By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
At a screening of Nancy Nurse in a XXX theater in Sarasota, where he’d grown up, Reubens was arrested for the victimless crime of masturbating. Had he been Hugh Grant, he might have bounced back after a year or two of mea culpas. But the arrest was so humiliating, the “crime” such a remove from Pee-wee’s public persona, with all his moral appeal to children, it was like Pee-wee’s bicycle hadn’t just crashed but been run over by a semi: Jim Carrey’s parody of Pee-wee on Saturday Night Live, including a puppetlike hand job, was vicious. Mug shots of the then-longhaired, goateed Reubens were blasted all over the tabloids.
“Oh, Pee-wee!” smirked the New York Post.
Eleven years later, in November 2002, while Reubens was filming David La Chapelle’s video for Elton John’s “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” the LAPD and Los Angeles City Attorney Richard Katz acted on a tip from a witness in the pornography case against actor Jeffrey Jones (who pleaded no contest to inducing a minor to pose nude). Police arrived at Reubens’ home with a search warrant and rifled through more than 70,000 items of his kitch memorabilia, including vintage erotica magazines and a grainy Rob Lowe sex tape. Evidence supporting the city’s accusation that Reubens possessed child pornography was doubtful at best. A magazine dealer who sold Reubens part of his collection said that Reubens specifically asked for material that did not involve children, and that there was no way Reubens could have examined every page of what he was buying. After turning himself in to the Hollywood Division of LAPD, Reubens pleaded not guilty, and after examining the evidence, the district attorney found no grounds to press charges. Meanwhile, on Dateline NBC, Reubens emphatically denied that he had any predilection for minors. Nonetheless, Katz’ office waited until the last possible day to file, before charging Reubens with a misdemeanor count of possessing obscene material involving children. The charge was dropped two years later, but the damage was done.
Sitting in a quiet booth at Victor’s Deli in Hollywood, Reubens speaks in calm, soothing tones. He waves away a question about the arrests, saying he’d rather not discuss them.
“Other people have given it way more thought than me. I’m not great with math but I think it’s now close to 20 years later. It’s not anything I give much thought to now. I had other things going on, other priorities. It wasn’t at the top of my list of what I was dealing with, even at the time.”
Pee-wee was born out of a random collision of circumstances and costumes, and more or less emerged from Reubens’ subconscious. He says he doesn’t like to overanalyze the character, or his significance — not that he isn’t interested but that such brain work interferes with his portrayal.
The gray suit was loaned to him by Groundlings founder Gary Austin, while someone handed him a small red bow tie just moments before his original 1978 improvisation. The idea was an obnoxious character who imagined himself to be a stand-up comedian whose ineptitude at telling jokes would be obvious to everybody but himself. (Reubens says that he himself has done acts at the Comedy Store and bombed because the audience missed his conceptual approach to comedy.) The cartoon voice came from a character he played in a 1970 production of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s play Life With Father.
While Reubens is speaking, a fire truck barreling up Bronson Avenue, siren blaring, stops him midsentence. He follows the fire truck with his eyes, mouth slightly open, transfixed like a child.
The minute Pee-wee appeared on the Groundlings stage in 1978, Reubens understood that the audience had a powerful fix on him. When Pee-wee’s new show was announced last August, originally planned for the Music Box @ Henry Fonda Theater, ticket sales surpassed the scale of the venue, and necessitated a larger club. It’s more than mere nostalgia that drives Pee-wee’s longevity.
To understand his influence on the culture, you can look to Stephen Hillenburg’s SpongeBob SquarePants cartoons; or the band Mr. Bungle, named after a character on Pee-wee’s Playhouse; or Mini Me from the Austin Powers movies; or the electronic rock band Au Revoir Simone, named after the waitress Simone, played by Diane Salinger, in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure; or the pencil suits by fashion designer Thom Browne.
Pee-wee defines more than one decade. He’s a man-child with a larger reach. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, there’s a telling line spoken three times.
“I’m a loner ... a rebel.”
The first time, it’s spoken by Pee-wee to a magic shop’s young female clerk (Elizabeth Daily), who has a crush on him — obviously a futile emotion. After he says the line, he leaves the shop, swaggering with a kind of infantile giddiness that appears unbelievably stupid and irredeemably self-satisfied. Yet the combination of arrogance and idiocy is inexplicably funny.