was dropped in 2004 — his career was pretty much strapped to a table with a furious mob of cultural satirists and tabloid journalists ready for a beat down. Now, 18 years after his first arrest, Reubens is trying to dance his way out again.
His stage show, The Pee-wee Herman Show,co-adapted from the original 1980 Pee-wee Herman Show by Reubens, Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon, is currently in previews at Club Nokia downtown, scheduled to open on January 20. Directed by Alex Timbers (who staged Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre last year), the show features Lynne Stewart, John Moody, Paragon, 20 puppets (by renowned puppet designer Basil Twist) and seven puppeteers.
Rather than dreaming of winning the Tour de France, in this show, Pee-wee dreams that one day, he can fly. And why not? He’s flown before. It was the onstage success of the first Pee-wee Herman Show that led Warner Bros. to approve Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which led to Paramount Studios green-lighting Big Top Pee-wee (1988) and CBS allowing him to write and direct his own children’s show for five years, Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991). Reubens has a couple of screenplays he’s been working on for, oh, 20 years or so. He makes no secret that his motive in updating and restaging The Pee-wee Herman Show is to prove to a cluster of studio executives that he’s still bankable, long after his fall.