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Paul Reubens

By Gary Panter

Portrait by: Allison Berry

I met Paul Reubens in L.A at the end of the ‘70s, as he was about to mount his first version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse onstage at the Groundling theater. He and I have been friends ever since, and have had many adventures in show business and in the business of bombarding a generation with useful cultural clues and artifacts. Paul is a genius on the order of Charlie Chaplin and Eddie Cantor, which is no small thing, and he makes a mean crank phone call.

How old were you when you got the acting bug?
I think it started for me when I was four or five. I watched a lot of TV when I was little—you know, Howdy Doody and Mickey Mouse Club. It was a combination of those shows and a pageant at my elementary school that I saw. I just all of a sudden knew what I was destined for.

You thought, “I could do that.”
Yeah, I was thinking, “I’m going to do that, that’s what I’m doing.”

What was the first thing you actually acted in?
The first thing that I actually acted in was when I was in sixth grade. My mom came in one day and said there was an audition in the newspaper. And she didn’t tell me this until years later, but she and my dad had kind of decided that this was the way for me to get rid of the bug, that I would go and audition for the play and not get the part. But I did get the part. It was a play called “1,000 Clowns,” which has a really big kid role in it.

Was it a one-night performance?
Oh no, it went on for five or six years until I was in my 30s. No, I’m kidding. It went on for a couple of weekends.

Were you a popular kid or reviled?
I kind of worked both sides of the fence as far as popularity goes. I always identified with everybody. I just felt like I was popular when I wasn’t popular.

And then I was in drama, so I hung out with the actor-y, artist kids. I wasn’t super into sports, but I still knew a lot of the people that did that. And then my high school also had a circus. Sarasota was the headquarters for Ringling Brothers.

They wintered there?
Yes, but a lot of the families, royalty families of the circus, lived there. Their kids went to school there.

That’s what I was going to ask you next, if you really did grow up surrounded by circus folk.

You had someone with a cannon shooting someone out of it?

Yeah, all true. There was someone shooting, and we kept hearing the explosions at the first house that we had. One day, we were walking around the block and we saw this guy sailing through the air between these two houses. And these people were blasting each other out of a cannon behind their house.

Later on you went to art school. You went to Cal Arts. Was art school important to you? Or could you have gone to any school?
I think art school was very important. I went to Boston University right out of high school, to the acting school there. My first day, I got off the elevator and there was a bunch of the people, my fellow students, standing around a baby grand piano singing Broadway show tunes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that whatsoever, but I got so freaked out when I saw that and I was like, “This isn’t what I wanted at all!” I wanted to be like James Dean and Marlon Brando, like, “What are you rebelling against?” “What do ya got?” That kind of feeling. I wanted a real avant-garde sort of feeling about everything.

Did you get that at Boston?
No, no, it was a great program, but it wasn’t what I was looking for at all.

Did Cal Arts have it?
Yeah, I went the next year. I went to California and it was exactly what I was looking for. Everybody was way out.

Did you study with someone we would know?
Well, in my acting class, David Hasselhoff and Katey Segal are two people that went on to recognition and fame as actors. So the three of us, I guess.

A lot of people came out of Cal Arts and did things.
Yeah, the thing about art school that was so amazing to me is just that I always really approached what I wanted to do as having something to do with art. At that time that school was set up, it was Walt Disney’s brainchild and he wanted a school where the arts could commingle, intermingle, and where musicians would have filmmakers, actors and dancers at their disposal.

Seems like the school was a lot weirder than he was expecting it to be.
Yeah, I think it all sounds great on paper, but it wasn’t weirder than he expected. I think it was more naked than he expected.

OK, here’s a very important question. “Nerd” used to be a term of derision. And your Pee-wee character and Devo and Bill Gates changed that. Did you see that coming?
No, I don’t think I gave it any real thought whatsoever. But you were in the same boat. We’ve known each other a long time. So when you first saw Pee-wee Herman I know for a fact, because you’ve told me, you had kind of a reaction to it.

Absolutely. I was a nerd and I knew it and I really secretly thought the nerds were the smart guys.
Yeah, but you projected that too, I think.

Yeah, people used to call me Pee-wee and Devo and Elvis Costello on the street and throw things at me.
Yeah, well we’ve all had a thing or two thrown at us.

Thanks for getting people to throw stuff at me.
I don’t know. I never gave it any thought at all. I think that’s probably what put it over—I just always viewed Pee-wee Herman as somebody who was just like a real person, who was trying as hard as the next person.

All Photos Property of Herman World, Inc.
© 1986 - 1991 PAUL REUBENS. All rights reserved.

The Pee-wee show began as entertainment for an adult audience and then it incidentally got sold into a children’s market. So did you have to change it a bunch?
No. I mean, I would slightly argue that it started out as adult entertainment. I always viewed it as a real kids’ show, like an homage to kids’ shows. It was written to be performed originally at midnight.

There were some silly jokes, but it was all pretty innocent really.
Yeah, if you remember, we actually did matinees of that same stage show. That had all the “risqué” material in it. My theory was always that if a kid laughed at a dirty joke, they already knew something that I didn’t teach them. And if they didn’t know and they didn’t laugh and it went over their heads, then it was fine. It was not a problem. That would continue on to what became the real kids’ show. But I think it was almost the same thing either way.

Did burlesque have an influence in your work?
I think it did. I would say for sure it did in one really important way. This is a sort of once-removed answer to that in a certain way, but part of Pee-wee Herman came from that song “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy. Then I think I saw burlesque kind of stuff on Ed Sullivan and on early television.

People are always asking me about Pee-wee movies and so this is an opportunity to brag that you and I wrote a movie. We wrote the first version of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that didn’t get made.
That script, the one that you and me wrote, it has been re-written, and I actually think the movie is going to wind up getting made. I would love to think that there will be a deal in place by the time people are reading this in a magazine. So cross your fingers.

This movie was written after the stage show but before the CBS version. Just last night, I was really trying to visualize what some of this stuff was going to look like. I had this very secure feeling of, Wow, if somebody could sit in the movie theater and see this for 90 minutes, just 90 minutes of incredible beauty.

Pee-wee fans will go nuts. Are you still interested in an all-stage show of the Pee-wee show?
The stage show, just to be clear, is the one that you and I met during. That’s how we first started working together, and I might as well tell that story really quickly. I contacted you and asked you if you would design a poster for my show, and you said you wanted to come see my character. You came to the Groundlings and after the show you came backstage and you said, “Why don’t I design everything? It’s gonna have a set, right?”

I thought we were totally on the same page.
So you designed the whole thing and, yes, I’ve been talking to somebody about going to New York with that same show or some version of that show. There’s been all this flurry of talk about doing it both in New York and in Vegas. If that’s the case, and maybe Europe, then I would have to find at least two more Pee-wee’s.

Or you could clone yourself.
Or I could clone myself.

And do it 30 years from now.
That sounds perfect. That’s how the other Pee-wee movie ends, with a robot Pee-wee carrying on the Pee-wee tradition.

All Photos Property of Herman World, Inc.
© 1986 - 1991 PAUL REUBENS. All rights reserved.

You have met a lot of celebrities and public figures. Anyone completely blow your mind?
At the height of my success as Pee-wee Herman, I hardly went out. But when I would go to a party once in a while, it would be so fantastic to be me in that kind of situation. I would literally look around the room in a Hollywood party and every person that I wanted to talk to or meet would be doing a double take at me and running across to come over and shake my hand. It was great. I met everyone at their peak niceness.

What’s the coolest thing you almost got to make when you were making Pee-wee products?
Oh, I’m glad you asked me that. The one thing I didn’t get to make was scents.

I wanted to make Pee-wee #5, Eau de Pee-wee, and then P was going to be my unisex scent. I was going to make it yellow. But I didn’t get to do any of that. The cereal was going to be Pee-wee Chow. I had Ralston Purina give me permission to let the checkerboard be on human food. It was going to be called Pee-wee Chow, just like Dog Chow, and had the checkerboard on it. The commercial was going to be a mom pouring a bowl of it and putting it on the floor and kids crawling up like dogs and eating it on all fours.

That could have changed history.
I thought that was going to be so great. And the cereal was really delicious, I thought. It tasted just like Trix. It was sweetened with fruit juice, no added sugar, had all these vitamins and minerals and was really good for you. Everything was going fantastic until, right at the last minute, they had to do a blind taste test with kids, and kids hated it.

Stupid jerks! I don’t trust market research.
Yeah. Oh well.

Are you the kind of guy that likes to ride a rollercoaster, or skydive, or bungee jump?
No, I’m the type of guy that likes to do everything totally, 100% safe.

Me too. I hate risk. But have you ever barfed on a rollercoaster?
No, I’ve practically never even been on a rollercoaster. I used to barf all the time. I would get carsick a lot. When we would take family trips, I would get carsick. So we would stop the car and I would get out. My dad would stick his finger down my throat, make me throw up, and I would be fine.

That’s kind of odd because most people throw up on their own.
Nope. I would have to have my dad help me.

Did you ever play a joke that was really successful?
I hate to give it away. One April Fool’s, I called almost everyone I knew and told them that I just got them a miniature pony that was the size of a house cat, and would use a litter box, and it ate people food—I forget what the rest was. But it was so far fetched and people were like, “Oh my God, I don’t have space for it. I mean, I can’t have animals in my apartment.” Practically everyone went for it—not everybody—but I was shocked.

Some people knew you too well.
Yeah, some people don’t take my calls on April 1. I didn’t use that one on you, did I?

Not me, but you’ve gotten me many times on April Fool’s.
Wait until you get home.

Have you ever fired a machine gun or bazooka?
No, I haven’t. I’d like to. You probably already know this, but for years and years, I’ve always wanted to make Death Wish Pee-wee.

That’s a great idea.
So that would involve lots of firearms, [but] I don’t really believe in that at all.

If you could only keep one possession and had to throw everything else away, what would you keep? Would it be your 3-D monkey? Your floral display? Your light fiber optic displays?
No, I think it might be a medal that my mother had duplicated. It was given to my father for his heroism and exploits in Israel, during the creation of the Israeli Air Force. He got this cool medal and my mother, a few years ago, had it copied for the kids in the family.

So it has serious emotional importance.
Yeah, it kind of represents both my mother and my father. So that’s what I probably would keep.

That’s a hard question because I know you have like a million toys and a million things.
I’m not tied to anything like that. I want to get rid of all my toys. I’m going to have an auction to end all auctions a couple years from now.

Wow, tell me. Well, I’ve got too much stuff.
Yeah, you can’t have any of it.