PLAYBOY: You brought back Pee-wee Herman only to be stunned by the outpouring of affection audiences have been showing you—and him. Now you’re headed to Broadway. Are you surprised Pee-wee is still meaningful to people after an almost 20-year absence?
REUBENS: It’s staggering, because I really did not understand the love thing that went on back in the 1980s when I was doing Pee-wee full-on. I was just too busy. In the last half of those years my focus was entirely on the TV show and the films. I had no life outside work. I was never anywhere near enough to people to get that reaction, much less believe it could happen.
PLAYBOY: During your Los Angeles post-show question-and-answer sessions with the audience, you couldn’t seem to hide your emotions. Were you that overcome by their response to you?
REUBENS: I’m not a good enough actor to pull off what you’re talking about. Every night before I walked onstage the curtains opened on the Playhouse set—nobody had ever seen it other than on TV—and I could feel the oxygen being sucked out of the theater by the gasp. There’d be this Holy shit, there’s the Playhouse! I’d get so emotional I’d feel it in my chest. I was moved to the point that I thought I wouldn’t be able to perform or even talk—that I was going to lose it. Before anything happened.
PLAYBOY: And what did that tell you?
REUBENS: It was more an affirmation of what people had been telling me for a long time but suddenly hitting me retroactively. It was like when I first saw the opening scene in Jaws, when that drunk girl is swimming way out and gets bitten in half by the shark. I got scared in retrospect for all the times we’d been drinking and swimming way out under the full moon. The L.A. audience’s response was sort of like that—I just started remembering all these things people had said to me over the years, like “Do you have any idea how much people still love you?” I never let that affect me before. But I also never thought it was true.
PLAYBOY: Is it easier to believe your self-doubts instead of the authentically nice things people tell you?
REUBENS: Being somebody who has had the opportunity to move through a lot of horrible stuff, I would much rather be in this mode of “Wow, it really is true! People really do like me” instead of any other negative thing I’ve dwelled on or built up.
PLAYBOY: No small part of it is that Pee-wee always appealed to adults as well as to children. Was that your original intention?
REUBENS: All along Rocky and Bullwinkle inspired me. As an older teenager and young adult I watched that show and went, “Oh my God, I didn’t catch a lot of this when I was a kid.” I liked the idea of doing a kids’ show that would operate on more than one level. The original stage version and now this updated stage version that’s going to Broadway are like that, too. There’s a lot of innuendo and double entendre. Kids can watch and laugh. If they laugh at a dirty joke, then they already know something I didn’t teach them. If they don’t laugh, it goes over their heads, but their parents can appreciate it. At the same time I wasn’t trying to court an adult audience with the TV show. Back then everything that was on TV for kids was shit. There wasn’t anything creative or anything that encouraged creativity. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was about doing something important for kids in a real way. I took seriously that I was doing something lofty for children. Adults came afterward. But I can’t tell you how many parents have said, “God bless you for giving me something to watch with my kids that isn’t Barney.”
PLAYBOY: What do you think kids made of Pee-wee’s subtle spoofing of androgyny and gender-bending?
REUBENS: There’s no hidden agenda in any of that. The androgyny is right out there and pretty obvious. [laughs] To me, Pee-wee was always an androgynous sort of character—at least according to all the feedback I got from the get-go. Really, it was just a tip of the hat that harkens back to vaudeville and burlesque. We had a list of criteria that had to be met for something to make it onto the show. It was great if something operated on different levels, but most important was that a five-year-old should think it was funny. Like if Cowboy Curtis told Pee-wee, “I sure could use some practice on how to go out on a date”—a kid didn’t have to view it on any other level than “Look! It’s a boy who’s pretending he’s a girl.”
PLAYBOY: Meanwhile, over time Pee-wee’s libido escalated. In the 1988 movie Big Top Pee-wee he became a real player, juggling two women at once.
REUBENS: Yes, I made Pee-wee a total horndog. I thought it was hilarious. It’s really funny when I jump on top of Penelope Ann Miller, who was Pee-wee’s fiancée. It was such a hot-and-heavy airborne jump we actually had stunt people do it.
PLAYBOY: You even had Pee-wee lose his virginity to the sexy acrobat played by Valeria Golino—or so the classic metaphoric montage suggests.
REUBENS: Yep, the train goes in the tunnel and there are fireworks and images of surf pounding on the shore.
PLAYBOY: Did you worry that the idea of Pee-wee having sex might be a little jarring?
REUBENS: I didn’t mind that. A lot of thought went into it, believe me. And Valeria and I had what I think is still the longest screen kiss in history. The studio and I argued for more than a month about how long it was going to be. It’s shorter than what I wanted it to be by quite a bit, but it’s still pretty long.
PLAYBOY: Although you had a smash hit with your first movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure—which was Tim Burton’s feature directorial debut—Big Top bombed.
REUBENS: Yes, but I still like it. Ironically, we had been sitting in a room trying to come up with critic-proof titles until I thought, Okay, Big Top Pee-wee! First review: “Big Flop Pee-wee.” And I went, “Oh God—I didn’t think of that one.” [laughs] What’s worse, I drove to the Paramount lot the Monday after the Friday it opened and actually saw them painting out my name on my parking space. I had to wait for the painter to get out of the way so I could pull in. When I got to my office my manager was on the phone: “They want you out of your office by the end of the week.” I said, “But I have a three-picture deal here.” The reply: “You had a three-picture deal here.” I’m not complaining, but how insane are the chances of seeing your name painted over and erased forever?
PLAYBOY: Pee-wee exudes complete confidence and silly bravado. How many of those traits do you share with your character?
REUBENS: In truth Pee-wee has this false sense of confidence. He acts as though he knows everything, but really it’s all fake. It’s a facade.
PLAYBOY: But wasn’t Pee-wee your own facade?
REUBENS: Boy, that was convenient, wasn’t it, to become somebody else? Even then people said to me, “Don’t you think this has some kind of meaning, having an alter ego? That you publicly do everything in that character? Even your star on Hollywood Boulevard isn’t inscribed with your name—it’s this other guy’s.” For my entire career people have been trying to get me to dis Pee-wee Herman. But it’s not like that. I just never intellectualized it that much. It’s threatening to me to have to dissect Pee-wee because I feel as though I’ll lose him. I mean, he is me. I have the same face, the same voice, the same everything. I’ve been in work situations on movies during which a director will say, “This is starting to get a little too Pee-wee for me.” People knew only Pee-wee. The Playhouse series won all these Emmy awards. Although I was always nominated as an actor I never won for that role. I think either the Emmy voters didn’t like the character or they believed Pee-wee was a real person and I wasn’t really doing anything. Amazingly, by way of a mutual friend of his son Christian, I learned that even Marlon Brando thought Pee-wee was a real person! He couldn’t believe I was an actor who had created that persona—which is maybe the highest benediction. In advance of interviews journalists were told they could speak to me only in character, but eventually they would ask, “Can I talk to Paul now?” I wouldn’t know what to do. Of course, this was my awkward way of dealing with fame. I would just grow a tiny beard and get a little length on my hair and no one would know me. I could go have a regular life. Nobody ever said, “Are you Pee-wee Herman?” For a long time it worked great. But ultimately that plan backfired.
PLAYBOY: So we all heard.
REUBENS: For sure, it’s why my Florida arrest in 1991 was so scandalous. I had never been seen out of character before. I wasn’t a social butterfly who was regularly out and about; there were no photos of Paul Reubens anywhere. Suddenly I went straight from being just Pee-wee Herman to that scary mug shot. And let’s face it, my mug shot was demonic and raggedy—Charles Manson-y, somebody called it.
PLAYBOY: But the magnitude of that event—public indecency in a porn theater—couldn’t have surprised you.
REUBENS: Keep in mind I got arrested at the same time the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s story was breaking—and yet my story led the news for five days in a row. This man killed lots of people, drilled holes in their heads and poured acid into them. And he got the second spot on the news, after me.
PLAYBOY: Compounding the mortification, you were in Sarasota visiting your parents at the time. Can you describe the immediate aftermath?
REUBENS: I remember my mother saying, “Honey, just come back to our house. It’s not a big deal.” And I said, “Mom, you don’t get what’s about to happen.” I wanted to get out of Florida. First I flew to Nashville, where my sister lived, except she wasn’t there. I remember waking up in Nashville going, “Okay, I want to disappear.” At my sister’s house I sat with her friend, a complete stranger, and watched my whole story unfold in hourly increments on CNN. The friend was telling me, “It’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.” I kept thinking, Who the hell are you? I don’t even know you.
PLAYBOY: So how did you disappear? It was as if you vanished completely.
REUBENS: I didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered Doris Duke always had security around, so I called her.
PLAYBOY: Doris Duke—as in, one of the richest women in the world—was a friend of yours?
REUBENS: Yes. Doris Duke didn’t have a lot of people in her life. A couple of years earlier I’d gone to Oahu to write Pee-wee’s Playhouse Goes Hawaiian, which never got made, and her neighbor Jim Nabors—you know, Gomer Pyle—took me to her house for lunch. As a child she’d been told, “Trust nobody. Everyone has an agenda.” But she couldn’t miss that I didn’t have an agenda—I just think I was fun for her—and she was always so nice to me. For no reason. So I called her and said, “I’m in trouble.” She said to come to her house in New Jersey. I said, “Wait, wait, wait. Let me tell you. I’m not just in trouble—I’m in trouble!” She was famously guarded about her privacy. I didn’t know if people were following me. I didn’t want to throw that onto her, but she said to come. On the Monday after my arrest on Friday, I woke up at Doris Duke’s 2,700-acre estate in Somerville, New Jersey. It was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted—he also created Central Park. It looked like Central Park except bigger, with deer all over the place. They put me in the cottage Imelda Marcos had just vacated, and the staff did what they would do for any guest—they left the daily newspapers outside my bedroom that morning. I opened the door and saw my mug shot on the covers of the New York Post, the Daily News and The New York Times. I went from feeling safe to Gaaaaah! That night I turned on the TV and saw people I mistakenly and naively thought were my friends making jokes about me. That was really painful. I knew Arsenio Hall, and his guests were Patti LaBelle and Luther Vandross, who were also my friends. I was just sitting there going, Oh, they’re making jokes about me. I turned the channel to Jay Leno, who was also saying some snarky things. I get that it’s their job, but I had already said the allegations weren’t true and felt I deserved the benefit of the doubt from them. Make a joke about me but also just say, “By the way, he’s been a friend of our show for many years.” I was shocked people would kick me when I was down.
PLAYBOY: You maintained you were innocent of the charge that you were masturbating in public in an adult theater.
REUBENS: Had we gone to trial, we had ready an expert from the Masters and Johnson Institute who was going to testify that in 30 years of research on masturbation the institute had never found one person who masturbated with his or her nondominant hand. I’m right-handed, and the police report said I was jerking off with my left hand. That would have been the end of the case right there, proof it couldn’t have been me.
PLAYBOY: Then why did you plead no contest?
REUBENS: Did I want to have all that revealed in court and then have to listen to Jay and Arsenio and others for another two weeks? So I pleaded no contest, and all I got was community service, but that resolution happened the same day Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. My case wasn’t in the news, so nobody even knew it was resolved. An article in Vanity Fair later described the 1990s as “the tabloid decade.” It suggested the decade was bookended by my arrest in 1991 and the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the decade’s end. I was just the warm-up act.
PLAYBOY: How bad did it get for you?
REUBENS: I wouldn’t leave the house. Except I did go do the MTV Video Music Awards a handful of weeks after the arrest—at which Pee-wee came out and said, “Heard any good jokes lately?”—because I had a publicist then who simply made me do it. Which may have set a good example for damage control. I don’t think it was coincidental that later Michael Jackson picked the MTV awards to give his new wife, Lisa Marie Presley, that big long kiss. But putting the Pee-wee suit and makeup back on to go do it was a nightmare. Paparazzi staked out my house for months. To get out, I hid on the floor of somebody’s car, under a blanket.
Toward the end of those first three months I made an appointment with a therapist and made him come to my house. Sometime during the session he said, “You know you’re in shock, right?” I didn’t know. When he said it, I thought, Oh my God! Okay, I get it. Then the whole three months I had just gone through made sense. I was in shock. There was a feeling like, You’re going to wake up from this and it’s going to turn out to be a bad dream. It didn’t. But as a result I now know everything there is to know about scandal and shock—how you move through the first 12 hours, the first 24 hours, the first six weeks, the first six months, the first six years and so on. I know how to navigate all this hideous, shitty, horrible stuff you go through. Which saved my life when scandal number two happened.PLAYBOY: Which arrived in November 2001 when you were arrested again, this time charged with possessing child pornography. In many ways this was far worse than the first one. What exactly happened?
REUBENS: The police had been given a false tip in an alleged sting operation and came to my house. They thought the wrong thing, and they were there for the wrong reason, and when that became clear, they should have left. Or they should have taken all my computers like they did but spent three minutes looking through them and realized they were wrong. Hypothetically, even in a less than perfect world, you assume if the police barge into your house and it’s the wrong house and they have guns drawn and you hit the ground because you’re supposed to be, say, a crack dealer—and it’s obvious you’re not—that they ought to say, “Oh, okay. Sorry.” But they don’t, and they certainly didn’t after raiding my home in search of things that just didn’t exist. The state eventually realized I had nothing offensive, but the city attorney decided to put me through three years of hell anyway.
PLAYBOY: The case centered on your collection of what was described as kitsch art—only some of it vaguely sexual in theme—plus a copy of the Rob Lowe sex tape, which not only had its own kitsch value but had made the rounds all over the entertainment community.
REUBENS: It came down to whether the art was obscene or not obscene—you know, is it art or obscenity?
REUBENS: If you saw what was taken out of my house, you’d burst out laughing. An example of one of the things they confiscated was a crudely done painting I got at a thrift store. It’s of a football stadium. In the foreground the football players are out on the field in mid-play, but they don’t have pants on. When I found it I thought, Oh my God, that is the greatest painting I’ve ever seen in my life! It’s hilarious. Not one person ever—even a little old lady, even a conservative right-winger, even the pope—would ever look at that painting and call it obscene. I spent a year trying to get my collection back. They destroyed things you wouldn’t believe they’d destroy. I had an extensive collection of etched-on-glass 3-D 1940s cheesecake photography of beautiful women. They made it sound as if I had a huge homoerotic collection, which I didn’t.
PLAYBOY: The most horrific part of the outrage was that you were a children’s-show icon who’d already had his reputation compromised in a way this magazine would see as unwarranted persecution.
REUBENS: Yes, and I spent my blood, sweat and tears on the show, and I did it for kids. So to come out and suggest or even whisper anything regarding me and kids is devastating. But by the way, Playboy never printed one word about me all that time. I’m a longtime subscriber and a huge fan of Hugh Hefner’s and Playboy’s. During that time I went through every issue cover to cover and kept going, “Where is it?” Not one word. I always thought, Wow, that’s weird. How could Playboy not be defending me? There were aspects of my case that were certainly apropos of the Playboy Forum. The only thing I heard that had anything to do with me and Playboy was that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has been shown more than once during Mansion Movie Night.
PLAYBOY: Point taken. Clearly you felt damage had been done—especially compounded by the second circumstance.
REUBENS: It was a terrible time. My father was dying—which is just one more sad note to that whole experience, knowing how sick he was. He was aware of what I was going through but wasn’t well enough to even know how to advise me. Every morning for two and a half years—most of which I spent back home in Sarasota, with my father dying in another room—I’d wake up and tell myself, Wow, I’m impressed with you that you’re getting through this! You’re still not crazy! I had so much stress in my life that before I got out of bed I’d go, How are we getting through this? Then my dad died. My case was resolved the same week.
PLAYBOY: Calling it “the sanest way to make it end,” you pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity possession charge, with no mention of the term child pornography in the ruling. The offense was later expunged from your record. But are you still angry?
REUBENS: What’s interesting to me—in this very moment right now—is that I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it this much since it happened. So to go through and over all that again feels so ironic and fucked and ridiculous and irreparable. I mean, that’s the real concern—it’s as though you’ve got some kind of stink on you. You can deodorize the shit out of yourself but still carry a whiff about you. Before now I hadn’t dissected it this much—because I can’t. If I did, I would get this angry. I’m feeling stuff now I haven’t ever felt. I’ve never let myself feel “You were wronged.” I will not let anyone turn me into a victim.On the other hand, besides the Broadway show, my plan is to make two new Pee-wee movies—Judd Apatow said he wants to help produce at least one—and do all this other beautiful great art. Part of me absolutely wants to do that, and another part of me just wants to make Death Wish Pee-wee, with a Pee-wee vigilante. If I went off into that, though, I don’t know if I would ever come back. It’s probably better not to tap into the anger I have about what happened to me. It’s better to not ever be in touch with it. If unleashed, it would probably make Bill Bixby’s Incredible Hulk look like milquetoast.
PLAYBOY: Does it get easier to put it all behind you over time?
REUBENS: Yeah, time heals. What finally pulled me out of my shell the first time was that I fell in love. I met a woman, an actress—Debi Mazar—at a movie screening toward the end of 1993 and was just so incredibly completely smitten that it was like, Boom, I’m back! It was so powerful; it was a gift. I would be all funky and dark, but she was able to just say a bunch of stuff to me, like “Come on! Up, up, up, up!” Also, my assistant had a baby, which made it hard to feel shitty with this little cute child running around all the time. That helped a lot. But somebody made an accusation against me that was unfathomable. What happened was beyond belief, particularly if you’re me and you love kids and that’s what you do [entertain kids] and you have devoted your entire focus on them. As I said, you go into shock. The second time I already knew that whatever the truth, whether justice prevails or not, this is your future. This is it. Still, yes, time is what has allowed me to come back. If I’m lucky enough to actually make the comeback that now looks possible, people will look back and dissect it all and ask, “How the fuck did he ever come back from there?”
PLAYBOY: Of course making this comeback does, alas, invite the ghosts of those difficult episodes to reemerge—along with the impulse to dispel them again. Did that give you any hesitation?
REUBENS: No, because people already refer to everything that happened to me nearly 20 years ago. At the time people said, “The public has such a short memory.” I knew it wasn’t true. The public has a memory like a steel trap. In some people’s minds I somehow retain this reputation of being a pervert. When you look me up on almost any website—IMDB or Wikipedia or anything—that insane allegation of child pornography is on there. Much as I like to pretend it’s not there or imagine most people know nothing about that one, it’s there. It’s always going to be a footnote. But you know what? At this point the footnote is neither here nor there for me. It has no effect on me. I’m cool with it. I know I have baggage to deal with. Sometimes it’s exhausting having to wade through whatever people’s expectations might be. Or anticipating what they might want to say to me because I have this weird event in my life that has opened the door for people to have sexual conversations with me. Strangers just come up to me and go, “Pee-wee, by the way, I jerk off all the time. It’s no big deal.” Or, “Hey, uh, Mr. Herman? Excuse me. You know, I’ve been to a million porn theaters. I go all the time.” And that’s my life. The fact that I’m the person with whom they can share something like that is so bizarre. Of course, one deals with one’s stuff, and I’d be an idiot to imagine that’s not going to happen. Whatever.
PLAYBOY: How constantly are you reminded of your past?
REUBENS: Here’s a good one—and what are the chances of this happening? Two years ago I was on a flight back to L.A. from the East Coast and it was one of those newer planes where every seat is equipped with its own little live satellite television screen. Three quarters of the way across the country, I’m engrossed in, like, a Turner Classic broadcast of the old circus film Billy Rose’s Jumbo. All of a sudden something catches my eye. I look over to the bulkhead one row in front of me, and I see a TV monitor there showing my mug shot, which then morphs into a picture of Pee-wee. And I realize, Oh my God, they’re showing my E! True Hollywood Story—live!—to every seat in this airplane. I felt as though I was going to have to jump off the plane. I don’t think anybody paid any attention—certainly not every passenger on board was watching it or even knew I was on the plane. It’s a small club of people who have been the subject of an E! True Hollywood Story, never mind being unlucky enough to be trapped in midair while it was airing.
PLAYBOY: To accept the perks of success and fame does seem to also require accepting that the messier parts of life become public property. How do you feel about that trade-off?
REUBENS: Over and over you hear people say, “Well, you’re an actor. This is what you signed up for.” Who thinks that way? Who are these people who think you sign up to be shit on? Or people say, “Toughen up. Get some tougher skin!” Here’s the truth: (a) I’m an artist, (b) I don’t want to have tough skin, (c) I don’t want to live in a world where everybody has to have this tough skin and has to pretend what happened didn’t hurt my feelings, and (d) it does hurt my feelings! Fuck you. Go say that about somebody else.
PLAYBOY: Do you understand why celebrity misfortune has become a blood-sport spectacle?
REUBENS: People say, “You make the big bucks” and “You get the good table at restaurants.” They say, “Fuck you! Live with it!” People don’t understand what it’s like. Do you want to know what it’s like to be famous? Go get married. Have a big wedding. Being a bride or groom on your big wedding day is the closest a lot of people get to knowing what it’s like to be famous. People may think, Oh, it’s my wedding and I get to do whatever I want! It’s not like that. You have to go and talk to every single person, and you’re the center of attention. If you want to go do something without anybody knowing, it’s impossible. You’re the star. Fine, but what if that becomes everyday life and never ends? At the same time, of course there are certainly many perks. Some of it’s great. People coming up and saying “Do you have any idea how much I love you?” or “I’m an artist because of you.” There’s fucking awesome, fantastic stuff. People don’t come up and say, “I just wanted to cross the street and tell you I don’t care for you.”
PLAYBOY: Of course, the greatest irony is that you had seemingly created the Pee-wee character to protect yourself from the recognition of fame, to keep one foot firmly—and secretly—rooted in being just a normal guy.
REUBENS: Absolutely. That’s 100 percent correct. I was very conscious of that when I was just starting out—although no one knew me much back then. I’d been performing with the Groundlings improv troupe. And Oui magazine—which was a Playboy offshoot—had done a little piece about me as an up-and-comer. I could still have my regular life. I’m not sure exactly when that changed, but I’d had a terrifying premonition about becoming successful—ironically enough—during the original run of this very same show we’re now bringing to Broadway. I had started doing The Pee-wee Herman Show in 1981 at the Groundlings Theater, but the show outgrew that space pretty quickly. So we moved it to the Roxy, the famous rock club on Sunset Boulevard where The Rocky Horror Show had been transplanted from England almost 10 years earlier. One night—at maybe two in the morning—I drove out of the Roxy onto Sunset, which was deserted, and just glanced up, and there was my name on the marquee: PAUL REUBENS—THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW. Subconsciously I was probably weirding out because it began to sink in: You’re on your way; unless you do something to screw this up, your goal is close to being achieved. I wasn’t entirely cognizant of it in that moment, but somehow seeing that marquee was symbolic for me.
PLAYBOY: But certainly you had seen the marquee a bunch of times by then?
REUBENS: Oh yeah, I had taken pictures of it. But I got home—which was a tiny converted garage near Wilshire and Highland—and turned on my crappy little black-and-white TV that I bought for $12 at a swap meet, thinking that 90 minutes earlier I’d been backstage greeting big stars like Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. Every night somebody famous would come by, as well as executives who would pitch me ideas like “You’re a kid who could turn into a dog every week!” All of this stuff would be happening—but I then found myself having what I later found out was an anxiety attack—full-on, gasping for air. I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “What is wrong? What is going on?” I called my doctor the next morning and choked out the words “I…think…I…need…a therapist.” He referred me to one, but instinctually I’d already realized what it was. Somehow I had been thinking that becoming successful was going to solve everything, was going to make my life perfect—that whatever problem I may have had was going to magically disappear. But it became clear to me: Wait a minute! You’re going to become famous, and this not only won’t solve all your problems, this is going to create more problems than it’s going to solve. It was the first inkling I had that it wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be.
PLAYBOY: Up till then what exactly had been your idealized vision of fame?
REUBENS: I hadn’t really focused on it. The most I ever thought, in a real way, was that if I were to become famous I could pick my projects. I would have more opportunity to do greater work. That’s all I ever thought about. But I’m just not someone who enjoys fame. I’m not that person. I wish I were. I still have that wish. I am friends with lots of people who are famous—some of whom love being famous. And I love being around them because I think it will rub off on me or that they’re going to give me some insight into experiencing it differently. But it has been a long time now. I sound as though I’m complaining, and I don’t mean to, because I value everything I’ve gotten to do. But the recognition part of it just throws me. People know you, but you don’t know them.
PLAYBOY: As a result, at least, did therapy become your friend?
REUBENS: Not until I found a really good therapist after that first arrest. But yes. Therapy, to me, should be for everybody. I think they should teach psychology in the public school system. It would make a difference for everybody. In high school I never got anything about the practical aspects of life, the kind of wisdom that’s more important than anything else. How do you have a relationship? How do you have a marriage? How do you move through life? How do you make friends? What do you do when you have a conflict?
PLAYBOY: Even though it was difficult for you, were your parents pleased with your success?
REUBENS: It was the one thing that was gratifying. My mother and father were thrilled when things took off for me. When I wanted to mount The Pee-wee Herman Show at the Groundlings, my father basically said to me, “Don’t wait around. Go do it.” And he loaned me $7,500 to make it happen.
PLAYBOY: Where do we see their influence in Pee-wee?
REUBENS: They took me to every storybook land you could go to. I went to every kiddie attraction. My mother read me every nursery rhyme, every fairy tale. My folks have a lot to do with me. Beyond the obvious. They were like stand-ups. They were hilarious. Like me they also had lots of friends, but they didn’t go out a lot. They didn’t really throw parties. It isn’t a surprise I’m not out and about on the party circuit.
PLAYBOY: Were they religious?
REUBENS: My father was raised an Orthodox Jew, though I wasn’t. He had an interesting background, by the way. He and a handful of Americans started the Israeli air force. Growing up I heard all these stories about him but somehow thought they were fish stories. They just didn’t seem real. I couldn’t view my dad as, wow, a hero like Indiana Jones. The book On Eagles’ Wings has the whole history of the formation of the Israeli air force, and all my dad’s stories are in there. I read it when I was in high school. I went, Oh my God, it’s real. He risked his life to create Israel. And so I also remember being in first grade or kindergarten. I was a happy-go-lucky six-year-old and my world was fantastic. A kid came up to me and went, “You Jew!” I knew I was a Jew, but he said it in a way that it seemed like a bad word. It freaked me out because I didn’t get it. It was just an ugly thing. It hurt my father probably more than anything in his entire life up to that point, I would bet. I came home crying, “Somebody called me a Jew.” If he had been capable of going out and finding that kid, he would have skinned him alive.
PLAYBOY: How young were you when you decided show business would be your life?
REUBENS: I can remember when I was four or five sitting on the floor of our house and going, “How am I going to get to Hollywood? What am I doing here in this little cow town?” I was such an oddball as a kid.
PLAYBOY: The good news is you have put that oddball kid to excellent use. Who else could have brought the meticulous care you reportedly did to designing all the Pee-wee toys and merchandising over the years?
REUBENS: Yeah. I once sat on a plane next to a guy who said, “Oh my God, I sculpted your Pee-wee doll’s head.” I said, “Well, I’m surprised you’re speaking to me.” He had to make 80 versions of that head before I thought it was right.
PLAYBOY: You made a genre of collectibles in your own image, which is perfect for such an inveterate collector of stuff more bizarre than Pee-wee memorabilia. On the list are plastic fake food and grease containers. Why grease containers?
REUBENS: The first time I saw a grease container I thought, Wow, that’s funny. They’re shaped like little pitchers or coffeepots and have a filter at the top to grab the bacon bits or whatever when you pour your grease in for reuse. Not that I reuse grease. But when I found a second one someplace, I thought, All right, that’s a collection! I also have yearbooks in the thousands. I have salt and pepper shakers. I didn’t realize I was obsessive-compulsive until about two years ago. People would say, “Like the stuff in the boxes packed to the ceiling of your house? That didn’t give you any kind of indication? You didn’t have a hint?”
PLAYBOY: You seem to revel in your OCD. No worries about its negative implications?
REUBENS: No. I like being obsessive-compulsive. It sounds like a hypochondriacal term—it’s like you have something instead of just being well-organized. I try to figure out a way to harness it for good as opposed to evil. Honestly, at my age I embrace it instead of fight it.
PLAYBOY: Well, age does have a way of bringing us useful wisdom.
REUBENS: Which is so weird, I have to say. I turned 58 in August. I sure wish I had thought to lie about my age before the Internet started, but there’s no turning back now. I’ve looked at getting up in years as having more downsides than upsides. So I’m trying to pull whatever great things out of it I can, and to me, finding this bizarre and fascinating new wisdom is the biggest one so far—and I love it. It’s interesting to be just me now. People tell me about something difficult or terrible they’re going through, and I’ll whirl around and start instructing: “Sit down and I’ll tell you what you’re supposed to do.” It’s incredible. Another thing I’ve learned is that whatever I’m doing, I always try to make it more difficult. At my age I should know to do the opposite. I guess it comes from when I was little. My parents were always saying stuff like “Reach for the stars” and “If you go for way bigger than you think you can achieve, then if you achieve only half of that.…” All those kinds of things really sunk in. I’ve lived my life very much like that even when it would have been far easier to not always reach for the stars.Also, I’m now smart enough to know things can always be worse. But I have this freedom now that comes with having been beaten and kicked while down, so I just feel like, whatever! I’m going to go do whatever the fuck I want to go do and on my terms. This is so pseudodramatic, but when you are in a position where, in order to walk across a room you have to consciously hold your head high, that’s who you become.
PLAYBOY: After everything you’ve been through—all the bumps, plunges and horrors—who do you think you’ve become?
REUBENS: At this point the most interesting comment I could make to you is that I have no regrets. I really don’t. Everything happened for a reason—with insight and knowledge and growth involved. It is a journey, and I will not accept a shitty ending. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what in the fuck I was being prepared for. What exactly am I being tested for? And I don’t know the answer to that right now, but it doesn’t matter; I’m going to be ready. Whatever that is, it’s going to be really powerful. I mean, if I’m not careful I could turn into Gandhi. I could be like a superpower. I don’t mean that in any weird way—but somebody is going to be really impressed, I think, in addition to me. I won’t be surprised, but I will be impressed. This has all been too powerful and weird to be just a schnooky comedian’s path.
PLAYBOY: At the end of your stage show Pee-wee Herman proclaims in song that he feels like the luckiest boy in the whole wide world. How about you?
REUBENS: Ummmmm. [pauses] Does the length of that pause tell you anything? [laughs] No, I don’t know. I don’t feel like the “iest” of anything. I’m not the best or the worst. I grew up never realizing there was this gray area of life. Everything was always black-and-white, right and wrong—whatever. Well, I like the gray area. I don’t have to be the luckiest anymore. But I will be, I bet, every night on Broadway when I’m singing that song. I believe it at that moment when I’m singing that Pee-wee Herman is the luckiest boy in the world. He does learn to fly after all.