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Pee-Wee's Big Comeback 

18 years after a bruising fall, Paul Reubens returns to an L.A. stage

Wednesday, Jan 13 2010
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“I did a lot of professional theater as a kid,” Reubens says. In his senior year of high school in Sarasota, Florida, he was invited to the Northwest University National High School Institute.

“It was an interesting place. All of a sudden I was with other 17-year-olds who had the same or more experience than me, that was a big shocker. I was thinking nobody has the drive and the experience that I have. I got there and all of them did.”

Reubens tried out the theater training program at Boston University, but the approach there was too traditional for him. “That wasn’t a good thing for me. I got off the elevator and there were, like, half of my classmates singing Broadway show tunes around a baby grand piano, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the wrong place.’”

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That’s when he came to California and enrolled at CalArts. “I was looking for the avant-garde,” Reubens explains. “It had dance, music, theater and the visual arts all under one roof, so they could commingle.”

Like Kaufman — also Draizin’s client at the time and a comedian Reubens emulated — Reubens saw his work in terms of conceptual performance. This is why, in those years, Pee-wee took on a life of his own. He wasn’t just a stage character. Reubens went on The Dating Game as Pee-wee and, in so doing, threw all the values of the game, and of the society it represented, on their heads. He did his interviews as Pee-wee, so that Paul Reubens disappeared in public, and began to transform into somebody more introspective and serious in private.

“I used to be a lot less quiet before my career took off. Halloween became less fun after I was dressing up for a living. Being a clown, after I was doing it full time, I was less of a clown in my real life.”

Kaufman also had an alter ego, Tony Clifton, who used to warm up for Dangerfield. One night in San Francisco, Clifton refused to start until he had complete silence. He just waited onstage, with folded arms, saying he had all night. Eventually the crowd started heckling him. Clifton finally yielded, in a manner of speaking, by screeching at the top of his lungs, and out of tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — received with a pelting of beer bottles. In an interview for NPR, Dangerfield said that watching this from backstage, he almost peed himself with laughter. The next night, Clifton sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” out of tune while dressed in the riot gear of the San Francisco Police Department, and was met with an even stronger barrage of “fuck yous” and bottles.

Draizin recalls the day-to-day insanity of representing clients in the land of egos and alter egos. “I’d get a call from Tony Clifton, who was yelling at me because the agency represented Andy Kaufman. Clifton then said he refused to go on the Dangerfield show. Of course it was all an act. Another time Clifton threw me out of his dressing room because I mentioned Andy’s name. And then I’d get a call from Pee-wee saying he had no idea who Paul Reubens was. Oh, God, what a profession. ...”

Draizin also remembers a meeting at Paramount Studios in the early ’80s: “Paul was writing some script, and he was all about creative control. We met with [Paramount’s vice president of production] Dawn Steel, who later ran Columbia. We told him, once you make a movie, you won’t have that control. Paramount was not even giving him consulting. Basically they were saying, you can write it and we’ll show you how to make it. He kept reminding us of everything he’s been able to do and that he needed to keep his vision. I was annoyed.”

When negotiating terms with Warner Bros. for the making of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,Reubens submitted a list of possible directors for the movie. The studio returned his offer with one name — a name that wasn’t on his list. Reubens refused. He says the studio gave him one week to come up with a name that was acceptable to them.

He went to a party, where a friend suggested Tim Burton, who had also attended CalArts, though not at the same time as Reubens. In fact, they had never met. Reubens viewed a tape of Burton’s student film, Frankenweenie, and knew after 10 minutes of the movie that he’d found his director.

In a perverse maneuver, the studio told Reubens that Burton had already been offered the project and had refused, but it wasn’t true. Reubens found Burton and sent him a script. The next day, he agreed to direct it.

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