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Pee-Wee's Big Comeback

Kevin Scanlon

The main character in Tim Burton’s first feature film, circa 1985, is an impish, asexual little man in a gray suit, white loafers and a small red bow tie who is crazy about his bicycle. His short-clipped hair is greased into a meticulous coif, while his trouser cuffs and jacket sleeves all ride a bit too high.

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.

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.

“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.’”

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.

The financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (it earned nearly all of its $6 million cost in the first week and went on to make $41 million)led to the Saturday-morning children’s show on CBS, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, launched in 1986, which Reubens wrote and acted in, along with Laurence Fishburne, S. Epatha Merkerson, among other human actors and a cornucopia of puppets and animated objects. The set was designed by renowned artist Gary Panter (who is also the set designer on the latest Pee-wee Herman Show). Pee-wee’s Playhouse targeted 5-year-olds and preached the virtues of consideration for others, nonsmoking (Reubens was a smoker at the time, which he tried fastidiously to keep out of public sight) and staying away from drugs. Yet the show also attracted a considerable adult audience. In 1991, CBS offered Reubens a sixth season, but he turned it down, saying he needed a break from Pee-wee. In July of that year, after 22 Emmy Awards, Pee-wee crashed his bicycle.

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.

The second time, it’s spoken by a prison escapee named Mickey (Judd Omen), arrested for detaching a label from a mattress, in violation of the instructions. A pair of handcuffs dangles from one of Mickey’s wrists when he picks up the hitchhiking Pee-wee.

The final time, it’s uttered by P.W. (James Brolin), an actor hired to portray Pee-wee for a ludicrous attempt at a blockbuster studio flick of the adventure we’ve just seen. P.W. resembles and comports himself a bit like Chuck Norris.

In each instance, the notion of the loner and the rebel — which Pee-wee really is — and the solitary, romantic machismo of that line, is twisted in a sharp gale of mockery.

Pee-wee may be obnoxious, but he’s also a harmless infant, a collector of gadgets that keep him at arm’s length from emotional attachments; Mickey and P.W. are brutes, with streaks of kindness. And looking into some mirror of parody, each sees in his reflection the image of the others. Because they are, combined, an embodiment of the American psyche. At once infantile and swaggering, seething and self-absorbed and doing their best, bewildered and alone in a world they can’t begin to understand.

“Are you happy?” I ask Reubens.

He shrugs. “Part of me goes, what’s the point if you’re happy or not, you still have to get up and work. It makes more sense if you can find a way to be happy.”

“Then what’s the deepest source of your satisfaction?”

“Doing good work. I think I like what I do. I feel like I’m an artist. When people say, ‘I’m an artist because of you,’ it doesn’t get any better than that — though that wasn’t my goal when I set out.

“I was fairly confident that joining the Groundlings was a big, smart life-changer for me. I like the people in the group — a great combination of being nice, interesting people, and talented. They may be competitive but they’re also very supportive. The opposite of that was the Comedy Store, where everyone’s out for themselves. The Groundlings was a workshop with people who wanted everyone else to succeed. And that’s really what made Pee-wee possible.”

The Pee-wee Herman Show at Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., dwntwn.; through February 7. (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com.