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Paul Reubens created Pee-wee Herman in 1978 during a six-year stint with the Groundlings improv/sketch comedy troupe on Melrose Avenue. Pee-wee proved to be such a hit at the Groundlings, the theater provided a production slot for an adult kids’ show concocted by Reubens with the late Phil Hartman and their fellow Groundlings Stewart and Paragon, among others. The Pee-wee Herman Show transferred to the Roxy nightclub on the Sunset Strip, where it ran for five sold-out months, with midnight shows for adults and matinees for children. HBO filmed one episode, which aired in 1981. Pee-wee appeared several times on Late Night With David Letterman throughout the early ’80s, and he found himself on a national tour, including a stopover at a full-house Carnegie Hall in 1984.
Doug Draizin, Reubens’ first agent, remembers those years well. “I was at APA [Agency for the Performing Arts] and went to the Groundlings. This maniac character comes out dancing and throwing Tootsie Rolls at the audience, at me, I threw them back at him, we kind of connected.
“I came back the following week, brought back some friends and another agent. I met Paul after the show, and we decided to work together. That was in 1980.”
Draizin says he brought Reubens’ 8-by-10 picture and résumé to a signing meeting at the agency, which at the time represented Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield and Andy Kaufman. It was a photo of Reubens inscribed with a signature, “Say hello to Pee-wee Herman.”
Draizin passed it around the table and the other agents got angry. “They said this isn’t funny, ‘This is a serious business, Doug.’ They said don’t sign him.”
But Draizin was fully aware of how serious Reubens was.
“When I knew Paul, he was all about work. Writing until 4 a.m., just committed to his art.”
Draizin was so enamored of Reubens, he kept him on a private retainer, despite the advice of his own agency.
“So one day we’re in an agency meeting and Steve Martin comes in, looking for talent for a parody of commercials, something called ‘All Commercials.’ Steve starts talking about a trip he just made to the Groundlings, and this great character he just saw named Pee-wee Herman. The other agents in the room, Marty Klein and John Gaines, look over at me. I take a pause and I say, ‘Yes, I represent him.’
“Sure enough, the agency comes to me and says, ‘Good move, gutsy move.’”
Reubens then enlisted Draizin’s help to promote the first incarnation of The Pee-wee Herman Show,which was created largely out of spite. In those years, the Groundlings had a fast track to Saturday Night Live, and Draizin says he remembers how competitive the comedy troupe was. After a series of auditions for SNL’s 1980-1981 season, Reubens lost out to Gilbert Gottfried. Reubens was livid. He was also in a panic.
“I knew I had to figure something out,” Reubens reflects now, “or I knew I’d spend the rest of my life being the guy that almost happened.”
“So one day Paul calls me,” Draizin remembers, “says he’s putting this children’s show together. At first I roll my eyes. He’s talking about this character, Miss Yvonne, and he wants to make a movie of this? I go into the Groundlings in the backroom, they did, like, 10 minutes of a presentation of the show, and I’m, like, this is brilliant, this is hysterical. I said I’ll get everybody in L.A. to see this.
“We were in a staff meeting. Our offices were right across the street from the Roxy. Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we take this show and put it in the Roxy, ’cause they’re dark Sunday through Tuesday. So we took the show over to the Roxy, we brought HBO down, and we decided to shoot the special. I was there every night with [agent] Danny Robinson. He said we needed to go national. Letterman booked him, and that was it.”
In the years between 1980 and 1985, leading up to the release of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, wherever Reubens went, issues of creative control followed.
He was never a stand-up comedian like Steve Martin. He says he’s a terrible joke-teller who can never remember a punch line. Trained in theater, Reubens had originally imagined himself with a career as a dramatic actor, with a leaning toward the experimental.