"I've seen a lot of sides of fame," said Reubens. "I've seen the dark side and the light side, lots of the in-between stuff to it. This [return as Pee-wee] isn't about how I get to reexperience some fame."
Unlike the boilerplate comeback narrative in Hollywood -- entertainer suffers professional setback, entertainer retires beloved persona, entertainer learns to stop worrying and love the persona for a windfall of cash -- Reubens' reembrace of Pee-wee did not involve a cathartic realization or personal breakthrough.
He says one of the show's producers, Jared Geller, systematically called Reubens about mounting a live show. "People don't tend to believe me that I got up one morning and said, 'OK, now if he calls this morning, I'll say yes,' " Reubens said. "But that's what it was."
Pee-wee's years off
Stumbling block A: the still-baffling circumstances that led to Pee-wee's 19-year disappearing act.
In 1991, coming off a successful five-year run of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the comedian was arrested during a routine undercover operation at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., and booked for "exposure of sexual organs." Reubens maintained his innocence. In the end, though, he pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine in exchange for probation.
The actor's publicist at the time described Reubens as "emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation." Professionally, the damage was done: The arrest made international news. Even though stars such as Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers and Cyndi Lauper publicly supported Reubens, Toys R Us pulled his dolls from stores and CBS moved quickly to take reruns of "Pee-wee's Playhouse's" final season off the air.
Reubens points out that he had already declined the network's offer of a two-year contract renewal. Moreover, he says he was burned out.
"I wrote it, directed it, produced it and starred in it," Reubens said of "Playhouse." "It was so much work. I was like a shell of a person.
"I took a year off," he continued. "And at the end of it, I went, 'Wow.' And I took another year off."
In the intervening years, he remained in Hollywood, staying afloat with numerous appearances in television shows including " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Reno 911!" and " 30 Rock," voice-over work for various animated series and movies, and character parts in such films as "Batman Returns," "Mystery Men" and "Blow."
But no more Pee-wee. "I took time to decompress," Reubens said.
At the playhouse
During a recent afternoon rehearsal, cast members ran lines inside a soundstage on Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios lot with Reubens quietly yet forcefully multitasking as co-writer, producer and star. (Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon, one of the show's costars, helped adapt the "Pee-wee Herman Show" from Reubens' original 1981 production.)
He politely questioned the way an understudy was billed on the program's title page, second-guessed the "watery" nature of a below-the-belt sound effect and probed director Alex Timbers about the timing on the "beat" of a joke. Pee-wee-esque props lay strewn about the space: tighty-whitey underwear, inflatable beach balls, a foam puppet version of North America with an expressive face.
Reubens mitigated his authority with a self-deprecating aside. "Don't listen to me," he told Timbers. "I'm completely stupid."
"But when you get that laugh, the cockles of your heart will be warmed," Timbers demurred.
The inevitable one-liner came right back at the director. "I don't feel comfortable with you talking about my cockles," said actor Drew Powell, who portrays a character named Bear.
Off-set, Reubens acknowledged that the show's producers and his cast had been prodding him about any plans for the production. But the performer said he has no plans to extend its run beyond Los Angeles, despite tantalizing offers.
"The big question now is, 'Why don't you commit to doing it for a year? Do it all over the world,' " Reubens said. "The day we announced it, we had an offer to do it at the Sydney Opera House for five weeks, sight unseen. How do you say no? Easy!"
Conversation turned to his despair that art nowadays is "bleak." He feels that content is largely created by committee and real individualism -- at least, the norm-challenging kind he staked out -- is increasingly rare.
"I'm not someone who would be anyone's first guess to cross over," Reubens said. "One appeal that I have to people is that I had a very artistic career that got to be very commercial."
Fearing the inevitability that actors will be replaced by computer-generated imagery, Reubens said he has begun exploring the possibility of replacing himself with another actor or in animated form to get his long-gestating movie off the ground. (A substitute he has discussed the matter with: Johnny Depp. He says the actor told him, "Let me think about it.")