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Pee-wee Herman is back at the playhouse

'Why now?' you may ask. Well, because creator Paul Reubens has plans.

January 10, 2010|By Chris Lee >>>
  • "I'm not someone who would be anyone's first guess to cross over," Paul Reubens says of his wide appeal.
"I'm not someone who would be anyone's first guess to cross… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

For anyone old enough to have come into pop cultural consciousness in the mid-'80s, Pee-wee Herman casts a long shadow -- albeit, an almost transcendently nerdy shadow, one most often recalled dancing atop a bar to the Champs' jaunty instrumental "Tequila" in his 1985 breakthrough movie "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

The impish man-child with an outsized laugh and an undersized grey suit became an improbable icon, graduating from guest appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" and cameos in Cheech & Chong movies to his Saturday morning children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

The show enjoyed cult-like popularity with grown-ups and kids alike thanks mainly to the man behind the character, Paul Reubens. His creation was a combination of unbridled silliness and surrealism, childlike naivete and hipster knowingness -- a mash-up of subversiveness and magical thinking still rare in mainstream entertainment a quarter-century later.

The character's run continued with "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988) and hit its apogee with the release of his own talking doll, a kitschy toy that brays Pee-wee's adenoidal catchphrase -- "I know you are, but what am I?"

Until 1991, when everyone stopped laughing with him and Pee-wee became a national punch line. That year, Reubens was busted for indecent exposure at a Florida adult movie theater. CBS unceremoniously dumped his show; late-night comedians and op-ed writers feasted on his predicament and Reubens retreated from the public.

The upshot: Pee-wee went into unofficial retirement for nearly two decades. But a funny thing happened on the way to cultural oblivion. Thanks, in part, to YouTube, goodwill toward the character never faded away. And if the high volume of Twitter chatter and blogosphere interest are any indication, Reubens' perceived sins have been forgiven.

On Tuesday, Pee-wee will re-emerge into the spotlight with a limited engagement of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" at downtown Los Angeles' Club Nokia. A newly rewritten update of his 1981 production of the same name that played for five sold-out months at West Hollywood's Roxy nightclub, the Reubens-co-scripted comedic musical he first envisioned as "a kids' show for adults," will run until Feb. 7.

It relocated to the Nokia after a combination of popular demand and greater technical specifications required for the show's animatronic puppets compelled a date change and a move from the Music Box @ Fonda -- causing no small amount of consternation for fervent Pee-wee fans who bought tickets and booked travel from across the country to see him perform there in November.

The 90-minute production features "Pee-wee's Playhouse" characters -- Mailman Mike, Miss Yvonne, Pterri the pterodactyl and Pee-wee's talking armchair Chairry among them -- as well as many of the cast members who inhabited the TV show's kid-friendly yet trippy universe.

On an evening before the holidays, Reubens settled into the booth of a Hollywood delicatessen after a long day of rehearsals, seeming more than a bit fatigued by writing, producing and starring in the show. He was initially reluctant to seriously examine the choice to dust off his beloved comedic creation.

"People ask, 'Why now?' " said Reubens, 57. "Why not? The answer is, I didn't do it yet! I'm super lazy. I kind of waited until the last minute. If I wait too much longer, I'm not going to be able to do it."

But near the conclusion of the conversation Reubens finally came clean about his motive. He's been working on a screenplay for a movie based on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and, unable to secure the budget to make the film he has in mind, "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is really a means to an end.

"The answer to 'Why are you doing this?' is: the movie," said Reubens. "I want to put enough heat back on Pee-wee Herman where, if one studio executive in Hollywood goes, 'I get it, I see it,' it's a no-brainer. I'll get the movie made."

The character, the man

Since Pee-wee's 1978 inception -- while Reubens was part of the Los Angeles improv comedy group the Groundlings -- the performer has seldom done interviews out of character. In all but a few instances, Reubens has allowed Pee-wee's churlish yet lovable -- but also often quick-to-snark -- laughing nerd demeanor to stand in for his own. At a press event announcing the Club Nokia engagement in December, Pee-wee reintroduced himself in full faux '50s nostalgic regalia: the heavily rouged cheeks, the chunky white shoes and putty-molded flat-top haircut were largely intact from their '80s heyday.

In person, however, Reubens is neither shrill nor dandified. Wearing a loose-fitting black cowboy shirt and jeans, and marked by deep facial creases, he came off as subdued yet guarded -- still keenly self-aware after nearly 20 years of attention from the news media.

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